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Troughs and Trenches

The design and installation of the circulation, filtration and chemical-treatment systems for the pools at St. Lucia’s Jade Mountain was a task of monumental proportions and extreme technical, physical and logistical difficulty.  The effort was spearheaded by watershaper/hydraulics expert Chris Barnes, who spent months on site installing precision systems engineered to provide years of nearly maintenance-free service.
The design and installation of the circulation, filtration and chemical-treatment systems for the pools at St. Lucia’s Jade Mountain was a task of monumental proportions and extreme technical, physical and logistical difficulty. The effort was spearheaded by watershaper/hydraulics expert Chris Barnes, who spent months on site installing precision systems engineered to provide years of nearly maintenance-free service.
By Chris Barnes

The design and installation of the circulation, filtration and chemical-treatment systems for the pools at St. Lucia’s Jade Mountain was a task of monumental proportions and extreme technical, physical and logistical difficulty.  The effort was spearheaded by watershaper/hydraulics expert Chris Barnes, who spent months on site installing precision systems engineered to provide years of nearly maintenance-free service.

Installing the circulation systems for the pools at Jade Mountain was a challenge unlike any other.

I was first approached about the project by my good friend, Skip Phillips, who explained that he had already been working on the project’s design for several years and indicated that it was going to be something truly amazing.  He observed that the owner and his design team didn’t have anyone in place with any experience with the installation of extremely complex watershapes and suggested that I might be the one to step up to the challenge and keep the work flowing smoothly.

Although I had previously amassed a great deal of experience with top-flight commercial and residential projects – everything from Olympic and resort pools to fountains and baptismal fonts – I had never ventured quite so far beyond my southern California base.  I’d worked on projects in other parts of the United States, but St. Lucia was way off the reservation and confronted me with all sorts of unknowns and variables.

As I learned more about the project, the vision of the owner and the island of St. Lucia itself, however, I became more and more intrigued – and just a bit intimidated.  But knowing that jobs like this one might never come my way again if I didn’t jump in right away, I decided to take the plunge.

Starting with an initial site visit in February 2005, I ended up spending more than four months on site in four separate trips as the work progressed.  During that time, I pushed myself to the limits of my technical and organizational skills, patience and flexibility – not to mention my physical endurance.

A GOOD EXAMPLE

The scope of work was quite well defined:  My crew and I were to install all of the circulation equipment and plumb the pools.  

That sounded straightforward enough, and in fact, the original idea was that I would install only one of the systems for just one of the five floors and that, armed with procedures I’d established, the staff would simply replicate what I had done for the other four levels.  

As described elsewhere in this sequence of articles, each floor has four to six pools housed in individual “sanctuaries” linked by a long collection trough that runs across the front of a line of vanishing-edge pools on each of the building’s floors.  Circulation for each level was to be handled by its own system, each one located in a separate equipment building situated adjacent to Jade Mountain’s main structure.

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It is surely the most unusual job site I’ve ever seen, and in all the times I was on hand to work on the hydraulic systems for Jade Mountain’s two dozen vanishing-edge pools, I had the sense of working in a beehive of activity as we moved step by step through a process that was highly improvisational while also demanding the highest levels of quality.

Although unusual by any standard, it initially made sense that a model system might be replicated on other floors and that my main task would be to create a reproducible prototype.  Unfortunately, that idea didn’t last.

I could see even on my first visit that the equipment rooms were not going to be even approximately uniform in anything but the physical space made available on each floor of the structure.  The fact that the number of pools wasn’t the same from floor to floor and that distances from the pools to the equipment were variable made that impossible.  Yes, basic functionality of each system was more or less similar, but there were numerous details that would be quite different from floor to floor.
 

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The verticality of the spaces in which we worked always impressed me:  In our portion of the project, we were always on the edge in more ways than one, and the way crews moved concrete from place to place using corrugated-metal sluices was a constant source of wonder and amazement.

The upshot was that my first working visit in August 2005 – which was supposed to last two to three weeks – ended up with me on site for more than two months.    

