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Its dominance may have faded in the past 20 years as designers and their clients have moved along to consider other options, says surfacing specialist Alan Smith, but in the period before the mid-1970s, it was tough to find a pool finished in any material other than white plaster. Here, he traces the history of this material and the many twists and turns that led to its decline – and discusses what he sees as the potential for something of a revival.
Its dominance may have faded in the past 20 years as designers and their clients have moved along to consider other options, says surfacing specialist Alan Smith, but in the period before the mid-1970s, it was tough to find a pool finished in any material other than white plaster.  Here, he traces the history of this material and the many twists and turns that led to its decline – and discusses what he sees as the potential for something of a revival.
By Alan Smith

It’s probably something that few owners of swimming pools built in the 40-year period after World War II ever paused to consider, but from the days of ancient Rome until modern times, pools and watershapes were often finished with white or light gray materials of some type.  

From the late 1940s straight through to the mid-’70s, in fact, it was unusual – even over the top – for a backyard swimming pool to be finished with anything other than white plaster:  That was what the companies that defined the industry in the early-postwar period used, and for the most part, that was the only choice consumers had.  

There were, of course, some beautiful (and costly) all-tile pools, and pools belonging to folks on all economic strata were occasionally painted in different colors, but brilliant white seemed to be exactly what everyone craved to the point where white plaster finishes and swimming pools became synonymous and inseparable.

Why that is so and white plaster became the industry’s mainstay is anyone’s guess, but it’s reasonable to assume that the material’s affordability, workability and durability – not to mention the crystalline clarity it imparted to water – were major factors in its popularity and dominance for so many years.

By the late 1960s and early ’70s, all that began to change.  Alternative finishes including fiberglass, pool paints and, later, pebble surfaces began to emerge along with coloring agents for plaster, and consumers were quick to latch onto the greater aesthetic flexibility afforded by these options.  At about this same time as well, concerns about the performance of white plaster began to emerge – a confluence of events that led to an explosion of interest in new surfacing options that will probably never be reversed.

For all of that, however, white plaster has remained a popular choice – so much so that I believe it’s fair to say that it’s experiencing a renaissance of sorts.

CRYSTAL CLEAR

One of the challenges for white plaster is its basic familiarity and the fact that it’s a bit of a cliché among those who are constantly looking to push the creative envelope of watershape design.  

Despite that trend, white plaster is nonetheless still associated with luxury and even opulence.  Partly, that’s attributable to the fact that the public has, for many years, seen this finish in incredible resort pools.  It’s also a fact that lots of the earliest memories today’s consumers have about pools were formed in the crystal-clear, shimmering water of local community pools.  Whatever the immediate association, white plaster offers a clean, crisp look that makes people feel good about jumping into the water for a refreshing swim.

There’s no question, of course, that pools finished in other colors and surface materials can generate those same significant responses, but my conversations with consumers tell me that white plaster in particular is ingrained in our collective psyche.  

To this day, in fact, I run into consumers who want the white-plaster look and only the white-plaster look and reject the alternatives for no other reason than that they simply like white-plaster pools.  It’s a powerful link, in other words, and it doesn’t hurt that the material is closely associated with a range of classic, traditional styles.

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In an era when designers, builders and consumers have more finish options than anyone could have imagined even 25 years ago, white plaster continues to be a popular choice among those who crave the appearance of a classic swimming pool. It offers a clean, crisp look that makes people feel good about jumping in the water.  (Photo on left courtesy Pure Water Pools, Costa Mesa, Calif.  Right and above, at the head of the article, courtesy National Plasterers Council, Port Charlotte, Fla.)

As suggested above, it also doesn’t hurt the image of this material that health departments in this country require pool surfaces to be white for safety reasons.  Certainly white can achieved with other materials – exposed or polished aggregate surfaces, for example, or fiberglass, vinyl or even painted finishes – but white plaster seems the steadiest of the options to this day.  So despite all of the technical and aesthetic developments our industry has seen over the past two to three decades, it seems safe to conclude that white plaster will remain part of our industry’s future as well as its past and present.

