By David Tisherman
The renovation project I’ve been discussing for the past couple of issues will be on hold for a few weeks as we await the arrival of a shipment of custom tile from Italy. We’ll pick up with that project once work resumes. In the meantime, let’s begin coverage of what would have been the next project for “Details” – discussions that will carry us through a good part of the year to come.
Everything about this Pennsylvania watershape has been impressive, right from the start. Simply put, it’s one of the biggest and most elaborate projects I’ve ever tackled.
As designed, the watershape will
feature 2,300 square feet of water surface; a big, all-tile spa perched on a 700-square-foot island; an 8-foot bridge; a glass-tiled, grotto-like, partially domed structure with a fireplace inside; a broad stone-finished beach entry; a 20-foot-high waterfall featuring a variety of cascades, ponds and landscaping pockets; an array of thermal ledges and benches; a custom stone/pebble interior finish; and a roster of other details too numerous to list.
All told, the budget for the watershape stands at close to seven figures – just the ticket for an estate covering 200 acres of rolling, wooded terrain in Hanover, Pa., not far from Gettysburg. I designed the pool, which is now being built by Liquid Designs, the Cherry Hill, N.J.-based design/construction firm I operate with my good friend and colleague, Kevin Fleming.
GRILLED TO PERFECTION
We were initially contacted by the senior architect on the project, Paul Kiss of Oliveri & Associates in Collingswood, N.J. We’d worked with him before, and he invited us to attend a meeting with the owners, the general contractor and several other key members of a team involved in the construction of the estate.
Unfamiliar with the roads of south-central Pennsylvania, Kevin got lost on the way and arrived about four hours late – not the way you want to get started on any project, let alone one of such magnitude and sophistication. Once we arrived, we were greeted by about 20 people who fired questions at me in rapid succession for several hours. Through it all, it was clear that their goal was to make certain I knew what I was talking about.
They spent time reviewing my portfolio, and we discussed a range of possible details, with everything leading in turn to additional series of questions. When the barrage of questions finally abated, I stood up and began describing my preliminary thoughts and ideas on the project at hand – “Here’s what you should have, and here’s why.”
The main task, I explained, had to do with fitting our work within the grand-scale surroundings and managing scale, proportion and the dynamics of shape and line in appropriate ways. At that point, the home was in active design/build mode and constantly growing and changing. In addition, a system of retaining walls had been set up in the assumed pool area. Beyond that, there wasn’t much to go on, so I led them on a voyage of pure imagination and visualization and had a good time of it.
After hours of free-wheeling conceptualization and narrowing in on things that captured their interest, the owner finally piped up with the magic question: “How much is this going to cost?”
I explained that it all depended on how far they wanted to go. The owner looked at me and said that he wanted it all, at which point I offered a rough guess that the cost of the project we’d been visualizing would be somewhere in the neighborhood of a million dollars.
Before we left, I requested a soils report, the plans and details for the house, a site plan for the property and more. A few days later, we visited the site for the first time and met up again with the project manager, Dave Robbins of C.E. Wheeler, the general contractor. He’s truly knowledgeable, a real professional.
Once on site, we had to begin working through what I saw as a substantial problem: They’d built a series of retaining walls that were intended to form the back portion of waterfall and pond features that would flow into the pool. I observed that the retaining walls had been built incorrectly and that water containment could not be associated structurally with the walls because of differential settlement and soil expansion and contraction.
Rather than try to work around the problem as a way to control costs – a compromise made all too often by pool contractors – Robbins and his staff proved to be interested in addressing the real problem and in putting the project on the right track. The walls, they said, would be rebuilt and integrated into my plans as needed.
I was impressed: From those very first contacts, it’s been obvious to me that these people are all interested in assembling the best of the best for every aspect of the project. What’s most encouraging is that everyone at C.E. Wheeler actually listens to the experts they’ve brought in and actually takes their recommendations seriously instead of looking the other way and asking consultants and subcontractors to execute ideas that may or may not work. I don’t often get to say something like this, but I believe these people are working hard to do things 100% the right way.
I responded with a design proposal that covered the design and specification of the project from front to back. This included not only the basic design and aesthetics of the pool, but also detailed specifications for all of the water effects, hydraulics, electrical systems and finishes as well as architectural sections and delineations. (I did everything but the soils reports and structural engineering, which I turned over to experts in those fields at the appropriate time.)
This depth and detail gave the other key players on the project an opportunity to see what should be included in the design of a quality watershape. To that point, they had mostly been exposed, as are many who go in search of watershape consultation and design, to an industry that does not present itself well.
As we say in our Genesis 3 presentations, “Take what the industry usually does and do the opposite.” In this case, that meant applying my design education; generating drawings that were in scale, in proper perspective and filled with details; and demonstrating to the design team that they were working with a contractor who knew about aesthetics.
