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200607DT0By David Tisherman

In the design and construction of any watershape, there are a number of points in the process where you can see big differences between the way custom designers and contractors do things and the way production/volume-oriented companies go about their business.

From first conversations with clients straight through to commissioning the system and turning it over to the homeowners, it’s easy to spot these distinctions and define key differences.  To illustrate just one of these areas, let me discuss the case of the permitting phase for the project on Long Beach Island, N.J., I began covering two issues ago.    

What’s involved here is a cluster of issues that occurred more or less simultaneously in the project’s early going.  The elements of this cluster may not seem directly related to one another, but

to my way of thinking they’re all bound together in the flurry of activity that is required to launch a project past the contract-signing stage and get it headed in the right direction.  

At this point, it’s all about conforming to regulations and proper standards – and doing so in a way that makes sense to the clients while keeping them in the loop.  

PERMISSION, PLEASE

Through my many years working in this industry, I’ve heard of countless situations in which a watershaper has, in one way or another, been tripped up by the permitting process.  Sometimes it’s minor and can be dealt with easily.  Other times, however, a misstep at this stage can bring a project to a grinding halt.

For good or ill, this task of pulling permits is something all watershapers face – at least those of us who play the game within the law.  Yes, on one extreme are situations in which, oops, no permit is pulled and the contractor is working on the sly to avoid the hassle and expense of following the rules.  What often happens is that, later on, the builder will be caught in some sort of legal action and will lose all standing in court simply because laws have been broken.  

Somewhere in the middle are cases in which a plan (or a big part of one) is denied a permit for some specific technical reason.  Here, what often happens is that the contractor loses the project because communication with the clients hasn’t been sufficient to prepare them for a failure of the process at this stage.  Then there are instances, quite common, in which the contractor is simply delayed in the permitting process for one reason or another and is placed in a position where disappointing and frustrating the client becomes inevitable.   

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Once permits were obtained, we began our work by establishing well points and installing a dewatering system that would make the excavation and forming phases possible.

Running down that list, the no-permit-pulled operator is simply unprofessional, and there’s not much more to say about it than to point out that these contractors are working outside the law and will eventually end up in big trouble – probably sooner rather than later.  By contrast, the latter two cases are far from nefarious, but both are the result of an insufficient attention to detail that verges on incompetence.

On the other extreme is the story of what happened with our Long Beach Island project and the way my partner Kevin Fleming and I navigated what could have been an extremely difficult permitting process.

To recap briefly, we had designed a gorgeous rectangular pool/spa combination set back just a few feet from the ocean as a replacement for an existing pool that I have described previously and in detail as an abomination.  The new watershape will feature beautiful materials selected with the help of a client who has great taste and a wonderful sense of style.  

This particular project is a strong case in point about the virtues of playing the permitting process the right way and making things work – this despite the shoreline placement, despite the pool’s orientation against a seawall, and despite a whole range of specific setback and other environmental issues.  In other words, we knew going in that we had to be extremely aware of what we could and couldn’t push through the local building department.

ON THE SHORE

The challenges here were many, including excavation of the pool in “sugar sand,” sinking dozens of wooden piles into the ground as a foundation, setting up a huge structural deck and planters and reworking an existing wooden deck.

Among the required features was an extensive dewatering system and, to enable construction to proceed through the winter, the building of a roof structure over the work area.  The pool may be a straightforward rectangle with no fancy features, but it does have a neat step detail I’ll cover in an upcoming issue as well as a large thermal ledge associated with the spa’s dam wall.

Personalized Service

My partner Kevin Fleming carried plans to the permitting authorities for the project discussed in the accompanying text.  Here, in his words, is the story of what happened in this particular case:

As David Tisherman relates, the permitting process for our Long Beach Island, N.J., project required much care and feeding.  There were several large issues in play, but the main ones had to do with what are known as “impervious-cover regulations” and the setback from the waterfront bulkhead.

In recent years, many waterfront townships in the northeast have established regulations limiting the amount of space on a given lot that can be covered with hardscape (including the home itself).  There are various environmental reasons for these rules, most of them related to the velocity of rainwater runoff and the problems it can cause with respect to shoreline erosion and/or chemical pollution of seawater by fertilizers and other chemicals.

