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Pioneer Pride

Charles Wise is a Houston-based watershaper with ambitions as large as the Lone Star State. Through a career spanning nearly four decades in pool design and construction, he’s done all he can to stay at the leading edge when it comes to technical innovation and aesthetic appeal – a strategy he discusses here while offering a bit of homespun philosophy and the perspectives of one who has been at the forefront as watershaping has evolved into an art form.

Charles Wise is a Houston-based watershaper with ambitions as large as the Lone Star State. Through a career spanning nearly four decades in pool design and construction, he's done all he can to stay at the leading edge when it comes to technical innovation and aesthetic appeal - a strategy he discusses here while offering a bit of homespun philosophy and the perspectives of one who has been at the forefront as watershaping has evolved into an art form.

When people ask me what I do for a living, I like to tell them I’m a Texas-style maverick in the world of watershaping.

That’s a lighthearted way of characterizing what I do, but it speaks the truth when it comes to describing what I think this industry is really all about. Indeed, I see the best watershaping as being defined by a pioneer spirit and an appetite for innovation – a drive and hunger that convincingly overcome the all-too-common fear of trying new ideas, technologies and approaches.

In my 37 years in the business, in fact, I’ve seen the process of shaping water change radically from what I witnessed when I started out in the 1970s. All those years of change and experience have helped me look at the art of watershaping in new ways: As have many other opened-minded artists in this business, I’ve

embraced the value of combining the unique, beautiful appearance of any given project with an engineering expertise that makes the systems function properly and reliably in the real world.

As one of those who have designed and built pools from start to finish with my own hands, I’ve learned what I know not in the classroom, but rather by understanding from direct observation how water functions, the value of great materials and the latest in modern technologies. I’m also profoundly sensitive to what a site tells me; heck, I even take the way the prevailing winds blow into account in designing my pools.

When I think about the past, present and future of my industry, I always hope that future generations of watershapers will embrace this combination of practical experience tempered by curiosity and the vision it takes to expand capabilities and continually strive for excellence and innovation.


My company, Wise Pools of Conroe, Texas, had humble beginnings, but I’ve always believed that our work speaks for itself – especially in recent years.

It took time, but our firm has steadily gained respect, and we’ve long been proud of the fact that we’ve often been recognized with industry awards. Last year, that process was capped by our winning the Chairman’s Award in the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals’ International Design Competition for a gold-medal-winning residential pool in the engineering and technical category.

That project is, I think, our masterpiece, and I’ll describe it in some detail later on. I bring it up here because I believe every artist should strive to create work that represents his or her very best. And I’m determined not to rest on my laurels: I have projects on the horizon that are even more exciting.

To get to this point, I spent long, hot days in lots of holes, personally handling much of the most backbreaking labor myself. Although age and the necessities of running a now-large company keep me largely on the sidelines, I still love being on the job site as the principal interpreter of my own designs.

I am particularly happy when a project offers me the challenge of solving difficult problems with water and creating effects that are new, exciting and beautiful for my clients. Many of my favorites have been developed for large, multi-generational family estates, and my greatest hope is that, 100 years or more from now, people will still be using and admiring my work in these magnificent settings.

I know I’m not alone in thinking and feeling this way about what I do. In fact, I believe every single watershaper has the potential to approach the work in this way and that those with the right kind of energetic spirit can come away from the watershaping experience with soul-satisfying levels of pride, public recognition and, best of all, esteem among clients.

And you don’t have to have been at it for four decades to recognize that swimming pools and all forms of watershapes have changed a lot through the years. Back in the ’70s, I was a pool builder; today, I consider myself a “sculptor in water” and see mine as a medium in which water and concrete work in broader environments that include fabulous tile, rockwork, decking, lighting, mist and even fire.

Along the way, I have sought out and been among the first to exploit new technologies, from those intended to streamline office operations to those that automate the bidding and design processes. I’ve even fostered development of a customized water-analysis program for our retail operation that is still far ahead of what is available from suppliers today.


It’s not enough, however, to push past the limits of the state of the art unless you keep at least one foot on the ground.

Many years ago, I was taught that life lesson by the experience of demolishing a pool that had originally been built by J.V. McNeme, the grandfather of the pool business in Houston and an industry-wide icon in his day. The pool was at a Girl Scout campground in our area, and we’d been called in to design and build a much larger pool with modern, state-of-the art equipment.

Before demolition began in earnest, I carefully chiseled out the two brass McNeme Pools nameplates that had been set on the top steps; I then invited Mr. McNeme over and hosted a little ceremony in which I presented one of the plates to him. (I kept the other in tribute to his place in our history.)

I was purchasing all the equipment for the new project from his distribution firm, so he was glad to see things evolve. As the project moved forward, however, I recognized that I didn’t want to see my own hard work being demolished someday – and ever since that day my goal has been to make pools so advanced and well-built that they will be enjoyed by many future generations.


MANY STYLES: From the freewheeling and playful to the formal and traditional, we always work within the context of the site and its architecture as well as in accordance with our clients’ desires. When coupled with our determination to build systems that will reliably stand the tests of time, these are watershapes that will serve their families for generations to come.