As our work moved forward, we kept running into seemingly small distinctions that made big differences.  The site, for example, has 50-cycle power service instead of the 60-cycle service we were familiar with back home.  In the early planning, we were going to have two-horsepower pumps achieve flow rates just shy of 500 gallons per minute to drive water over the edges along the collective length of each floor.  When Skip Phillips recognized the 50-cycle service and its implications, we had to redesign around three-horsepower pumps, which had all sorts of hydraulic and physical ramifications.

Right from that first visit, in other words, the systems were in an almost constant state of evolution and revision.

LEARNING THE ROPES

There was much more improvisation where that came from.

Originally, for example, Skip Phillips had designed the system to use cartridge filtration, the aim being to elevate the system’s ability to capture small particulates and enhance overall water quality.  That would have meant more maintenance in taking apart the filters and cleaning them, however, so the project team opted instead for sand filters and their simple backwash routines.  

Another cluster of issues surrounded the need to cope with the sulfur-tinged air and the salty seaside environment:  This meant we had to hunt down fittings, anchors and components made exclusively of stainless steel and fiberglass-reinforced plastic – a taller order than any of us thought it would be.

Every step of the way, we were told to go for reliability and durability and never to cut corners.  As a result, all systems have been fabricated with schedule 80 plumbing, true union and flange fittings, stainless steel bolts, heavy-duty valves and a host of other components that went as far as we could go toward guaranteeing long-term performance with low maintenance.  The desire was to avoid any downtime of the sort that can spell disaster for resorts at any level, let alone one so high.  

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To say that working in this environment could be precarious is something of an understatement, as these interesting catwalks (and their ability to support the project’s army of concrete-laden wheelbarrows) clearly demonstrate.  But all who worked here were fully aware of their surroundings, and it is with no small pride that we can say we all managed to come through unscathed.

Finally, during the project (and actually toward its end), the design team decided that the systems flowing to the equipment rooms needed to feature complex sets of reflecting pools and waterfalls both to beautify the equipment building and mask the operating noise of the systems.  This addition brought an entirely new set of wrinkles to the systems, all of which required on-site design on a deadline.

When it’s all added up, these factors and design objectives required hands-on installation and project management throughout system development, and I was elected.  

Fortunately, none of the mechanical systems we deployed were terribly unusual or overly complex.  The three-horsepower pumps, for example, were stock items from Hayward Pool Products (Elizabeth, N.J.), while the sand filters were made by Pentair Water Pool & Spa (Sanford. N.C.).  The ozone-generation system was produced by DEL Ozone of San Luis Obispo, Calif., while the salt chlorinators came from Auto Pilot (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.).  

In all, we installed 25 pumps, 18 filters and five ozone- and chlorine-generating systems along with hundreds of valves, countless fittings and thousands of feet of pipe.

ACROSS THE SPAN

As Skip Phillips mentioned in his article in this issue, there are no suction lines on these pools.  All water for each level runs back to the equipment rooms via the troughs, then spans a large gap between the main building and the equipment building via suspended aqueducts.  Near the equipment rooms (but still outside), the water collects in separate 25-foot-long, eight-foot-wide, four-foot-deep reflecting pools associated with each respective equipment block.

The return lines, which in some cases run for several hundred feet, are all encased in concrete in the floors of the troughs.  But first, the filtered water is sent through the 12-inch-thick, poured-in-place concrete walls of the equipment room and into collection pools placed atop the equipment rooms before recrossing the aqueducts and heading back to the individual pools in the guest suites.

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No matter where you worked at Jade Mountain, there was a constant sense of visual grandeur, whether it was in the aqueducts that carried water from the main building to the equipment rooms or the walkways that offered access to the suites or the mass of the main structure itself.  It was quite a place to work, believe me.

The addition of the waterfeature complex by the equipment rooms was by far the biggest change and among the largest technical challenges we faced.  We were somewhat taken aback by what was, after all, an afterthought of amazing scope and dimension, but on some level, I suppose it was the kind of shift we’d come to expect in the course of the project.  