A typical code might require that no more than 25 percent of a lot can be covered with an impervious cover, the rest being softscape.  With lot sizes shrinking and houses growing in size, however, this places severe limits on what you can do with exterior hardscape and watershapes.

Moreover, this set of rules can be further complicated by the fact that many areas (including Long Beach Island) have two sets of codes, one for structures above the grade of the adjacent road and another for everything at or below that grade level. The calculations for a given design have to conform to both sets of codes, and things get complicated in a hurry.

Although many communities have such codes, the approach officials take seems to differ from community to community, so you have to know the code in detail – and it doesn’t hurt to know the officials making the calls, either.

In this case, the site was non-conforming right from the start, with a large home and extensive brick decking that had been installed before the current rules were set.  In seeking permits for the new work, which included all-new stone decking, the officials naturally wanted us to reduce the coverage and move into compliance.  Our design reduced the area considerably, but not to the regulated level, so we had to seek a variance and be ready to serve up more than a small amount of convincing.

We were well prepared, our defense of the plans was successful and we’ve been able to move forward with no significant delays.

-- D.T., with Kevin Fleming

The sidebar to the right describes the key issues of the permit process in detail; suffice it to say here, this is the exact kind of situation that will bring serious trouble to any builder who can’t anticipate the course of the process and be prepared for any eventuality that may arise.  I frequently sing Kevin’s praises in these columns for his attention to detail, and this is yet another situation where his hands-on work made all the difference.   

For all of our projects together, Kevin goes to work right away in getting up to speed on any local codes and regulations that might have an effect on what we do.  Different areas can have vastly different sets of requirements, and without good local knowledge we’d be sunk, especially given our tendency to push the envelope with our designs.  

In every case, Kevin hand-carries the plans to the appropriate departments and is armed and ready with detailed knowledge of the design and confidence that the structural plans are based on proper engineering.  He’s fully versed in all facets of the project, able to address questions on the spot and respond to concerns or requested changes immediately.  As a result of our level of preparation, however, only seldom do we find ourselves making changes to accommodate building officials.

This makes me wonder how builders who rely on in-house “runners” to pull their permits manage to get anything done.  To be sure, there are independent, professional expediters who know enough about construction and engineering to take care of working with plan checkers, but frankly, I’ve never known companies in the pool industry to hire top-flight people for this purpose and instead use an approach that is open invitation to delays at best and plan rejection at worst.

In a volume operation, permit runners – that is, someone on the payroll who can stand in line and whose time is less valued than just about anyone else’s on staff – may be responsible for dozens of plans at the same time.  Do these “expediters,” as they are sometimes called (without irony, I might add), know enough about construction to negotiate with plan checkers or inspire confidence that concerns will be addressed?  That’s doubtful.  

Do these runners have established relationships with clients, communicate with them regularly and help them understand what’s going on?  More doubtful still.  Heck, do they even communicate effectively with the salespeople who’ve established relationships with the clients?  Probably not, particularly in volume operations where the lesser the project, the lesser the levels of communication always tend to be.  

MARKS OF DISTINCTION

The way in which the obtaining of a permit is handled is just one of the many distinctions between the ways true custom builders operate by comparison to those who focus on volume.  

In my case, I manage the inherent risks of the process by being there myself or having my partner represent us.  I won’t fault others for using runners, because there’s no doubt they save contractors a ton of time and aggravation, but when the chips are down and a city official is asking pointed questions about an engineering detail, “I don’t know” or “Someone will get back to you” hardly seems an adequate response.

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The wooden piles were set before excavation, which meant we had to work around them in digging away the sandy soil and then trim them precisely once our elevations were set.

I often hear contractors complain about the inconsistency or incompetence of permitting authorities, blaming their problems and project delays on the inefficiency of government bureaucracy.  Yes, that can be a problem, but it’s usually only true if you aren’t on top of things, paying attention to details and following up as you should.  

For this oceanfront pool, we had setback requirements from the bulkhead to deal with as well as impermeable-surface issues and a host of variances that had to be backed up by detailed engineering.  I’m certain we would’ve gotten nowhere fast had we not been completely and personally involved with the permitting process.

