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Paying the Front-Runner’s Fee
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Paying the Front-Runner’s Fee



I’ve always been excited by innovation. I place creativity high on my list of aspirations and priorities in my own business, and I think my life gets most interesting when I’m involved with people who are similarly attuned to this desire to do and try new and interesting things.

Fortunately, I’ve had the benefit of associating with highly innovative people through the years who’ve shared the creative process with me, taught me a lot and made the ride extremely enjoyable – and fruitful. These experiences have filled me with a desire to be out front myself with innovative and creative ideas.

I often wonder where we would all be if some of us weren’t willing to take the chances that go hand-in-hand with forging ahead into new and uncharted aesthetic and technical territory. I’m certain the world of watershaping, for example, would be far less interesting – and much less profitable.

But for all the high-minded talk that you hear these days about creativity and “thinking outside the box,” the truth is that many potentially creative people and companies won’t go very far out on a limb for one simple reason: Being a frontrunner comes with a fee – a fee known as risk.


To be creative in any walk of life, you must be willing to take chances, and that means you’re almost guaranteeing that at some point along the way you’re going to miss the mark. But that doesn’t much matter, because it’s these people who define the future not only for themselves, but for everyone else as well.

One of the most innovative people I’ve ever met anywhere is my Genesis 3 partner, Skip Phillips – and I’d say this about him even if we didn’t have that working relationship to go on. He’s somebody I’ve always pictured blazing a trail, way out ahead of the pack, wearing a safari hat while whacking at gnarled stalks of PVC pipe with a length of rebar.

Through the years, Skip has become an acknowledged authority on vanishing-edge pools, and he’s called on to design, teach and consult about them across the United States and around the world. His experience with these impressive structures is a perfect example of what I’m talking about.

These days, vanishing-edge pools are everywhere, and most contractors are pretty confident they can carry one off – although there’s a wide and often-obvious gulf between those who really know what they’re doing and those who don’t. There was a time not so long ago, however, when vanishing edges were on the farthest cutting edge of swimming-pool design and only a handful of designers and contractors were willing to take the risk of building what was perceived to be a difficult design.

Skip was at the forefront of that group and worked for years at developing and perfecting the vanishing edge. Although he has always worked as conscientiously as possible to avoid problems with his installations, he’s the first to admit that he had problems with this particular learning curve. In fact, Skip also will be the first to admit he’s still learning and working to perfect this effect that is now so familiar to us all.

He recommends some things that just couldn’t have occurred to anyone without direct experience, such as redundant check valves and vacuum breaks to prevent any chance of equalizing that might cause flooding. He’s also a big proponent of oversized surge tanks as an insurance policy against catastrophic system failure and as a means of maximizing hydraulic efficiency. Just these two observations are golden to other designers and builders, and what they mean to the industry and those following in his footsteps cannot be calculated in terms of either dollars or prestige.

It’s all about his willingness to experiment and take risks, and it’s been a bonanza for all of us who watch what he does.


Another characteristic of frontrunners is a willingness, even a perceived necessity, to share what they know.

Not all innovators take this approach, believing that sharing is tantamount to giving away the store and squandering a competitive edge. Frontrunners, however, see things the opposite way, operating from the perspective that when they share what they know with others, the entire trade benefits and begins to elevate. Just as a rising tide lifts all boats, so, too, designers and contractors all benefit from the increasing sophistication of the industry at large.

Picking on Skip again, I wonder where the industry would be today if this one individual had decided to keep secret everything he’d learned about vanishing edges.

There’s no way to know how many of these striking pools would never have been built if Skip had declined to participate in article after article and stand up in seminar after seminar to share his knowledge. I’m certain that fewer contractors would have tried vanishing-edge construction – and that many of those attempts would have failed as a result of one miscalculation or another.

The result would have been fewer potential customers interested in vanishing edges. Odds are, pools would be much different today had Skip adhered to a policy of secrecy. Yes, other people have contributed to the process, and suppliers in particular have responded with technology that makes the vanishing-edge designer’s life easier. But I know I’m not alone in crediting Skip as I’ve done here.

I have another Genesis partner, too, but again my isolating him as a frontrunner has nothing to do with that relationship. David Tisherman’s contributions have been and are so varied and interesting on so many levels with so many details that this magazine has him isolate one distinctive touch or another for coverage in every issue.

It would be far easier for him to save the effort and keep all that wealth of information to himself, but he has frontrunner’s syndrome and an uncontrollable desire to let the rest of us benefit from what he knows and from the hard work and experimentation that have gone into creating a detail he can publish proudly. When you have a reputation like his, what you do has to be bulletproof. Remarkably, a huge amount of what David does is just that – and he’s happy to share.