The whole area was built without any scale drawings and took advantage of the fact that the equipment rooms were terraced.  Now, in front of each walkway, there’s a sheeting waterfall that flows from a pool above to another pool on the next level down.  In each case, water from what amounts to yet another set of vanishing-edge effects is pumped back up a level before it is filtered and treated.

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Although it wasn’t part of our mission, we worked in fairly steady contact with the crews installing the glass tile on Jade Mountain’s pools.  The heat was sometimes oppressive, necessitating the use of shade frames and tarps to allow the tiles to set properly.

Equipment for the new systems, of course, had to be contained within the existing equipment rooms and spaces already packed with other gear.  Each of the new waterfeatures is driven by a seven-and-a-half-horsepower pump with eight-inch plumbing that runs in new troughs we dug into the hillside behind the equipment rooms.  

We hadn’t anticipated all of the penetrations in the roofs of these rooms, and it meant we had to go to extreme lengths to create watertight seals for the plumbing runs – including systems of “link seals” at the tops and bottoms of the penetrations along with urethane water-sealing membranes.

In all my years of constructing watershapes of all shapes and sizes, I’ve never been asked to create an added system so extensive so late in the game, but that’s exactly what happened here – and the results, I must say, are magnificent.

MOVING MATERIALS

In rolling through all of this, one of the points I keep coming back to in my mind is the fact that all of this evolution and revision was happening on an island far away from easy sources of supply.

Indeed, one of our biggest challenges involved getting the materials and equipment to the job site.  We had to plan out systems in great detail and order everything from sources in the United States down to the smallest pieces of hardware.  Everything had to be relayed to a shipping terminal in Miami, where it was all loaded into containers and put on boats.  From there, the voyage began to St. Lucia – a trip that takes about a week.

When they arrived on the island, all containers were opened and the materials inventoried against the manifests down to the smallest item – a process that left all the materials in jumbled chaos.  If there were any discrepancies, an entire shipment might be held up for as long as a month as miles of red tape were accommodated.

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The whole structure is poured-in-place concrete and not much was anticipated by way of penetrations or chases or any other accommodation for plumbing.  The bathrooms, for example, were handled by running pipes under the wooden floors, and we plumbed the pools by core drilling as needed through the shells into the troughs.  But sometimes getting pipes from place to place was an interesting study in geometry and simply making things fit.

Try as we might and especially at first, we made occasional, minor mistakes in the paperwork, and there were a few occasions where we were never able to recover the materials at all:  They just disappeared into various storage areas and warehousing facilities along the way.  It didn’t take us long to appreciate just how critical it was to pay attention to the slightest paperwork details.  There was, quite literally, no room for error.

Even when things went smoothly, it took a full month to get material from Miami to the job site.  And once it arrived at Anse Chastanet, we faced issues getting the materials we needed through their receiving department and storage facilities and out to the site.  It was a context in which we always had to plan our work as methodically and accurately as possible.

Added for good measure was the piecemeal way in the buildings themselves emerged on the mountainside.  We were seldom able to move smoothly from one phase to the next – my strong preference and long-time practice on large jobs – but instead had to jump around to accommodate the various and ever-changing stages of construction.  It was a level of improvisation to which I was completely unaccustomed, and I can’t say with confidence that I became any more comfortable with it as the work progressed.

Truth be told, once we were into the installation process, we rarely knew from one day to the next exactly what we would be doing.  No two days were ever remotely the same, and it seemed that there was always some sort of large technical question or logistical issue that had to be solved each and every time I turned around.

HILLSIDE HIVE

And of course, we were not alone in this.

We pursued our tasks as a subgroup within a massive beehive teeming with manpower, materials and equipment, often under a burning-hot tropical sun.  Simple issues of staying hydrated and cool enough to concentrate were constant challenges, and there’s no denying that this was a hazardous job site, with scores of people working on narrow planks and scaffolds suspended on the face of a cliff.  If you weren’t mentally sharp and physically up to the challenge, you put yourself at significant physical risk.