That’s certainly true for my company – Alan Smith Pool Plaster of Orange, Calif. – which specializes in the application of a variety of pool finishes.  While we now offer to apply almost everything under the sun, we are aware that white finishes are a major part of what we do and commit a great deal of time and energy to ensuring that they are durable, affordable and beautiful.

In doing so, we follow an unbroken line back to the 1940s and ’50s, when the first “pool plasterers” – actually house and building finishers – were applying what they knew about plaster to swimming pool environments.  Builders of that era knew that pneumatically applied concrete was susceptible to leaking and that a reliable sealing system was needed.  Plaster was the perfect fit.

Eventually, swimming pools became such big business in places such as southern California, Phoenix, Las Vegas and other areas that experienced rapid suburban growth that an entire class of swimming pool subcontractors emerged specializing only in the plastering of artificial bodies of water.  This emergence was so significant that some of the early practitioners are hailed as industry pioneers.

INDUSTRY EVOLUTION

Back in those days, there was a basic formulation that everyone more or less followed with relatively little variation:  a mixture of white Portland cement, silica sand and water, with a bit of calcium chloride added as a setting agent.  

Those early plaster jobs have become almost legendary for their durability.  Indeed, it’s not unusual to hear about finishes that lasted upwards of 30 to 40 years or even longer with very little trouble.  It was this durability – along with affordability and “the look” – that gave white plaster an iron grip on swimming pool design.

But as the industry developed and some contractors sought to gain competitive edges, the basic formula underwent a number of important changes, some that had unintended consequences.

The first big change had to do with a quest for an even whiter white.  Consumers so strongly preferred the look of super-white plaster that a number of companies started looking for ways to brighten the finish to gain a marketing advantage.  That led to the introduction of crushed-white-marble/calcite aggregate as a replacement for silica sand, which was never a pure white.  

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The process of applying white plaster hasn’t changed much through the long and distinguished history of its use, but in recent years we’ve learned a lot about factors affecting the performance of the finish – including a number of issues related to workmanship as well as water chemistry.  (Photo on left courtesy Pure Water Pools.  Middle and right, National Plasterers Council)

The use of marble aggregates ushered in a new era of super-white finishes that, for a time, dominated the marketplace – and still does in some areas.  But in combination with industry developments in other areas, we will see that this shift also led to a certain clouding of white plaster’s future.

It’s tough to say exactly when it happened, but the near-simultaneous emergence of marble aggregates and a variety of pool-sanitizing alternatives seems to have been an unfortunate coincidence.  The affordability of chlorine gas as a water treatment, for example, caused a rapid expansion of its use in pools, and this was also a time in which trichlor tablets were leading a revolution of convenience in water treatment.  These and other truly wonderful products opened yet another door that changed the industry forever.

The misfortune of the coincidence had to do with the fact that white marble aggregate is far more soluble than silica sand, meaning the surfaces were more susceptible to damage traceable to water balance.  This, coupled with the higher acidity of the new chlorine treatments, brought a weaker plaster product together with more aggressive chemicals and led to a gradual uptick in the number of plaster surfaces that just didn’t last as long – or failed altogether.     

TROUBLE SPOTS

By late 1980s, white plaster was truly on the ropes as more and more finishes were being marred by severe staining, mottling, spot etching and delaminations.  

These problems were not limited solely to white plaster, but its prevalence in the market made it the focus of concern.   

These issues, which at times led to heated discussions at industry meetings, led to investigations into what was going on and, before long, to the formation some 20 years ago of what would become the National Plasterers Council, an organization dedicated in large part to researching material, application and maintenance issues affecting the performance of plaster surfaces.

Throughout the ’90s, the council and an assortment of individuals and other organizations engaged in a series of studies, some informal and others quite structured, aimed at finding the root of the problems almost all of us plasterers were facing in the field.

