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Solving tough technical challenges often takes cooperation and collaboration in a team setting, says builder William Drakeley. Here, he explains how this award-winning project required innovative solutions to overcome a set of uniquely tricky hurdles.
Solving tough technical challenges often takes cooperation and collaboration in a team setting, says builder William Drakeley. Here, he explains how this award-winning project required innovative solutions to overcome a set of uniquely tricky hurdles.
By William Drakeley

It’s a swimming pool that doesn’t exist anyplace else, one that stretched our skill sets to find creative solutions to surprisingly steep challenges. Last year, the project was awarded the Northeast Swimming Pool Association Outstanding Achievement Award, a source of pride given the project’s high level of difficulty.

The project is located on the Connecticut coast overlooking Long Island Sound on a beautiful 10-acre property in an upscale neighborhood. The house is brand new, built the same time as the pool. We were brought into the process by the landscape architect, who introduced me to the architect, the owner and his wife, their representatives, the engineer and the general contractor. It was a big project team with highly experienced professionals all around the table.

When we came on board, they were looking at a thumbnail concept based on a large rectangular pool on a slope overlooking the water. We knew there would probably be some kind of custom edge treatment, but what that would be exactly was yet to be determined. It was a largely open-ended design for an owner who wanted something no one else has.

COLLABORATIVE EFFORT

The owner is a great guy, very down to earth, especially for someone of his means, the kind of person you’d have a beer with after a softball game. He was an active collaborator start to finish, and none of what follows here would’ve been possible without his unflinching trust in our ability.

Early on when we were talking about edge treatments, he asked me, “What’s cool these days, what’s in, what’s exciting?” I suggested that we consider a vanishing edge on the view side of the pool and a perimeter slot overflow on the other. The big design concept being to create a clean architectural look that visually links the water, the view and the surrounding outdoor living spaces and landscape.

Given that he wanted something cutting edge, I also suggested using acrylic panels where you can swim underwater and look out toward the sound, or look into the pool from the outside. We also talked about features such as a hidden automatic cover, multiple deck and viewing areas, fire elements, an attached spa, glass tile, natural stone and a host of other luxury details. The owner said, “Okay, let’s do it.” I asked do what? He said, “All of it.”

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The pool is befitting the home’s dramatic architecture and scenic ocean-side location. The acrylic panels, water-in-transit edge treatments, raised spa, tile and stone finishes and multiple deck and viewing areas, and a host of other details were the result of close coordination and vibrant creative input.

 

So we moved in that bold direction. The basic pool design came from the landscape architect, Corey Jergensen, who we’ve worked with a number of times. He’s a great collaborator who doesn’t try to claim dominion over the entire process but instead provides flexible ideas that we develop together. It’s a fluid process of adaptation and focus on the fine details and execution.

In this case, we worked out a number of specific issues in the field, things like the vanishing edge design, the transition from the slot overflow to the surrounding surface and the stepping stones that go across the shallow lounging area above the automatic cover vault. There were a lot of intricate details that required moving things around and getting the spatial relationships correct within the beautiful setting.

ACROSS THE SOUND

The house might be considered “Shoreline Victorian” with lots of tall windows and light, linking the outside with the inside, which harmonizes well with the acrylic panels in the pool. The rectangular pool might suggest more of a modern design, but with stone and tile materials and color palette it fuses beautifully with the architecture.

We came up with a plan that included the water-in-transit edge treatments, the daring acrylic walls, along with a series of graduated viewing areas in front of the vanishing edge wall. We did all of that while abiding by a set of restrictive parameters, such as the environmental setbacks from the water and impermeable surface limits, all typical of waterfront properties in our area.

Those restrictions led to some creative problem solving in terms of spatial relationships. The most dramatic example was how we located the equipment vault underneath the pool, where it serves dual purposes of housing the equipment and acting as part of the pool’s foundation.

We simply couldn’t find a suitable spot for the equipment set, so we decided to locate it all in a large vault under the pool. It was an expensive and daring solution, but one that solved both the problem of locating the equipment in a large enough space, and structurally supporting the pool in spotty soil conditions. Our geotechnical report revealed conditions that varied wildly throughout the site with everything from sand to landfill to expansive clay soil, much of which had to be removed and replaced.

Because the house was going in at the same time, there was a question about logistics and sequencing. I said that whoever is deepest in the ground goes first. That, in turn, meant that we had to be the first on the jobsite before they started building the house. We worked hand-in-hand with the general contractor on the vault, as they were also installing other foundational walls and footings closer to the house.

We were getting into cooler weather at the time, so we did this structural part of the work underneath a large tent, which gave us controlled and comfortable conditions as we moved ahead, despite the winter conditions.

ON THE EDGES

The pool itself is big, 60-feet long by 18-feet wide. The deep-end is six feet.

To a large extent, the design is defined by the 360-degree edge treatments around the pool and the attached spa, both aesthetically and functionally. For example, the surge capacity is all in the vanishing edge trough, most of which is hidden by the terraced viewing platforms located in front of the edge wall. The trough is six-feet deep, and two-feet wide, designed to accept all the flow over the vanishing edge, perimeter overflow on the deck side of the pool and the spa’s overflow. It’s an entire atmospheric, gravity system.

While the edge treatments led to some surprisingly complex calculations and the subterranean vault were both fairly advanced, more than any other project element, the acrylic panels set this work apart from anything we had ever done. This is where the project becomes so unusual. Turns out that creating a fused L-shaped panel treatment in our climate is far more challenging than we had thought or had been told.

