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Material Issues

The discovery of exciting new materials and your ability to communicate those options to your clients is a big part of being a true custom watershaper, observes designer/builder Paolo Benedetti.  Here, he outlines the approaches he takes to sourcing new materials and shares his insights into working with vendors and clients alike once those key selections have been made.
The discovery of exciting new materials and your ability to communicate those options to your clients is a big part of being a true custom watershaper, observes designer/builder Paolo Benedetti. Here, he outlines the approaches he takes to sourcing new materials and shares his insights into working with vendors and clients alike once those key selections have been made.
By Paolo Benedetti

Custom watershapers need to understand materials.

That’s not a new message by any means, but the fact of the matter is that many of the watershapers I encounter have yet to fully embrace the vast range of material options available in today’s marketplace.  The reason for that is, I think, quite simple:  Locating new materials and amassing a library of unique offerings for clients can be a full-time job unto itself.  All too often, this makes it easier to rely on familiar sources and options instead of doing the work of finding new ones.  

I know from personal experience that the work can be hard and represents an amazing investment of time, energy and resources.  But as I’ve pursued the very best of all possible choices for my clients, I’ve learned a great deal about the nuances of the “material world” and find myself steadily getting better and much more efficient in the sourcing and selecting processes.

In fact, it’s at a point now where I pride myself on being able to find materials for my clients from anywhere around the world – things they’ll never see at the local stoneyard, tile shop or design showcase.  The trick is to be ambitious and open-minded – and have faith that the time spent in research almost always will pay dividends.

WORKING THE WEB

One easy way to begin any materials search is on the Internet.  This isn’t the be-all and end-all of research some make it out to be, but used correctly, I’ve found it to be an invaluable tool.

When I have the time to spare, I’ll often sit at my computer and scramble around the web looking for and at new vendors and materials and chasing through links to gain additional information and insights.  It’s an odd habit, but now I often find myself up late at night, scouring the Internet for tile suppliers and stone quarries, importers, processors and dealers located outside the United States.  

When I find something that looks useful, I’ll frequently communicate with these international vendors in their own languages:  It’s not that I’m a multilingual genius, but rather that I’ve gotten good at using the free-translation services offered by web sites including Altavista’s babelfish.com.

Using these basic tools, I’ve found that international, business-to-business web browsing is basically one-stop shopping resource for all kinds of materials from far-flung corners of the world.  These sites are usually comprehensive, including contact information, product illustrations and pricing, and allow me to size things up in just a few minutes.

The web is a great starting place, if nothing else.  And sometimes you run into real gems:  Once, for example, I imported a bunch of granite farmhouse sinks – items I’d seen in home-improvement stores locally for thousands of dollars – for mere hundreds of dollars, including freight.  

I’ve even joined an international on-line stone exchange and have found stone processors and importers in the same way.  I just complete request forms that define what I’m after, indicate the quantity needed and set a deadline, and the whole thing works like a commodity exchange – except that suppliers in this universe bid down the price against each other until I get the firmest rock-bottom price available.

If you work in situations with generous lead times, exchange sites such as these enable you to help your clients stretch their budgets – always a great help when the time comes to select materials.  As a rule, however, these sites are about large quantities (usually shipping-container level or more) and are therefore of little help with small projects.  But if you find something versatile that fits one big job or multiple smaller jobs with similar needs, these sites can be a great help.

ON THE SHOW FLOOR

Another tremendous resource for materials takes the form of the trade shows that crowd the calendar.  

I’ve never been a big proponent of repeatedly visiting the familiar shows (including the myriad pool and spa industry events), basically because they involve me in sorting through the same sets of products over and over again.  Indeed, I find far greater benefit in attending shows outside my home industry and through the years have come upon some wonderful surprises.

This past year during the AQUA Show in Las Vegas, for example, I split off from the crowd for an evening to visit Stone Expo, a show that was being held across town.  In just a few hours there, I sourced some new materials as well as processing tools, methods and installation information.

The scheduling here was entirely coincidental, but this is one of the reasons I always check with the convention bureau whenever I’m going to a pool-industry event:  You never know what other trade shows might be occurring at the same time.

