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Personal Foundations



Tackling large, custom watershaping projects is all about the synergy between my clients and me: There simply must be a fit, or the process just won’t work.

Last month, we discussed the importance of setting up proper expectations from the moment a client makes initial contact and you pick up the phone. This time, I’ll cover what happens if the early stages of the relationship go well enough that a face-to-face meeting is in order.

This is the session during which I discover whether or not there’s truly a

shared basis for working together. As I’ve said before, these meetings are not about selling, quoting prices or putting any kind of pressure on clients to sign on the dotted line. Rather, it’s about establishing bases for collaboration and letting them know in no uncertain terms what they can expect throughout the design/construction process.

As should be clear to all of you by now, my interest is in finding clients who are seeking works of art that will make them happy and proud. On that level, it’s all about establishing a sense of what they want – analyzing the situation, sizing up their ideas, formulating a reliable plan – and deciding whether we can work together to accomplish great things.

I’m more than willing to walk away from these initial meetings when things just aren’t “right” for one reason or another. By contrast, when things go well, I leave these meetings excited and ready to get to work in applying what I’ve learned about the clients, using what I know about available materials and technologies and, ultimately, designing something special that no one else has.


If your approach to client meetings is based on the idea that you’re there to sell them something and feel defeated if you come away with anything less than a signed contract, then my method is probably not for you. I’ll never chase a “hot” lead, for example, or race to a meeting to secure a job from an impulsive buyer: Those strategies are the territory of production-oriented operations.

In distinct contrast to the haste with which I see some watershapers pursue projects, I take my time, pay careful attention and make certain my clients are serious. For me, working with them is usually a matter of steady, long-term, near-constant personal interaction: We work closely in generating a design and, as the project is being built, I’m there every step of the way. These are big personal investments for my clients and me, and we make them with great care.

Basically, I will become a fixture in my clients’ lives, and it’s not unusual for them to expect to see me on the job site almost every day. I can’t count the number of times they’ve made certain my own coffee mug is waiting for me first thing in the morning, and there are cases in which we’ve become so close that we’ll travel or go to dinner or out for an evening’s entertainment together. These personal relationships extend from the fact that, in my projects, watershaping is an incredibly personal proposition. Does this happen with every client? Of course not, but through the years I’ve developed some wonderful, enduring friendships.

Partly this is because of my personality and open, honest approach to my clients – and I’m the first to recognize that getting so close to them is not for everyone, nor does it have to be. On a practical level, however, I see this type of interpersonal bonding as extremely helpful: The work I do is too complicated, the details are too involved and the work is too unique for me to want to do things any other way.

Let’s face it: Ours is a disruptive business, and the human touch can make the hard work of watershaping far more tolerable to clients. In addition, I find that a good personal rapport makes it easier to deal with the issues that inevitably arise in the course of a project, from minor glitches to major changes. This goes far beyond being sure my clients can afford the work and have a clear idea about the process: In short, a good rapport puts me in a better position to understand their personalities, tastes and lifestyles.

Thus, at our first meeting, I’m interviewing them, not the other way around – despite what they might be thinking. It’s all about the fit, and from the first handshake, I’m sizing them up and determining whether or not we’ll work well together.

Through the years, this approach has become second nature to me, and I’ve become expert at quickly recognizing whether or not we “click.” What’s fun about this part of the process is that every personality is distinct and each client provides a slightly different profile and set of circumstances. In that sense, there’s always an element of shared discovery that informs everything I do and say with clients during that first meeting and from that point forward.


Backing up just a bit, there are a couple of key considerations that go into setting up the initial meeting. First of all (and as I mentioned last month), if it’s a husband and wife team or some other type of couple, I absolutely insist on both of them being at the meeting, basically to avoid the whole session’s being a waste of time. I also insist that we meet at the property. That may seem an obvious proviso, but it’s critical for a variety of reasons I’ll explain below.

As for timing, I do everything I can to avoid evening meetings. For one thing, people are often tired as the day wears on – or impatient to have dinner or anxious to get small children off to bed or distracted by phone calls from family and friends. Even though evening meetings may be convenient, they’re never my preference.

If possible, I like to meet in the morning while we’re all fresh and relatively undistracted. Basically, I find that conducting these meetings during “regular working hours” results in a more businesslike tenor and enables us get right down to business. Moreover, I’ve found that high-end clients who set their own schedules tend to prefer weekday-morning meetings. I’ll often bring breakfast delicacies such as smoked salmon I’ve brought back from my regular fishing trips to Alaska to make these occasions special and create a sense of sharing and “family.”

If a morning meeting during the week isn’t possible for whatever reason, my second choice will always be a weekend morning. There may well be distractions if children are home, but this is much better than evening or late-afternoon conversations.

As to why these meetings must take place at job sites (which in my case is almost always a home, as I seldom design or build commercial projects) and not in some sort of showroom or in my offices, there’s the obvious reason that I can’t imagine designing a project without seeing the space I’ll be working with and getting a feel for the setting and its views (or lack thereof), the shape of the yard and how the interiors relate to the exteriors.

I’m also called more than occasionally to view bare lots in new developments. In these cases, I end up paying attention to an even broader range of considerations, including drainage, topography and the probable locations of neighboring structures. No master or site plan will tell you exactly what’s going on in these spaces, so these projects are a particular challenge.

If the home is in place, however, from the moment I walk through the door I pay extremely close attention to the way the interior is decorated, especially when it comes to artworks and furnishings. In the vast majority of situations, I’ll observe key stylistic preferences and get a sense of how much the homeowners have traveled and how refined are their tastes in art and design. Everything I see and observe – how they talk about their surroundings and subjects upon which they dwell with the most passion – flows into the mix.