Nor would we have gotten far without the assistance of good engineers.  Long before we submitted the plans, we worked with structural engineer Rich Mullins of Damiano & Long (Camden, N.J.).  He has an extensive background in concrete and masonry construction and worked with us in developing a design in which the entire bottom of the shell essentially serves as one big grade beam.  He also worked on a large structural deck that is separate from the pool but also stands on a series of wooden piles.

None of that was such a big deal for an engineer of Mullins’ experience and capability, but it would certainly be beyond the reach of the average contractor.

IN THE MIX

Of course, it helps that we’ve consulted with Mullins for several years now and have familiarized him with our way of doing things – which is basically to build bulletproof structures based on prevailing soil conditions and sound engineering.  Fact is, in custom work such as this, off-the-shelf plans and details generally won’t cut it.

Ultimately, Mullins came through with a highly detailed set of plans that we reviewed.  Once a couple of adjustments we suggested were incorporated, it was time for Kevin to take the plans to the building department.  Through this entire process, we were able to keep the client apprised of our progress and how things were working out relative to the timetable we’d established.

With the permits in hand, we geared up for construction by installing a dewatering system around the excavation area.  This included the sinking of temporary well points around the pool area on three sides, leaving the fourth open for a temporary ramp that gave us equipment access.  

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Ready for gunite application, the shell will be a free-standing structure for which the bottom will act as a single, massive grade beam.

The dewatering system has a big pump that runs constantly to pull water away from the excavated area.  It’s an expensive necessity, one that operated from before we started until the shell was complete – a costly race against time.   

After addressing the need for dewatering and before beginning the excavation, we began sinking wooden piles – more than 80 in all between the shell and the deck.  This required us to set up a grid and precisely locate each pile before sinking each to its proper depth.  Next, we excavated the pool around the piles, and then trimmed their tops to the exact elevations we would later need.   

This was a painstaking, time-consuming process that required all sorts of calculations, checking and rechecking to make certain everything was set up as required.  We were particularly careful in cutting piles to the correct height:  There was no way we wanted to pull one out and replace it because of a stupid mismeasurement!

In essence, what we set this up for was above-grade construction.  Because of the soil conditions, we weren’t able to use the ground as a form for the gunite. Instead, we had to over excavate the site to give us room to form the shell using my preferred approach of two-by-four stud construction with 1/4-inch plywood veneered in tempered Masonite – something I’ve discussed numerous times in this space.

MOVING FORWARD

By the time the forms were done, we’d reached November 2005 and the weather was getting colder by the day.  This is when we constructed the abovementioned overhead structure to allow our work to continue through rain, snow, wind and all forms of seasonal misery.

Using two-by-six and two-by-four rough carpentry, we essentially pitched a tent over the entire work area and covered it with 10-mil plastic sheeting.  We then set up two large heating blowers to keep the crews warm – and also to warm the steel before we shot the gunite.  (We’ll get into parts of this story in detail next month.)    

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By the time the shell was complete, the weather had turned cold. To continue our work, we tented the work area with a hardy structure and heated the space for comfort.

Before breaking away, let me mention that the plumbing for this project was handled by my trusted friend and associate Johnny Rodriguez, who flew in from California to do the honors.  He’s helped us out on many of our East Coast projects and is doing great work in teaching local plumbers how to work to our standards – no flex pipe, of course, and large-diameter plumbing along with multiple pumps and complex plumbing loops both in the spa and around the pool.

In this case, because we were essentially building a free-standing structure, the plumbing locations had to be precisely calculated and were initially installed in thin air with no spatial guide other than the plans.  Even with a plumber as competent and skilled as Johnny, the job required that Kevin or I or both of us were on hand to make certain everything was positioned properly.  

For work at this level, you never leave anything to chance – not the permit process, not the framing, not the plumbing.  

Next:  The steps, the spa and the thermal-ledge detail.

 

David Tisherman is the principal in two design/construction firms: David Tisherman’s Visuals of Manhattan Beach, Calif., and Liquid Design of Cherry Hill, N.J. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. He is also an instructor for Artistic Resources & Training (ART); for information on ART’s classes, visit www.theartofwater.com.

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