Without going into excruciating detail, what emerged from these investigations was a greater understanding of the inherent potential conflicts among plasterers, the builders they work for and service providers.  When plaster jobs failed, consumers sought replacements, and the immediate, vexing question about who was responsible came to the fore:  Was it the fault of the material or the application and therefore the plasterer’s burden?  Or was it a maintenance/water chemistry issue and therefore the fault of the service technician?

Years of finger-pointing ensued, and at times the conflict became quite acrimonious.  Eventually, however, all three parties to the discussions agreed to commit to the level of cooperation that would be required to find answers – and by this time material suppliers had become engaged in the process as well.

At times the work has been slow-moving and sometimes numbingly complex, because a whole string of variables have been researched, including mix schedules, application techniques, materials selections, cement/water ratios, admixture usage, start-up techniques and downstream water treatment.

As the current president of the National Plasterers Council, I’m proud of the fact that the organization continues to seek information and has invested in research through the California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, where faculty investigators are exploring a range of variables and operating conditions in test pools we helped build on campus.  As our understanding of these complexities has grown, what has emerged most clearly is that the solutions ultimately boil down better understanding of water chemistry’s reaction to different pool surfaces and improvements in surface materials and durability.

We do know definitively, for example, that when you place a soluble material such as marble aggregate in an environment with “aggressive” water chemistry, the odds of a problem occurring increase significantly.
 
TOUGHENING UP

One consequence of the plaster-related turmoil that’s roiled through the industry in recent years has been the abovementioned explosion of alternative surfacing materials – pebble finishes, polished aggregate surfaces, new plaster/aggregate combinations, all-tile pools and more – and a rainbow of finish colors.

That evolution probably would have occurred even without trouble in the world of white plaster, basically because it the trend strongly reflected the desire of watershapers and their clients to have more design choices.  In this new and expanded marketplace, it has reached a point where companies like mine offer literally dozens of surfacing options – and it’s been a great ride.

One of the selling points for almost all of the new surface options is that they’re more durable than so-called “traditional” plaster.  And that’s not just marketing hype:  In addition to expanding the aesthetic palette, finishes made with exposed aggregates or polished aggregates have forged niches in the market because they are, in fact, more durable than basic white plaster.

So what we have now is a varied playing field – but it is still one in which many consumers have an enduring desire for white plaster– or for finishes that at least look like white plaster.  Today, in fact, my business still sells some form of a white surface between 20 and 30 percent of the time.  It is this persistent desire that has kept white surfaces alive – and explains why an entire class of surface specialists have spent years and invested heavily in finding ways to improve white plaster and make it more durable.

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The venue for much recent investigation of real-world plaster performance has been the pool complex installed and finished by the National Plasterers Council in conjunction with industry experts and faculty researchers at the California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo. It’s a collection of pools and spas that promises to reveal a great deal about the dynamics of white plaster and other finishes.  (Photos courtesy National Plasterers Council)

What we have recognized along the way is that, no matter the level to which we come to understand the various material, application and maintenance issues – and no matter how excellent the materials or expert the maintenance – water is, by its very nature, an extremely dynamic, unforgiving beast known as “the universal solvent” for good reason.  There are myriad explanations for why water chemistry will vary in the course of a surface’s lifetime, and while it’s crucial to advocate good installation and maintenance practices, it’s equally important to engineer the product so that it is more durable.

This has led many companies (mine included) to seek other types of aggregates.  In our particular case, for example, we’ve had extremely satisfying results with white-quartz aggregates (similar to the silica aggregates of the past, but much whiter) and have long heard reports of the value of various polymer and pozzolan admixtures in producing finishes with increased durability.

It’s to the point now where there are so many options that designing a mix is a bit like perusing a menu in which different selections and combinations of selections lead to greater degrees of finish reliability.  It’s also at a point where it’s widely accepted that using a mix that features white marble alone is an invitation to a world of problems – not unlike wearing a white t-shirt to a spaghetti dinner.

