By Brian Van Bower
In October 1999, I wrote an Aqua Culture column titled “Value by Design” in which I explained my belief that watershape designers should be paid for their designs in the same way interior designers and landscape designers are paid for theirs.
Since then, I’ve been contacted by lots of people who are interested in knowing more about how this works; I’ve also had the privilege of traveling throughout the United States and abroad to talk about watershape design and construction and have met hundreds of people with the same need for information.
On the one hand, it’s exciting to see the notion of a watershape-design specialty catching on: It isn’t a foreign idea to people the way it used to be, and I think that’s great. On the other, it can get a bit frustrating: This is a new concept, and lots of people are jumping in without any sense of what it takes to get the job done.
As I’ve thought about this more and more, it has occurred to me that what we need is some clarification – a yardstick that will help each of us understand what we are qualified to do and, similarly, where there are gaps that need to be filled. In other words, we need a way to decide if we have the raw experience and background to demand compensation for what we know.
It can be tough to sort out your own strengths and weaknesses, but it’s something that every would-be watershaper needs to do. In fact, I’ll go so far to say that properly assessing what you can and cannot do (and do well) is a cornerstone of sound thinking in all areas of your life – and especially so when it comes to how you’re earning your daily bread.
Before you think about charging for your designs, you need to suck it up, be honest and ask the fundamental questions that define your capability to be a watershape designer. There’s no academic program in watershape design to certify that you know what you should know, so we’re all left to deal with something that’s still informal and imprecise – although I think it’s getting clearer every day.
The truth about qualifications for the title “watershape designer” is therefore up to each of us: Do you in fact have the personal capacity to generate effective, compelling, creative approaches to your clients’ projects, and do you have the grit, determination and skill to turn those ideas into reality?
Without some guidelines, that’s a lot of soul-searching. So as I’ve spoken with people and learned more and more about an artistic, creative role to which I myself am still aspiring in some areas, I’ve come up with a set of two dozen questions that show the kinds of experience required to make the grade. I modestly call it “The Official Brian Van Bower Watershape Designer Pop Quiz.”
Answering some of these in the affirmative will be a snap for architects and landscape professionals; others will be a positive breeze for pool builders. The point is, effective watershape design involves bridging whatever gaps might exist.
1. Do you understand and use the principles of form, space, balance, scale, proportion, order, line, color and texture? These are the base units of the currency of design and make the difference between aesthetic success and failure.
2. Have you studied architecture? This doesn’t mean you’ve watched a special or two on PBS. Instead, have you cracked the books, compared what you see there to the environment in which you and your clients live and drawn some informed conclusions about how what you are doing fits into the picture?
3. Are you familiar with architectural history and the range of architectural styles and details available to you as a designer? You’re cheating yourself if you don’t, because these styles and details are all around us and can help you shape your own ideas and influence your clients.
4. Are you able to design watershapes that are architecturally consistent with a home? This is a key point – and a starting place for designs that truly seem to belong where they’ve been put.
5. Are you able to design watershapes that are deliberately inconsistent with their surroundings and create proper transitions? This is a complementary key – and, handled well, can be the starting place for designs that surprise and delight clients and their guests.
6. Are you able to lift your perspective, encompass the Big Picture and see beyond the hole in the ground? This is a huge stumbling block for many people I’ve spoken with, especially people who’ve always thought of themselves as “pool builders.” As I see it now, there’s much, much more to watershape design than the vessel. It’s all about placement, balance, lines of sight – and all those basic design principles mentioned above. The pool is a component, not the whole deal.
7. Do you have a basic understanding of landscape design? This is essential to seeing the Big Picture. Even if you never dig a hole to plant a shrub, it’s essential to be able to visualize how a watershape fits into an overall scheme of plantings, hardscape and garden structures.
8. Do you understand grading and terracing and the use of slopes to direct rainwater and runoff? This is the more practical side of the pack of landscape-oriented skills you need to develop to be a Big Picture designer.
9. Do you have a working knowledge of plant materials? This is a bigger thing than I ever would have thought and has an absolutely crucial role in determining how your designs are perceived as the seasons change – even where I work in Florida.
10. Are you familiar with feng shui and the principles of Japanese gardening? As I’ve written before in this column, what might be a mystical mumbo-jumbo to some people is a real belief structure for others. I, for one, simply like the sense of serenity and elegance implicit in designs governed by feng shui. And what watershaper could possibly fail to appreciate the importance of the principles of Japanese gardening?
11. Do you understand hydraulics? This is critical knowledge: If you can’t make it work (and work efficiently) in basic hydraulic terms, what’s the use of inspired concepts? Yes, finding the solutions can be difficult, but it’s work that must be done.