To my mind, the only way to achieve that kind of longevity is to be intimately involved in every step of a project. As a result, I am doggedly engaged in on-site construction management and maintain the highest possible standards for every project, from the simplest to the most complex.

I do so to be fair to my clients, who’ve come to see today’s pools as extensions of their living spaces and as outdoor rooms rather than as add-ons bearing no relationship to the rest of the property or its design. Through the years, I’ve learned how to create bodies of water that work seamlessly as parts of homes and sites, weaving them carefully into integrated wholes.

My inspiration in this comes from observation of great designs of water elements found all around the world in homes and public spaces as well as from my sense of the way nature interacts with built spaces over time. My eyes are always open to this sort of insight: I never know when I will see something that will spark my imagination and lead to a level of creativity that will take an upcoming project to the next level of design sophistication and excellence.

In other words, based on my experience, watershapers do well to dig into the world around them, finding inspiration and ideas and looking to grapple with their working lives with restless spirits.


Rather than that kind of inspirational testimony being simply a matter of rhetoric, I see it as the essence of practical application: We should all be constantly evolving, from the ways we work with the practical details of construction and installation to our implementation of the sorts of esoteric design possibilities that emerge in our increasingly complex projects.

I’ll get specific: When I first began to design and build pools in the early ’70s, I noticed that the commercial pools I’d worked on all had built-in overflow systems that I never saw in residential pools. I liked the function served by the overflows, however, so I was probably the first watershaper in the Houston area to incorporate these simple systems into residential pools.

It only made sense to me: We often get torrential rains here, and without this feature, pools would fill up, fail to skim properly and even flood, creating maintenance headaches involved in getting the water back to a workable level. That basic overflow innovation solved this problem, and now it’s a standard feature on all home pools built in our area.

Another example: On most of my residential pools, I noticed early on that there was just one skimmer, basically because that was the way it had always been done. I wasn’t satisfied and began adding a second skimmer on the opposite side of the pool, also placing the return inlets in ways that encouraged proper surface flow to aid in skimming. This ultimately led to development of our “Wiseclean” circulation system – a big step toward creating more maintenance-free pools.

We further refined this plumbing concept by notching the pool beam down to create a shelf onto which we set our plumbing lines, thereby minimizing the use of 90-degree fittings and other flow-restricting patterns in our hydraulic systems. And because the plumbing is encased in the gunite shell, it is also much less likely to break as a result of any movement or settling of the pool, should either one occur.

I also was among the pioneers in computerizing my business. I’d been a good draftsman ever since pursuing a great program in my high-school days, but I didn’t want to settle for the status quo and have come to find great value in computerized bid-management and AutoCAD programs. It would have been easy to keep using pencil and paper, but there’s no denying the advantages we’ve seen in automating these processes.

We even found ourselves designing electronic control system for pools long before manufacturers made such technology widely available. Our systems included waterproof housings, wireless modules and hand-held remotes way before these became off-the-shelf items.


Again, those kinds of innovations were possible because we are always assessing and reassessing every detail of the watershape environment. As satisfying as these technical details can be, however, we have even more creative fun when it comes to applying that same level of energy to the aesthetics of our watershapes.

Many of these innovations have extended from simple observation of the ways in which people react to our work. Like many firms, for example, we jumped on the vanishing-edge bandwagon when they became popular, and we changed our approach to them when we noticed an interesting response to these designs.

It all had to do with the fact that some of these pools were built overlooking golf courses. In visiting these sites after our work was done, I couldn’t help noticing that golfers would stop to enjoy the sight and sound of the water cascading over edges and into catch basins.

Not long thereafter, we were given the opportunity to create a special pool for a local Showcase of Homes and the site was perfect for trying a reverse vanishing-edge system in which the water flowed toward the home instead of away from it. I placed the spa below the cascade, conjuring a multi-level symphony of water, sight and sound.


MANY MOODS: Our clients these days are seeing spaces in their yards as outdoor rooms – as literal extensions of their living quarters – so we focus our efforts on making them a seamless part of the home at all times of the day. It’s all about managing mood and atmosphere and making these spaces as attractive after dark as they are during the day.

When the public toured this showcase home, the tendency was to step in and stop almost immediately to enjoy the view of the water flowing toward the big windows overlooking the pool. And this was especially true at night, when fiberoptic lighting made the water glow. These soothing visuals and sounds created new sensory experiences for people attuned to standard pools (and typical vanishing-edge systems).

A big factor fostering my desire to innovate and develop true design solutions for particular sites extends from my travels around the world. From the classic Moorish gardens of the Alhambra in Spain to the amazing resort pools of Hawaii, the unique, compelling use of water always excites me and stirs my creative juices. These sites have always encouraged me to think about the way the flow of water influences its environment and have also led me to explore the use of such elements as fog and fire in select projects.

Indeed, nowadays I often consider the use of fire effects in natural-rock waterfalls as well as in poolside fire pits. And one thing always leads to another – in this case pushing me to develop fire features atop formal columns rigged with scuppers for dramatic fire-on-water effects. This is a detail I used in a second Showcase of Homes project – another true showstopper.


