By Chuck Baumann
Some of the most intriguing projects begin with an element of mystery.
I received a call from a prominent local designer who informed me that he was putting together a Dream Team for a special client and a special site – but for now, no name would be attached: All we were to receive was a reference number (15-LLC) and a location along with a preliminary plan and some photographs. I wasn’t alone in receiving this preview: Other top-tier exterior-design professionals had been invited to join the team, and we were all given the same information packet to assist us in planning our approaches.
The site was atop a hill above Oakland, Calif., a perch that offered outstanding views of San Francisco and its bay along with ample room for a poolscape. All of us had been told we had a choice: We could work with the general plan the designer had provided for the backyard space – or we could set it aside and come up with something different.
What I saw in the preliminary plan was a simple, nice-but-ordinary pool set close to the edge of the slope – and I knew it could be transformed into an amazing vanishing-edge pool and spa that would take full advantage of the view. The lead designer liked the idea and gave me the green light to draw it up – but there was a hitch.
As I soon learned, the project came with a relatively small budget for the pool – a modesty that had been reflected in the preliminary design. Determined to do better, I suggested that the client should be involved and persuaded the team leader to present our plan for review. He agreed, so back in our shop we prepared a three-dimensional video presentation for a three-sided vanishing-edge design. The client was overwhelmed and expanded the budget accordingly.
The designer who brought us in – Peter Koenig of Peter Koenig Designs, Alamo, Calif. – is a talented, respected Bay Area professional who had the ability to tackle the whole project himself. But in a case like this, where there was much to be done inside and out at the very highest level, he was willing to step back into the role of an “executive producer” and call on a variety of specialists to ensure that the results would exceed expectations.
I was certain, once I’d surveyed the site and taken in its fantastic views, that a vanishing edge would be just the right touch. But the revised pool would be situated quite close to the edge, so we called in our engineer to size up the soil, the stability of the slope and the basic feasibility of our concept.
As we’d been told, the lot was situated atop an old quarry, so we knew that at some point we’d hit bedrock – although I must say we hit it a bit sooner than we’d hoped at just a few inches below the surface. The engineer declared the obvious: We had a good foundation for the pool and would have no worries in placing it where we’d proposed.
|We started our exertions on site on a typically foggy day above San Francsico Bay, scraping off the top 12 inches of soil – basically down to the rock outcrop that had made this place a working quarry in a past life. We chopped our way down to the level where we planned to put a subdrain system (not a bad idea given the sort of pooling we encountered atop the bedrock’s plane) and cut a key that was likely an unnecessary but basic precaution.|
But we weren’t working on the rock: We were in it and had to jackhammer our way down through the material to establish the pool’s contours. Just to be on the safe side, we set up a key beneath the vanishing-edge wall and trough as a footing to prevent any settling toward the slope. It was likely a bit of overkill, but it seemed an easy, worthy precaution.
In the same vein, we also installed a drainage system beneath the pool to prevent any collection of water under the shell. We inserted pipes into a layer of gravel before we started building the cage, running a gravity-fed line to daylight safely down the slope.
The home was nearing completion by the time we arrived on site, but nothing had been done around it. In fact, we were the only contractors present through the first four weeks of exterior work, so after excavating the pool, we graded the rest of the property, scraping off the top 12 inches throughout. We had the required equipment there already, so it made sense for us to step up to make life a bit easier for crews that would be joining us. In a similar spirit, we pitched in and made some retaining walls from steel and gunite to lighten the load on the masons.
Through it all, we were in steady contact with Koenig and the owner’s agent, filing weekly progress reports that also included projections of what would be happening in the week to come. We offered photographs as part of these packages and found the routine helpful in getting feedback and setting up clarifying conversations. This level of communication is always important, but it becomes critical in high-end projects like this one where a whole team of artisans has input.
Although there was a general sense of open collaboration on site – with conversations among various designers a frequent occurrence – the client and the rest of the team relied on us at Creative Environments (Alamo, Calif.) when it came to selecting materials and finishes for the watershapes and the surrounding decking. This made sense given our familiarity with the possibilities. Once we made our choices, the other designers were able to use them in making their own selections of colors and textures.