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My scouring of the Internet has enabled me to find unusual, custom-crafted objects for use in several of my projects – including this hand-carved granite bowl, which I commissioned from a company in China. It is now functional both as a fire effect and as a great conversation piece and point of pride for my clients.

This scheduling trick has enabled me to attend several worthwhile shows in recent years, including Surfaces (for flooring, tile and stone), Luxury Kitchen and Bath (cutting edge in the realm of outdoor kitchens) and World of Concrete (a must-see event every four or five years) in addition to Stone Expo, which covered everything having to do with stone in the form of tiles, slabs and building veneers.

These shows and their seminars have made a real difference in the way I approach both sourcing and installation of the finished materials.  Indeed, the experiences have revealed just how outmoded some of our installation practices are in the pool industry and how much room there is for improvement.

It upsets me to think that these technologies and techniques are out there and will benefit us and our clients, but the information doesn’t seem to cross over to the far corner of the construction marketplace occupied by the pool industry.  In walking around these shows, I’ve spotted methods for preventing material failures, delaminations and cracking of veneers – problems that raise tremendous liability issues for watershapers – and the good news is that answers to all sorts of questions are available to those who attend events a bit outside our realm.

I first encountered crack-control membranes, for example, while attending one of those off-the-beaten-path shows about 15 years ago.  Now when one of my concrete sub-decks cracks (as they all do), the damage no longer migrates through to the stone or tile finishes.  I constantly run into people who are amazed by this technology and had no idea it existed, but it’s been second nature to me for years, all because I attended another industry’s trade show.  

BY DESIGN

I’m also a devotee when I travel of visiting any big city’s design centers.  These facilities are mostly geared toward the interior-design trades, but I’ve found them to be a great source of insight on cutting-edge trends in furniture design, textures, colors and tile selections.  They are usually large and are filled with showrooms decked out by various designers and manufacturers.

I recently had the privilege of attending a pre-grand-opening gala for the new international design center in Las Vegas, and it was filled to bursting with new materials and information sources.  Don’t miss it the next time you’re in town – and bring your checkbook, as many showroom offer “samples.”  I’ve picked up a few things for my own home, of course, but I’ve been surprised (and encouraged to go back) because of things I’ve seen for exterior applications.
 
These centers are only open to the trades, so carry proof you are a designer or contractor or work in a related trade.  Business cards are never enough:  You need a business, trade or contractor’s license.  Some of the designers whose work is showcased use these facilities instead of maintaining their own showrooms, so clients are allowed in – but only when accompanied by a qualified professional.

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I’ve worked with a number of fantastic suppliers of glass tile, including Boyce & Bean of Oceanside, Calif. (left), Oceanside Glasstile of Carlsbad, Calif. (middle) and Sicis of Ravenna, Italy (right). Through the years, I’ve amassed a wide range of samples from each one and use them as needed to offer my clients a full range of high-end looks, textures and color palettes.

One point of sensitivity in these places has to do with discussions of price:  Visitors wear different badges, and you need to be careful about bringing up dollar figures in their presence:  Whoever’s escorting them may want to mark things up or sell them something off the floor.  Although prices are not posted for that reason, quotes are easy to get, and samples can be ordered in many cases.

I’m also happy with information sources that let me view things in the comfort of my office.  I’ve always appreciated WaterShapes as such a resource, but I also subscribe to many publications beyond the pool and landscape industries, including some directed to architects, home remodelers and general contractors as well as magazines about specific materials, fences, concrete design, material testing, engineering, home automation and more.

I find each of them helpful from time to time, often finding solutions to design or construction problems.  I don’t care where the ideas come from so long as I can integrate their insights seamlessly into my projects.

This broad awareness is also helpful in project-team meetings, where I can often recommend a solution from something I’ve read or seen in a relatively obscure trade publication:  The clients quickly see added value in having me aboard, and I gain respect from the team’s other design professionals in ways that increase the chance they’ll want to involve me in future projects.

BEING THERE

As much as I value all the resources I’ve discussed to this point, I have to say that I like getting the fullest possible picture when it comes to key suppliers and that, whenever I can, I enjoy visiting their facilities for up-close looks.