At the same time we’ve focused on computers and aesthetic progress in our work, we’ve also evaluated basic pool systems and keep looking for ways to apply technical expertise in support of our aesthetic sensibilities.

Back in the early days of our business, for example, we became one of the first companies anywhere to work with Diamond Shamrock in trying out a saltwater chlorination system – the precursor of the salt systems in such wide use today.

After a time in which we’d used the product on several pools, the fact that we were pioneering its use led to our being referred for a large, elaborate all-tile pool in the exclusive River Oaks area of Houston. The owners had become attached to the special feel they’d experienced in the saltwater pools of Europe and chose us for their project both for our aesthetic credentials as well as our special expertise in this technology.

We’ve also deliberately been pursuing effective, efficient approaches in the field of wetted-edge or perimeter-overflow pools. At first, we worked with suppliers of gutter systems that could be applied for the purpose, but some of their deficiencies led us to develop our own system in which we gunite the plumbing into the beam of the pool itself – a technique that has since been adopted by scores of other firms.

This year, we took yet another step in our design progression with the award-winning project I mentioned at the outset – probably our greatest design and engineering achievement to date.

This pool is the crowning touch for a multimillion-dollar home reconstruction project, and executing it took more than four years from design phase to completion. Along the way, we used absolutely the best of everything in all aspects of design, materials and construction, and the outcome is wholly unique and exhilarating.

For starters, the area for the pool was excavated to twelve feet below the natural grade – and then the vessel itself was carved into this sunken area, supported by eight-foot-deep belled piers and 18-inch-wide by 24-inch-deep grade beams, all for anchoring and stabilizing the pool and establishing the necessary substructure. Then the pool was stubbed out for plumbing and oversized steel fabrication was begun.

The beam around the top of the pool is 24 inches wide to support two-foot-wide by four-and-a-half-inch-thick precut limestone coping. The vessel’s walls and floor are 12 inches thick and are reinforced with a double curtain of #5 rebar set at 12 inches on center both ways.


The quality that went into fabricating the substructure and vessel also went into designing this pool’s all-custom hydraulic system. Water is skimmed through a specially designed overflow trough we concealed in the shallow end’s wall, and all wall and floor-cleaner fittings as well as the drain covers were custom made in emerald green to match the tile.

Inside the pool, 65,000 two-inch-square, emerald-green glass tiles that arrived as individual, tissue-wrapped pieces were set one by one using epoxy – a process that took more than five months in covering the complete interior of the pool.

The result is a vision of formal elegance surrounded by precut, 24-inch-square pieces of Pennsylvania greenstone decking on multiple levels, with custom-made, leaf-design fountain spouts set up to match the home’s ornamentation. The site also features an outdoor grass-terraced theatre at one end, complemented by formal gardens. Completing the project was a terrific team effort led by a fine landscape architectural firm.


MANY FUNCTIONS: In some of our larger projects, our responsibilities in design and construction extend well past the usual pool and spa – as in this case, where we installed architectural fountains in addition to sculpting a multi-level, complexly geometric pool and spa.

The pool is heated with four geothermally driven water-to-water heat pumps with a gas-heat backup, and the overall system is managed by a One-Touch computerized control system (Jandy Pool Products, Petaluma, Calif.) totally integrated with the home’s own automation system to control all features including the pool equipment, lighting, fountains and spa features.

Among the challenges of constructing this one-of-a-kind below-grade pool had to do with the huge rainstorms we get annually in the Houston area. These monsoonal torrents made the occasional mess of things, but we always maintained our focus on producing one-of-a-kind results with the pool as well as the entry fountain, a secluded spa, a party kitchen, dressing rooms, a sound system and the sub-grade entertainment area.

From the start, the idea was to create one of the world’s greatest pool settings, and I am proud to have been a part of making it a reality.

Through this project and many, many others, I’ve learned that imagination pays big dividends in the watershaping business – and that sometimes this means thinking way beyond the practical confines of where the state of the art might be at any given time. Back in the 1980s when NASA was talking about setting up a base on the moon, for instance, I had serious thoughts of helping build a pool there, my belief being that the resistance offered by water exercise would be an ideal way for astronauts to maintain muscle mass and tone in a weightless environment.

I know now that I’ll probably never see waterfalls and fountains perform on the moon, so I satisfy myself with earthbound settings and on scoping out new opportunities that emerge every day. Some doubtless will flow my way, and I’m determined to answer the call.

If you ask me, that’s what being a maverick is all about!

Charles Wise is president and founder of Wise Pool Company in Houston. A Texas native, he has been designing and building high-end residential pools, spas and waterfeatures since 1970, winning more than 100 design awards in the process. His firm has also been honored with the Houston Chamber and Community College small business awards as well as the Better Business Bureau’s Torch of Excellence award for small construction companies. Wise runs the firm with his wife Merry, the company’s vice president and a well-known industry veteran in her own right. Charles Wise has two stepsons, a daughter and two grandchildren; stepson Brock Stapper is carrying on the family tradition of designing and building award-winning watershapes, having recently won his first gold medal in the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals’ design competition.

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