He shares because he wants other designers and builders to raise their levels of performance and be more creative. He’s driven by ideas and knows that great things result when increasing numbers of like-minded people engage in creative competition and keep kicking things up to new and higher levels.


So what about me? I strive to be a frontrunner in my own way, and I know that a big part of it is a willingness to move into the unknown, knowing that there will be times when experiments and explorations won’t always work out as hoped. If one learns from those situations, then every moment spent, even in failure, is a worthy investment.

In that spirit, let me share some of my own recent forays into the unknown by way of showing how you, too, can reach out in sometimes modest ways to make your work different and more fun.

As I mentioned in a recent column, I’ve begun exploring living waterfeatures and have actually installed a few ponds intended as homes for fish. On one of my early fish ponds we were immediately concerned about clarity and wanting to keep the water clear and clean so these creatures could be seen, I looked into various techniques for keeping murkiness at bay.

Given my background in pools and spas, I wanted to find out if a living pond could be safely treated with ozone. I talked to a variety of authorities on watergardening as well as with some ozone manufacturers – and received completely contradictory information. Some told me that ozone use on any level in any way would be absolutely deadly to fish and plants alike, while others said that as long as the ozone was removed from the water before it reached the fish and plants, all would be well.

This left me in something of a quandary, but with a great deal of research and an unusual amount of soul searching, I decided to give it a try, knowing that if anything went wrong I’d be on the hook for replacing the fish I’d killed and for repairing any other damage that might have resulted from the ozone experiment.

Forging Ahead

In most cases, the ideas that fuel real innovations come from someplace else – and often from places close at hand. Using Skip Phillips and his vanishing edges as an example, he’s quick to point out that he didn’t invent the effect. Architect John Lautner probably did that in the 1950s, and by the time Skip embraced the idea, they were also being used for high-end pools in France, for example.

Nonetheless, I would argue that by applying the design concept in new and creative ways – and by working tirelessly to iron out the bugs and get the hydraulics down to a science – he did effectively create something new and cut paths we’ve all been able to follow and apply to the specific needs of our own customers.

To be frontrunners with vanishing-edges pool designs, Skip and a few others like him had to see what was going on with the look and the technologies behind it and then cast up a vision of where the trends were leading. In Skip’s case, he called the trend, dead on.

So what’s hot now? What’s the vanishing edge of the new century?

That’s an interesting pair of questions, and, when asked, I respond with other questions: In what respect? Are we looking at what’s new aesthetically? Stylistically? Functionally? All three?

There’s so much going on now that has to do with ways of integrating watershapes with their surroundings. There are lots of innovations surrounding the emerging sense watershapers have borrowed from landscape designers of creating outdoor “rooms.”

I also give high marks to built structures such as tanning or thermal ledges, lighting effects of all sorts and, above all for me, effects created with moving water – everything from deck-level overflow systems to pool and spa applications of high-tech laminar jets that originated among frontrunners in the fountain business.

There’s also an explosion in interest in ponds, streams and the whole genre of living waterfeatures. And there’s a rise in indoor watershapes – and in designs that use water to link interior and exterior spaces. We’ve seen significant developments in fiberoptics, remote controls and chemical treatment. All of these elements and many others challenge us to move forward to apply them in our work in new and creative ways.

Will any of them catch on the way vanishing edges have in recent years? Only time will tell – but it’s an interesting set of possibilities just the same.

— B.V.B.

So I installed an ozonator on the pond and ran the water over a series of cascades, allowing the ozone to do its work and disappear into the air before the clarified water reached the fish. At this writing the ozone-treated pond has been up and running for many months – and, so far, both the pond and all of its residents are doing just fine in beautifully clear water.

On a current project, I stepped out of my comfort zone to experiment with ways to combine water and fire. The yard in this case had an existing brick barbecue with a tall chimney. In designing the project, I decided to make use of this existing structure by raising the decking around it by 18 inches, in effect turning the old barbecue into a new outdoor fireplace.

My idea was to install a sheet waterfall in the face of the chimney above the fireplace and have the water cross in front of the fire into a trapezoidal catch basin. The water would then flow by gravity through pipes beneath the Saturnia decking, around a spa and into the pool. It was a neat idea and the client loved it – but I still had to figure out a way to make it work.