It certainly helped that we’d worked with Peter Koenig on several occasions in the past: There’s a level of mutual respect in the working relationship that has led to a high level of trust flowing in both directions.
|The pool and spa had simple shapes – but complex hydraulic systems that involved running lots of pipe across the yard to an equipment pad that was to hide behind a large shade structure. It was one of the piers for that structure that broke a pipe and forced us into some last-minute scrambling. By the time we encountered that problem, we’d finished and filled the pool and spa.|
By that point, of course, we’d learned that the client is an all-star member of the Golden State Warriors basketball team and a local celebrity of the highest order. This meant that site security was a substantial issue: Access was strictly limited and controlled, the property was secured at the close of each workday and everything happened under the watchful eye of security cameras.
Given his schedule, the client was on the road about half the time, but when he was around (he’d moved into the house shortly after we started our work on site), he was thoughtful, outgoing and interested in our progress.
Through it all, Koenig managed the flow of contractors moving on and off the site and did a spectacular job of keeping helpful information about scheduling and project milestones flowing with enough advanced notice that we truly did operate as a coherent team.
As designed, the pool features vanishing edges on three sides and a slightly elevated spa with a full perimeter overflow. The vessels include 19 LED lights (from both Jandy of Vista, Calif., and S.R. Smith of Canby, Ore.) as well as pumps, filters, a heating system and a WiFi remote control unit from Jandy. We also installed an in-floor cleaning system from Paramount Pool & Spa Systems (Chandler, Ariz.), placing heads within the pool as well as the vanishing-edge trough to keep both of them clear and clean.
|From every perspective, the pool and spa define the home’s outdoor space, on clear and even hazy days leading the eye to distant views of San Francisco and the bay. It’s a great spot for entertaining and just as welcoming for quiet relaxation – or maybe some time on the putting green.|
Given the celebrity status of the homeowner, it was no surprise that the project drew special attention from subcontractors. Burkett Pools applied the pebble finish, for instance, and this is the first time I recall Rob Burkett himself showing up on application day – with his right-hand man there with him for good measure! It seems that everyone had an especially good time working on this project, particularly a few star-struck basketball fans.
Everything came together without difficulty, with one exception: When I fired up the many different pumps that operated the pool, the one pump that was to drive the vanishing-edge effect was turning – but no water was flowing over the dam wall and into the trough. As it turned out, one of the other crews had accidentally broken the relevant pipe while installing some piers – and managed to fill about eight feet of it with concrete! It was a relatively easy fix once we figured out the extent of the problem, but it was a late hiccup we hadn’t expected.
After 38 years of running my own design/build firm and about 63 years being around pool construction, I’ve learned that the key to pulling off any project, let alone one with a profile as high as this one, is planning, pure and simple. Before we ever walked on site, we’d thought through and meticulously documented every project stage and knew that our main task would be to follow what we’d laid out on our printed sheets.
But this is construction on a hilltop, so things can take off in unexpected directions – as was the case with the concrete-packed vanishing-edge pipe. The benefit here of good construction documents is that we knew what had to be done (and where) to set things back in good working order in a hurry.
|As the sun drops over the horizon, the true magic begins: The water becomes a glowing mirror that takes on new character when the lights come on and the pool and spa become even more inviting.|
We had no choice: We finished our work on the day of Game 7 of the 2017 NBA playoffs, and the Warriors brought home another championship trophy. The client had a huge party to celebrate the win, and most of the festivities took place in and around the pool on a warm early-summer night. We followed up with the usual day-after-startup visit to make certain all was well and found the client lounging by his new pool – just perfect.
Backyard poolscapes have come a long way in the course of my long career, and I take great pride in the fact that we at Creative Environments have kept pace in ways that give us access to projects at this level. When I started working with my father, there was white plaster, six-by-six aqua blue waterline tile, white coping and not much more – no raised bond beams, no vanishing edges, little stonework and a limited selection of pool sizes and shapes.
That’s all changed now, and as I prepare my business for transfer to a third generation and my son Nicco, I’m happy to say the bar just keeps on rising with respect to design ambition, technical skill, materials and raw creativity. He’s taken over responsibility for construction and will run the company someday. With a combination of education and talent, I know he will keep us up there among firms that are able to craft watershapes that bring joy and pride of ownership to clients whose expectations are jumping off the charts.
We’ve had to elevate our skills to keep up, and the way I see it, that’s no burden: It’s a privilege.