EXPECTATIONS

It’s important to note that while those of us on the plastering side of the picture have made significant advances, so have a great many service technicians as well.  

Indeed, the water-chemistry standards promoted jointly by the National Plasterers Council, the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals and the Independent Pool & Spa Service Association have reached deep into the service community and have helped immensely.  Moreover, the increasing use of chemical-control systems that include pH/acid assessment and ORP technology have resulted in far greater control over sanitizer levels and chemical balances than ever before.  And it hasn’t hurt that there are a number of chemical manufacturers who now provide effective remediation products for stain and scale removal in the event chemistry moves temporarily off course.

All of these factors have led to a dramatic recovery for white plaster and its surfacing relatives:  What once seemed like finishes on their way completely out of the picture are far more viable options than they were ten or 15 years ago in terms of performance.  A key to this rebirth has been the emergence of a greater understanding of the undeniable role consumer expectations play in determining satisfaction with the way white plaster performs.

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In settings both residential and commercial and in locations both private and extremely public – as with the competition pool built at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles for the 1984 Olympic Games – white plaster has long been a go-to finish in swimming pools, spas and fountains of every description and to this day has a following that won’t let it fade away as the industry grows and changes all around it.  (Photo at left courtesy National Plasterers Council.  Middle courtesy Coppock Pool & Spa, Vista, Calif.  Right courtesy Rowley International, Palos Verdes Estates, Calif.)

When new, white plaster surfaces always offer a dramatic, distinctive look from Day One, and that was as true in the 1940s as it is today.  When problems with these finishes began emerging 30-odd years ago, however, these pools were put under a microscope by consumers who noted every flaw and sought redress instead of living with minor variations in appearance that had been accepted by pool owners for more than 40 years.

This formation of unreasonable expectations of perfection was quite nearly a death blow for white plaster:  Pool owners wanted a pristine, white look that would stay that way virtually forever – not something that was expected by anyone even a few years previously.  In this environment, a finish’s natural adaptation to its setting was branded as product failure rather than as normal performance of the material.

The plain fact is, all cement-based products are susceptible to changes in appearance.  Indeed, it’s reasonable to assume that just about any surface material you place inside a swimming pool, spa or fountain will, in time, experience some degree of change in appearance.  Yes, we can provide different levels of surface durability, and yes, service technicians can strive for balanced water chemistry, but it’s become clear that we all need to help our clients understand the nature of cement-based materials in aqueous environments.

KEEPING PACE

Bringing consumers up to speed with this set of facts will take time, but it’s happening – and of course we can’t use the nature of the materials we apply as an excuse for poor application technique or inferior water-chemistry management.

Indeed, we in the surfacing trades must continue to strive and improve the product while developing a deeper understanding the nature of the materials with which we work.  The more consumers understand about their options and the possible ramifications of the product choices they make, the more likely it becomes that they will be able to assess the performance of their chosen surface fairly and objectively.

As for white plaster, it will never again be a dominant as it once was in the world of watershaping, but that doesn’t mean the demand for it will ever go away.  I liken it to listening to a favorite old song in your car:  The song and performance remain the same, but the technology we use to hear it continues to change and improve.

The same point holds true for white finishes in watershapes:  People will continue to enjoy them for the same reasons they did decades ago, but the technology used to deliver this look will never be same because the industry has advanced – and we’re all better off as a result.

 

Alan Smith is owner and principal of Alan Smith Pools, a construction and pool-surface specialty company based in Orange, Calif.  His career in the swimming pool plastering industry began in 1974, when he went to work for the pioneering firm of DeMar Baron Pool Plastering.  He studied business at Fullerton College and founded his own company in 1981 in partnership with his wife, Teresa.  He was a founding member of the National Plasterers Council and now serves at the organization’s president.

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