Energized by the task at hand and out to impress the project team, I prepared for a presentation to the owners and key team members in January 2003. In contrast to the first meeting, this time I was given the floor and held it throughout with only a smattering of questions.
It was quite a show, if I do say so myself.
I offered visuals and explanations of a range of details and spent a lot of time defining specific ways that scale and perspective played into the use of boulders and the directional qualities of the overall layout. I delved deeply into consideration of such small details as the use of interstitial planters in the waterfalls and ponds and made certain they all saw how realistic and eye-catching the results would be. We also discussed how the glass-tile interior of the grotto-like structure would be washed in light courtesy of recessed floor fixtures.
This project illustrates like none other I can imagine the full value of knowing how to draw – and draw well.
Nothing about what I prepared for presentation was haphazard or incomplete: The scale was true, perspectives were correct, details of joinery were rendered accurately. It was all done in such a way that the drawings could become working documents that would keep everyone participating in the project on target and out of trouble.
It’s a key point I’ve made again and again: Good drawings do much more than offer a “general idea” of what’s going on. They communicate underlying construction principles and can become the most important of the many tools used on a job site.
There’s another point here that bears mentioning: Not every detail can be put down on paper, which is why I’m on site as often as possible to supervise what’s actually happening. And when I’m not there, my partner Kevin Fleming is – and never, ever hesitates to call me so we can resolve whatever issues might arise. No guesswork!
I explained, for instance, how the free-form pool had been designed with grandkids in mind; how the beach entries and steps and benches would make it easy for people get in and out of the water; how dry-stack ledger stone around the pool’s interior perimeter would replace the usual waterline tile; and how we’d set up the island spa with its boulders and planters. We also covered the 8-foot bridge leading to the island and how people would move around the deck, gazebo and grotto-like areas adjacent to the pool.
It was a good day, and I enjoyed the opportunity to make my presentation to such conscientious homeowners and a fantastic project team. I left the room feeling satisfied – as though they had listened and now understood what it would take to create a watershape worthy of such a grand setting.
Three weeks later, I received a call from the architect, who said that the homeowners wanted it all.
Upon receiving this news, Kevin Fleming and I immediately went to work – beginning, of course, with the soils report. We soon learned that the supporting material beneath the watershape was mostly rock, but mixed with areas of softer and less-stable loam. Given the basically rocky terrain, the structural engineers determined that we didn’t need piles to support the pool – but that a system of grade beams would be needed to support the broad structural decks we’d be cantilevering off the pool.
We also had to accommodate freeze/thaw conditions, which meant sinking all of the grade beams to a depth below the existing grade of about three feet – a detail designed by the structural engineer.
We also immediately began giving attention to all of the project’s aesthetic details.
Consider, for example, the process of stone selection: Ultimately, we’ll be using more than 100 tons of boulders and 13,000 square feet of flat stone in and around the watershape, and I know the importance of having those imported stones blend in with the surrounding natural landscape as well as with the home and its landscaping. Lots of the boulders will fall into the one-to-five-ton range and will constitute many of the watershape’s primary visual accents.
I brought samples from my studio in California, including one I particularly liked for this project: a sandstone material known as Sweetwater. I also brought a price for the flat stone of $400,000 from my suppliers, Malibu Stone & Masonry Supply in Malibu, Calif., and, given the size of the order, gave the owners the option of contacting the supplier directly to see what they could work out. (I’ve done that on other jobs with tile, lighting fixtures and other items.) The owners loved the stone, but ultimately, the prospect of shipping all that tonnage across the continent made using it out of the question.
So we contacted a local supplier and found materials remarkably similar to the Santa Inez boulders and Sweetwater sandstone – not Sweetwater, but close. All the way around, this was the perfect solution – both practical and cost-effective – but it was the first of many cases in which selection processes took unusual time, care and consideration. By comparison, tile selection was a simpler process: I knew we wanted a Moreno glass, job-jointed tile from Italy – a silvery, iridescent tile with a full palette of available colors to work with.
I’m the first to admit I’m proud to be working on such a project – and to say that there’s no way I’d be here without the benefit of my design education and my hard-won experience in major-league construction. It’s certainly a point I’ve made before and one I’ll make here again: To work at the highest possible level and to provide your clients with the best possible product, you need to understand both design and construction. And the only way you can do both is with education.
I can’t begin to count the times I’ve met designers who have no clue about the practicalities of construction and contractors who haven’t any foundation in design and design principles. I use the fact that I am a trained designer and my 25 years of on-site construction experience to great advantage, and I know that my background has given me the confidence to strive for the highest levels of artistic expression in this and many other projects.
I spend a lot of time challenging designers and contractors to wake up, smell the coffee and see the potential inherent in the fine art of watershaping. As we move through this project through the next several months, I trust you’ll see why I keep banging away at these points and will make the decision to come along for a beautiful ride.