The first challenge in making this effect work involved the fire system. After much research with barbecue and fireplace manufacturers, I landed on a gas-fired unit with artificial logs. (I tried to work out a way to incorporate an electronic ignition system in the set-up so the customer could ignite the system from inside the house, but the manufacturer nixed the idea because of the installation was too exposed outdoors.)

Also, and again because the fire was in an outdoor setting, the top of the chimney needed a cover to protect the fire from rain. The fixture the manufacturer recommended was hideous and would have disrupted the entire Art Deco design concept, so I designed a flat one for them to fabricate that provides protection from rain while projecting a low visual profile.

The next challenge was placing the waterfall fixture inside the chimney, which was approximately 50 years old. Knowing that a PVC weir wouldn’t hold up in the heat, we selected a stainless steel fixture. That was the easy part.

As my partner, Lars Wiren, notched the chimney to accept the weir, he began to get worried that placing the fixture in the chimney might cause the structure to collapse. Then there was the simple fact that we hadn’t yet settled on a way to run plumbing into the back of the fixture to supply it with water.

This is where the risk came into play: Lars and I knew that if the chimney structure failed, we would be on the hook to build our clients a new one. As it turned out, we were lucky and the chimney was both substantial and strong enough to accept a waterfall fixture we hid in its decorative façade. As for the plumbing, we core-drilled the back of the chimney and ran heat-resistant copper plumbing up the back of the structure and across the flue.

Seems simple now, but we had no models and couldn’t even get good advice from suppliers. It was brand-new at the time: We moved ahead just the same.

I should mention at this point that experimentation on this level requires working with clients who have adventurous spirits. In this case, we’ve developed a great rapport and they trust that, whatever happens, we’ll take care of them. Although these scenarios involve a bit more on-site improvisation than I’m used to, well – so far, so good.

And none of us can wait to see the fire effect at night – something we’ll all get to do when the project wraps up shortly.


I have another project in the works right now that is filled with these kinds of risks – and at this point I’m still not certain what the outcome will be. The project is in Latrobe, Pa. – a 9-by-9-foot, stainless steel spa surfaced in beautiful deep blue/gray granite with an edge detail of the sort discussed by David Tisherman in this issue’s “Detail” (click here).

The spa is raised 16 inches above the deck – and therein hangs a tale.

The customer wanted something special by way of moving water, so I suggested using four laminar-flow nozzles mounted outside the spa that would send converging arcs of water into the spa’s center. These perfect ropes of water are also lit fiberoptically, creating a spectacular nighttime effect.

The clients loved the idea, but as I dug into the hydraulics, I hit something of a speed bump: The laminar jets (as well as the all of the spa’s equipment) are installed below the water level – the jets at about 20 inches below the water level. What this means, of course, is that when the spa is off, there’s no way to keep the jets from flooding. Regular check valves won’t do because the water has to flow toward the jets when they work.

The effect we all wanted to see was too great to discard, so we went back to the drawing board. At first I thought about using valve actuators that would open automatically when the jets came on. This would work, but we realized there would be a few seconds of low flow to the jets that would make them start up with a dribble. While not a terrible solution, it would definitely sap some of the dramatic appeal of the laminar nozzles.

So now we’re looking at spring-loaded bypass valves that will be strong enough to hold back the weight generated by approximately 20 inches of water standing in the spa when the system is off, but will open when water starts flowing from the system’s pump. The valve manufacturer I’m working with says it can be done, but that I’ll probably have to increase the flow from the pump to the jets to make sure they have adequate flow.

This shouldn’t be a problem, but now I’m having fun coordinating different sets of vendors and juggling their ideas. We all seem to agree that if I set up the pump on a plumbing manifold with a valve that I can use to adjust the flow, things should work well – and that in the worst case all I’ll have to do is increase the horsepower of the pump by a fraction. Fortunately, the hydraulic design is more than capable of handling the change.


While we’ve worked all this through as an intellectual and practical exercise, there’s an uncertainty among all parties about what will happen when we turn the system on in the real world.

But that’s not the issue, nor is it the fact that I may end up having to absorb the cost of the jets and their plumbing if I can’t make things work. What’s important to me, now that I know and appreciate the value of frontrunning, is that I have to take chances like this to grow creatively and technically as a watershaper.

It’s a risk I’m willing to take – my investment in staying on the cutting edge.

Brian Van Bower runs Aquatic Consultants, a design firm based in Miami, Fla., and is a co-founder of the Genesis 3 Design Group; dedicated to top-of-the-line performance in aquatic design and construction, this organization conducts schools for like-minded pool designers and builders. He can be reached at [email protected].

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