I’m also looking for cues into preferred color palettes as evidenced by their choices of furnishings, textiles and interior materials. Rolled together, all of these data points give me important information about personalities, life experiences and the stylistic approaches I’ll use with respect to colors and materials selections.


Once the preliminaries are concluded and we get down to the “business” of our discussion, I insist that they leaf through my three portfolios – big, leather-bound albums that contain 150 eight-by-ten color photographs of my past projects, including one whole volume that’s all about construction, materials, details and joinery.

My purpose here isn’t to “wow” them with past work as a means of building credibility. That often happens, of course, but it’s a side benefit to my real pursuit of finding out what they like and, perhaps more important, what they don’t like. Many times, I find that knowing what to avoid is a leading indicator of those ideas that will work, and listening to them at this stage tells me where to focus my thinking.

At no time in this process do we discuss price in any specific terms: I might say a particular approach is “expensive” or “inexpensive,” but that’s about it. I don’t sell price: That’s all about production. Instead, I’m all about producing unique and original works of art.

Indeed, if I get any sort of sense that the price tag is their main concern, I’ll pack up my materials and take my leave. If I don’t, the review of past work gives me a feel for whether they’re interested in having something truly special, artistic, elegant and creative – or if what they really want is a more standard type of watershape.

Once I’m comfortable that we’re still a good fit, I’ll start talking about my approach to selecting materials and colors. As the need arises, I’ll also talk about my own personal influences and how many of the strongest themes they see in my work are derived from details I’ve personally observed in the ancient ruins of Greece, Rome and Turkey. I’ll talk about architects and artists who’ve influenced my work, from Corbu and Walter Gropius to Piet Mondrian and Jasper Johns. I’ll also talk about colors, textures and materials in response to the directions in which these conversations carry us – all to get them excited about and engaged in the process.

Throughout, I’m always giving them insights into my methods and letting them know clearly that in turning to me for a watershape, they are making a choice for true artistry without compromise when it comes to quality or attention to detail. I share my feelings that swimming pools and other watershapes can be an adjunct to the spaces they occupy or a dominant focal point and how all elements of the exterior space (and even interior areas) all should work together to create harmonious settings that express their tastes and personalities.

I ask some personal questions, too, getting them to chat about their lifestyles and their personal and business backgrounds, their travel experiences and what they like to do for fun and enjoyment. Those discussions feed into very direct questions about how they’re going to use their pools, spas and surrounding spaces.

This is a huge point: I don’t want to know about how they’re going to use the watershape during the one or two times each year they have a big party; rather, I want to know what’s going to happen on a daily basis or over a typical weekend. Is the pool strictly an aesthetic element, or will they be using it for exercise on a regular basis? Will children be swimming and playing in the water and, if so, how many and how often? Do they like entertaining and cooking outdoors, or are they more into reading and relaxing outside? If the latter, when – mornings, weekends, evenings?


This is a whole bunch of ground to cover, but I’ve found that once we get into it, the interactions unfold naturally and easily and at no time do I have the sense that I’m asking questions off some sort of checklist. I’ve done this long enough that I proceed intuitively, always directing my clients toward a clear understanding of the way I work and what I need to know to make them happy.

When we’ve covered all of this information to the necessary level of detail, it’s usually pretty obvious whether or not we’re going to end up working together. At some point, they always want to know about the next steps.

Now is when we talk about the importance of soils evaluations and the engineering process in great detail. As I’ve written in these pages before, all foundations and details of structural engineering depend almost entirely on the geological conditions on site, so in almost all cases where the municipality doesn’t require one anyway, I will insist on having a soils report in hand before beginning any design work.

This is, I explain to them, the foundation for creating any sort of realistic, reliable design that will meet the aesthetic goals we’ve established. Included in these considerations are the watershape and its total environment, including decks and shade structures and pool houses and fountains and water walls and outdoor kitchens.

I’ll also tell them that they have two options to consider: If I’m to build everything, I will take control as general contractor and will handle everything from the doorsills outward. I will contract with others for irrigation, lighting and plantings, but I will set terms for those contractors and govern things from the visual standpoint.

This choice is advantageous because it saves the clients the expense of having me generate the detailed sets of drawings (other than structural) required to make certain everything will be built to my standards and specifications. If I’m in charge, which happens about 99 percent of the time, that documentation does not need to be generated in such fullness because I know the materials I’ve chosen and how everything will come together and will be there on the job site to supervise every detail.

Once this is settled, I tell them that I will go to my studio and develop a proposal that will indicate in specific terms how long the project we’ve been discussing will take based on all the elements they’ve indicated should be included. Once they receive the proposal, it’s in their hands: If they send me a check (which happens a good 85 percent of the time), I put pencil to paper and begin the design work in earnest.

If they don’t send a check, I assume they’ve chosen another path and that’s pretty much it for me: I won’t call, I won’t bargain, I won’t do anything unless and until a check arrives. The way I see it, if they want something for peanuts, they should hire monkeys and elephants to do the work. Speaking for myself, I work for U.S. dollars and accept no substitutes.

If they come through – and as I say, they usually do – I know we’re all on the same page, all have accepted a general sequence of activities and that it’s time for me to get to work. Now everything is directed toward a presentation – my topic next time.

David Tisherman is the principal in two design/construction firms: David Tisherman’s Visuals of Manhattan Beach, Calif., and Liquid Design of Cherry Hill, N.J. He can be reached at [email protected]. He is also an instructor for Artistic Resources & Training (ART); for information on ART’s classes, visit

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