Above and Beyond

As difficult as our work was in developing the pools for Jade Mountain, our endeavors paled in comparison to the herculean effort required to build the concrete structure that comprise the main building and the equipment structure.  

I’ve never seen anything like it:  Everything was done with dozens of small cement mixers and hundreds of laborers, with concrete moving down the cliff face via a system of corrugated-metal chutes.  The wheelbarrows were filled, rolled to the structure and poured into the forms – a process repeated tens of thousands of time.  

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The laborers, all of whom came from the island’s population, moved up and down the slopes and over and around the structures carrying unbelievable heavy loads with seeming ease.  The sheer physicality of the work was mind-boggling, and I was amazed by the range of their ages, from 15 to 50.  I was awed by men who were able to walk up steep slopes carrying bags of cement on their heads while negotiating incredibly treacherous footing.

Superhuman:  That’s the word that best describes what they did.

-- C.B.

 Amazingly, no one in my crew (or on any others) suffered any sort of serious injury.  And somehow, in some way, all the materials we needed made it there:  We completed our work, and everything worked perfectly when we turned it all on.  Thinking back on the mental, physical and logistical ordeals, I almost get tired just remembering the long, winding, tricky path we followed to reach that point.   

But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself, because that start-up process was a major challenge in itself – one that required even more patience and ingenuity.  Getting chemicals on site, for example, became a major issue.  We needed the usual – salt, chlorine, clarifiers, cyanuric acid, pH adjusters and the like – but we had a devil of a time clearing things through the import process and doubted we’d get everything there in time to open the pools on schedule.

To get around that problem, we told the staff what we needed and they fanned out over the entire island to every available source of swimming pool chemicals – in the process depleting St. Lucia of all available supplies for a while.  I don’t know what strings had to be pulled or how much was spent, but knowing the place as I do now, the effort must have been epic.

Water for the entire resort is currently supplied by the local municipality and is expensive, of low volume and has unpredictable downtimes.  To get around that situation, the resort is developing a series of reservoirs and treatment systems.  We used collected rainwater, for example, to fill the pools, but it had been stored, untreated and unfiltered, for an extended period.  By the time we were ready to go, most of it was rife and green with algae.

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The relative chaos beyond the equipment room settled into complete normalcy and formality once we crossed into that space, basically because our charge was to maximize ease of maintenance and minimize any potential for downtime.  There was little room to spare with the original array of equipment, and things became tighter still when we added the big pumps and plumbing needed to drive the equipment structure’s decorative water system.

At first, we backwashed the filter sand thrice daily, adding chemicals and testing and retesting the water several times each day.  We knew immediately that the systems were working and that the water was slowly improving, but the process was taking weeks and we were uncertain about how pristine we could make it by the deadline the owner had established.  Happily, the chemical treatment/filtration regime grabbed hold:  By the time the rooms were opened for guests, the water was crystal clear.

BRINGING IT HOME

In considering the nature of this project, I’m mindful that it is a story involving such enormous effort and complexity that it could probably fill a book of several hundred pages.  Every day on the job was its own new adventure, and there were times when I wondered if we’d ever truly be finished.

Eventually, however, our toil and struggle resulted in watershape systems of the most sublime artistic beauty and dazzling sensuality – an accomplishment that may well exceed what anyone could have conceived or imagined.  I’m proud of the fact that my crews and I and were up to the challenge:  Not only did we get the job done, but we did it well and managed, despite the rigors, to get caught up in the general spirit of fun and excitement that permeated the atmosphere on the job site.

I know it’s unlikely that the people who dip their bodies in these beautiful pools will ever have a real idea how much effort it took to create those environments, but I am certain to the core they will get a clear sense that they, too, are partaking of something very special.

 

Chris Barnes is owner and founder of Barnes Water Tech, a firm specializing in plumbing, hydraulic design, troubleshooting, remodeling and construction of residential and commercial swimming pools, spas and fountains. He entered the watershaping trades right out of high school, starting his career as a laborer for a plumbing, excavation and steel contractor. He started his own firm in 1983 and has continued to educate himself on hydraulics via a wide range of manufacturer educational programs. He may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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