12. Are you familiar with equipment and it’s proper application? Again, this is basic stuff, but these days it involves much more than pumps, filters and pool cleaners. If you aren’t up on control systems, sanitizing systems, fiberoptics, automatic covers or landscape lighting, just to mention a few possibilities, it’s time to pay attention.
13. Do you understand soils and structural engineering? This is truly heady stuff, and I’m not suggesting that you drop everything and head off to MIT or Caltech to get a degree. But what you do need is a sense of when you should call in the experts to tell you what can and should be done.
14. Do you understand lighting and electricity? Personally, this is a big information gap I’m trying to fill myself. It’s like the flower/seasonal thing: I’m increasingly aware of the full-time impression my work makes, and I have to say that how my projects look at night is much more important to me now than it was just a year ago.
15. Do you understand the basics of water treatment and chemistry? This is crucial no matter whether you’re working with sterile systems such as pools or spas or biological systems like ponds and lakes.
16. Are you familiar with a wide range of building materials? I’m amazed at how narrow a range so many of us are willing to stay within in designing our projects. But there’s an incredible range of products out there from which to choose, and my resource file gets thicker just about every day as I spot new possibilities and run new ideas by my clients.
17. Can you relate to your clients’ individual needs and their lifestyles? This one is simple: If you can’t read your clients, it’s pretty tough to come up with ideas they’ll be able to visualize and that will capture their imaginations.
18. Can you accommodate their imagined uses of the watershape in your design? This can be tough for the strong-willed amongst us, but it’s a question we must face as part of almost every design process.
19. Can you convey all of these things to the client? Communications skills are incredibly important: Convincing clients takes patience and sound verbal skills.
20. Can you draw, or design with a computer, or build models? If you can’t use one of these essential tools or find some other way to get clients to “see what you see,” designing is an uphill battle.
21. Do you have good presentation materials and/or a good portfolio? Your professionalism is important, and a good presentation kit is a great way to show it. You demonstrate the pride you have in your work and build confidence at the same time – if, that is, your work is at the level your clients are seeking.
22. Are you storyteller enough to set the scene for your client? You need to set them in the scene, get them imagining what it will be like to dine near the water or play in it with the kids or relax in the warmth of the spa.
23. Can you explain the intent of your design? This is all about confidence and your belief that what you’re offering encompasses the best the site and the budget have to offer.
24. Do you have the confidence to stand by your ideas? This one is so important that I address it at length in the sidebar below.
HOW’D YOU DO?
If you answered “yes” to all or almost all of these questions, then you’re probably ready to think about calling yourself a Watershape Designer and charging for your designs. But if you are shaky on even a few of these questions, then you probably need to ratchet up your skills and knowledge if you want to avoid some rude shocks as you pursuer your ambition.
As I said at the top of this column, judging what you can and can’t do and should or should not be doing is not easy: The mirror can cast harsh reflections.
The confidence you have in your own work is the result of all the other skills you have, combined. When you’re confident that you really do walk the walk and know your stuff, then you probably are a designer. And as a result, you’ll probably have the courage to put your work forward as a true representation of yourself and your best efforts.
Being a designer is a lot of fun and a great way to earn money, but it’s seldom easy to open yourself to the kind of criticism you might receive. And being a watershape designer is tough, because you can’t fall back on degrees and titles and legitimate accolades to pick yourself back up when someone knocks you down. Sometimes, however, confidence works in your favor.
I attended a meeting with the client, the general contractor and the architect. On the spot, I had to decide whether or not I was going point out the problems – and I decided to go for it.
Without being rude or disrespectful, I made my thoughts known. The table fell silent – about what you’d expect when real dollars and real reputations are on the line. In the end, however, my ideas and my confidence prevailed – and everyone, even the architect, was happy I’d spoken up.
Also consider the fact that being a designer is not for everybody. If you’re a contractor doing designs when you really shouldn’t be (whether you’re paid for them or not), I ask this question: Are you acting in your client’s best interests – and, for that matter, your own?
Consider as well that there is absolutely no shame in knowing your limits and bringing in experts who can serve your client’s design needs when you can’t do so yourself. When good designers team up with good contractors, it’s a great “strategic business alliance.” And the time to find out if you’re cut out to be a designer is not when you have a contract in hand and a backyard to shape.
To reiterate a point I made last century in what was only the fifth issue of WaterShapes: Yes, I believe that watershape designers should be paid for their work, and designs should not be given away simply for the sake of selling a construction job.