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Faced by a firm deadline and the realities of over-winter construction in Canada, Barry Justus knew he had little time to spare -- and a whole lot to accomplish in a few short months if he was to have any hope of completing a grand-scale project in time for a springtime party.
Faced by a firm deadline and the realities of over-winter construction in Canada, Barry Justus knew he had little time to spare -- and a whole lot to accomplish in a few short months if he was to have any hope of completing a grand-scale project in time for a springtime party.
By Barry Justus

Living and working on a part of the globe where the winters are severe is almost balanced by how hospitable the weather generally can be for the rest of the year.

That, of course, is something we count on as watershapers in the Canadian marketplace:  The joy of leaving winter weather behind is something our clients fully appreciate, so much so that they’re willing to go the distance with our Toronto-based company in creating outdoor environments that meet and, we trust, exceed their recreational and relaxation goals pretty much whenever and however they want to pursue them.


A case in point:  Back in 2013, we at Poolscape were called to southern Ontario to a large piece of property that, at the time, was essentially featureless – just a gravel road that gave us access to a new home surrounded by about ten acres of dirt:  No sod, no trees, no organized landscaping of any kind.

We were asked in May to change that situation – and were also advised that everything having to do with the project had to be complete by the following May.  Our eyes were, of course, open to the fact that this would mean plenty of activity throughout what turned out to be an epically horrible Canadian winter.  In this article, we’ll set the stage for the process, from first contact through the first construction phase.  


The strictness of the deadline was set to allow for a grand party on a long weekend in May 2014 and was enforced by substantial penalty clauses – always a good if not a particularly kind motivator.  To hit that date, we had to locate and organize a small army of tradespeople for what would prove to be an all-out push to the finish line.

We started at a sprint in a design process that was both intense and condensed:  In fact, I had just one week to come up with a design and a budget to keep the client from signing with a competing contractor, who had the advantage on us of having a bit more time to consider the home and the site and mull things over.

To speed the process on our end, I contacted my friend Tanr Ross, the lead designer at Sunset Pools of Katy, Texas and, through his own company, Intelligent Blue, a much-in-demand consultant and free-lancer with expertise in computer-assisted design.  We brainstormed the project over the phone, and he was instrumental in developing the initial concept of working with an unusual pool shape and establishing a multi-level spatial flow.

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When the green light came and we started working on site in September 2013, we knew we were in a race against time and the elements.  Right away, we excavated a large portion of the backyard to clear the way for the bunker that would uphold and service much of the work we’d do above it.  We insulated everything we could and added tubing for the radiant-heating system wherever we could use it to warm the water contained in the bunker’s big tanks.  (Photos by Julio Lio)

I used our collaborated design to show the client what we were thinking.  He came back at us with a few minor adjustments – changes to the water features, cabana, deck, pergola and pool shape – at which point I incorporated his ideas and presented him with a budget.  My head was spinning more than a bit, but we had a signed contract within two weeks of our very first encounter.

This breakneck pace before any work started on site was, naturally, just a taste of things to come.

And there was still much to clear away before we could move on site and get working.  In fact, the entire summer was consumed on the one hand in modifying and polishing the design and mustering tradespeople and materials.  On the other, we were engaged in a huge project located several hours from our Toronto base.  All through this stretch, we relied on Ross’ design support, ran the engineering by Watershape Consulting (Solana Beach, Calif.) and steadily prepared for action.  The client was patient and we were, by September 2013, good to go.

As approved, the design reflects the client’s extensive travels and his fondness for some of the pools he’d seen while on the road.  He was particularly stimulated by watershapes he’d enjoyed in Las Vegas and made it very clear to us that he was after the wow factor, with a long list of amenities and lots of allowance for diverse activities.


One first step in executing the design had to do with setting up an underground bunker large enough to accommodate the needs of all the various watershapes we’d be setting above it.  As designed, the 2,600-square-foot space includes multiple surge tanks for various systems – a huge one for the two large pools, another for the waterfeatures and a third as a hot-water tank for rapid heating of the spa.

Another good chunk of underground space was dedicated to the needs of the system’s heating units, which included a 1.2 million Btu boiler, two heat exchangers for the main pools and another pair of heat exchangers for the spa and the spa’s surge tank.

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We kept pushing forward as rapidly as we could, covering the bunker with surfaces that would eventually become the project’s various decks and watershapes.   It was heavy-duty construction in every way, and again we inserted radiant-heating tubing beneath the pools and other waterfeatures – all in the name of keeping the water warm in the most efficient possible ways.

Atop the base structure, we set up an in-floor radiant-heating system within the pools’ floors.  This arrangement supplements the water-heating system, efficiently warming the water from below.  While we were at it, we also included a radiant-heating system in the floors of the bunker to keep its big spaces warm straight through the winter.  Completing the picture, we did all we could to insulate the pool walls and floors as well as the bunker itself.

A 600-amp service panel that accommodates the heating systems as well as more than 100 LED lights for the pool and waterfeatures (all supplied by PAL Lighting USA of Tucson, Ariz.); 13 variable-frequency-drive pumps from Pentair Aquatic Systems (Sanford, N.C.); a 10-horsepower swim-jet pump; and ultraviolet, ozone and chlorine-dosing systems, all managed by Pentair controllers.

In a non-aquatic twist, the bunker also includes a special air-conditioned space housing the outdoor audio/visual systems as well as the watershapes’ central security system.

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By the time winter closed in and made outdoor work a virtual impossibility, we had built a sturdy enclosure above our work area that allowed us to keep going right through an unusually brutal cold spell.  We used the boiler we’d installed in the bunker as our primary heat source, but at times it was so wickedly cold that we had to use propane space heaters to keep going.

Building this underground facility was our first task on site in September:  Once it was complete, we knew we could fire up the boiler and keep ourselves comfortable inside a 10,000-square-foot building/shelter we built over a large portion of the project footprint.

This made it possible for us to keep moving forward through the dead of winter – an absolute necessity given the project’s timeline.  And it proved to be crucial:  As mentioned above, the winter of 2013/2014 was particularly brutal, with temperatures dropping to levels that would have brought our work to a standstill if we hadn’t taken the time in the fall to build the shelter.  Even with the boiler running at capacity, however, the environment was so challenging that we had to deploy supplemental propane heaters to make the site as people-friendly as it needed to be for us to keep up the pace.

Once the utilitarian portion of the construction program was complete, we were able to move along to the rest of the site’s features, which would ultimately include a main upper-level pool that flowed over a vanishing-edge detail into a smaller pool rigged with a swim jet and serving as a landing zone for a gigantic hidden slide.  There was also to be a pair of shallow waterfeature pools with foam jets, spillways and lights; and a perimeter-overflow spa that could – courtesy of its own heated surge tank – be filled with water at full operating heat in about three minutes.  

At root, the project is an assemblage of what the homeowner had defined as a greatest-hits collection from his experience of some of the world’s best resorts.  And this was just the start:  As you’ll see in the second article in this two-party series, the man’s vision ran broad and deep and left us crunched for every available second of time we had to meet the deadline.

Just looking back over everything to pull this article together has exhausted me all over again.

Next:  A look at the project’s on-grade features.


Barry Justus is president of Poolscape, the international-award-winning design/build firm he founded in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, in 1991, and principal at Justus International Consulting.  A graduate of the University of Western Ontario, he has written more than 40 articles on pool design and construction for a variety of magazines.  He is also an instructor for Genesis 3 and is a member of the Society of Watershape Designers.  He may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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