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Inclement weather had little impact on our progress, as our crews worked comfortably and diligently beneath a massive temporary tent on forming, steel, plumbing and electrical, including the installation of a structural equipment vault located beneath the pool shell.

 

Granted, anytime you’re working with panels that size, there’s going to be challenges. But the big trouble started – and there’s no pretty way to say this – because we were flat-out lied to by the local vendor who sold us the panels. They told us in no uncertain terms that the panels could be fused, basically glued together, to create a massive L-shaped, visually seamless structure.

Unfortunately, that was far from the truth. Delivery was continually delayed because, as we eventually learned, Reynolds Polymer had told the vendor that fusing those sized panels doesn’t work in the 100-degree temperature variations we experience here in the Northeast. Basically, the expansion and contraction causes the joint to fail.

In effect, what we had designed could not be built to last. That nasty revelation left us hanging with no ready solution. (It’s not surprising to note that this same vendor is no longer in business.)

We immediately turned directly to Reynolds who said that joining massive panels at corners like this requires a special caulk joint supported by a structure known as a mullion, a common fenestration term referring to vertical supports in window treatments. In this case, we were looking at what might rightfully be considered a mullion on steroids. We had never tried this before, so we brought in our friend and colleague, Rick Chafey from Red Rock Pools & Spas in Chandler, Ariz, who had experience in this type of extreme application.

STAND-UP SOLUTIONS

Needless to say, this is not the kind of news one likes to share with the client. I assured him that we would work it out, but were in uncharted territory. He said as long as I was straight within him, even if he didn’t like what I had to say, we could go forward. From that point on, we worked together to figure out a solution.

We designed the mullion with Chafey’s help. It’s made with ¾-inch and one-inch stainless steel fin-shaped plates that buttress the joint in both directions. The idea is to create a support structure for the loading and push of the interior water. The mullion is set into the concrete with three-quarter inch threaded rods. The bottom and sides of the panels are set 10 inches into a channel in the concrete, with caulking around both sides of the panel. Reynolds also told us that the force of the water wants to make ends of the walls lift, so we also used stainless steel panels on the tops of the walls and then finished it with Bisazza glass tile.

We knew we’d have to closely monitor the structure during the first winter and determine how to service it for the next. We wanted to collect data to get this down to a science. There was no data to support the performance characteristics of two, seven-inch panels joined together in a swimming pool here in the northeast.

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By far, the biggest challenge we faced came courtesy of the large acrylic panels that would ultimately give the pool it’s true pizzazz and panache. As described in the adjoining text, we developed a custom support mullion to resist the internal water pressure, while installing the panels in a special channel in the pool structure, along with special caulking joints that accommodate slight movement due to fluctuating temperatures.

 

The work was completed in the summer of 2018 and since then we’ve had that opportunity to track the performance of the glass panels. While there has been some very slight movement of the panels with fluctuating temperatures, our solution has performed extremely well. We have noticed some change in the way the water flows over the edge on the panels, so we do know there’s been some movement, which we did expect.

We also had to get creative on the deck-side edge design. There, we developed a custom fabricated stainless steel gutter that enables the grass to grow right up to the edge of the perimeter overflow, creating a seamless visual transition between the grass and the water’s surface. The water falls into the narrow slot between the grass and the glass tile on the inside edge of the pool into the hidden gutter, which in turn flows into the vanishing edge trough.

The equipment set is by Pentair with ozone from their firm, ClearWater Tech., which we use with a low .5-ppm residual of chlorine. We wanted to keep the dissolved solids to a minimum and limit the use of harsh chemicals. We have a beautiful Wet Edge exposed aggregate finish, so we wanted the surface to retain its original composition. We did not want aggressive or corrosive water chemistry.

SUBTLE AND SWEET

The color palette is subtle with different hues of light grays and off whites, expressed in the glass tile mosaics and the use of the bluestone, which was cut very thick, for steps and various hardscape elements, including the modular pads disbursed in the grass.

The tile and stonework blends beautifully with the aquamarine colors presented by the interior surface and water, which shows dramatically through the acrylic panels. Those choices in turn blend with the materials and colors of the house itself, brilliantly designed by architect Wesley Stout.

The terraces are there to both take advantage of the view and soften the look of the pool structure looking back from the dock and the water. We have LED lights in the trough and inside the pool that light up the structure at night and create an entirely different visual. It’s very striking.

It’s not very often that you get a chance to work on a project that requires this level of invention and in some respects risk. But when you have a client that understands the nature of what you’re doing and is willing to take the journey with you based on mutual trust, it’s amazing what you can accomplish.

 

William Drakeley is principal and owner of Drakeley Industries and Drakeley Pool Company in Bethlehem, Conn. He holds the distinction of being the first and only pool builder to sit as a voting member of the American Concrete Institute’s Committee 506 – Shotcrete and serves as secretary of the ACI C660 Nozzleman Certification Task Group. Drakeley is also an approved examiner for ACI-Certified Nozzlemen on behalf of the American Shotcrete Association (ASA), chairman of the ACI Pool Shotcrete Subcommittee and an ASA technical adviser. He is a co-founder and instructor for Watershape University, teaches courses on shotcrete applications at World of Concrete and numerous other trade shows and is a contributor to Shotcrete Magazine and other industry publications.

 
 
 
 

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