Even when I’m heading out with my family for a vacation, I always do my homework and see if there’s something of interest within striking distance.  Most vendors are more than happy to show me around, and some have formal tours of their facilities and operations that have ultimately turned out to be the highlight of our family outings.

I’m also a big believer in the value of traveling the world to see great materials and their suppliers at first hand – a point on which I agree with David Tisherman, who organized a trip during which he, my fellow Genesis 3 Platinum member Kevin Ruddy and I visited the Bisazza glass-making operation in Italy.  

As active clients, we were given access to proprietary areas where they make their gold-leaf tiles.  Seeing how these beautiful handmade tiles are created was a treat on a personal level, but being able to describe to clients exactly how these tiles are manufactured has undoubtedly helped me win their confidence when it comes time for them to plunk down $100,000 or more for a truly deluxe watershape finish.

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Seeing Roman floor mosaics (top left), getting a sense of how the builders of ancient temples fitted stones together with intimate miters (middle left) and observing the ways Byzantine and Islamic designers worked with materials, colors and patterns (middle right) is incredibly informative and helpful in my design work. And the details I’ve witnessed and absorbed range from the delicacy of the mosaics at the base of Napoleon’s tomb in France (right), for example, to the massive grace of the limestone walls I saw along the Yangtze River in China (botiom left).

We also visited the island of Murano during that same trip to Italy, visiting its world-famous art-glass studios.  While there, I sat down and designed a set of custom green-glass lampshades for a project I was developing.  The client was assured that these commissioned designs were absolutely one of a kind, and they had additional boasting rights as well, knowing that I designed the shades in collaboration with artists right there in the Murano studio.

Another trip took us to Turkey, where the staff at Tureks, a stone supplier, picked us up at the airport and drove us for three hours to their marble and granite production facilities.  Some of their quarries are in the shadow of Mount Ararat, where some say Noah’s Ark is buried in a glacier.

While there, we followed a truck-size block of marble through the production process, watching as it was sliced into slabs then machined into architectural elements including columns, fireplace mantels, coping, balustrades, railings, sinks and more – or cut into simple tiles.  We were shown how those tiles were given their “tumbled” look, how mosaic borders were hand-assembled and how their mounting mesh was applied.

I’ve been to Egypt and visited granite quarries there that were used by the ancient stonemasons who made the obelisks.  I’ve seen the quarries in Carrara, Italy, where Michelangelo obtained his amazingly white marble.  I’ve visited studios where famous Italian, Spanish and Portuguese porcelain tiles and ceramics are created.  And I’m well aware that I haven’t even scratched the global surface.

VISUAL AIDS

If I’ve learned one important rule in sourcing custom materials, it’s that I always, always want samples!

I get multiples of the same materials for my clients – at least three of each.  Once the choice has been finalized among all possibilities, I have the client sign and date all three pieces of the selected material.  I keep one, the client keeps one and the third goes to the vendor.  This way, everyone is on the same page and the selection is formalized in everyone’s mind – a surprisingly useful step few people bother to take.

Full Disclosure

I’m known as an up-front/no-hidden-agenda kind of guy, so it’s probably no surprise that I believe in full disclosure to my clients, without exception.  Indeed, I don’t even like the perception of shenanigans or improprieties, so I go out of my way to keep them apprised of everything that’s going on in the business of designing and building their watershapes all the way through to the materials we use.

Without hesitation, for example, I let them know that I will take advantage of and pocket the proceeds of any vendor programs normally available to the industry, such as annual volume incentives or special short-term rebate programs.  I will also pay for materials using a credit card, thereby turning the purchase into travel miles that I will use myself.  At the same time, any discounts a supplier offers at the time of sale (quantity breaks, sale pricing, freight allowances, credits for samples and the like) all flow to my clients, not me.

It is my sense that any malfeasance in these areas will open me to litigation at least and criminal charges at worst.  It’s a simple truth:  My clients have more money and energy (in the form of attorneys) than I will ever encounter in my entire lifetime, and I don’t want to tangle with any of them over trivial details of our business relationships.

In that vein, I will never ask a vendor for “rebates after purchase”:  These are kickbacks that reside on the shady side of the law.  Nor will I offer to split an overcharged or inflated invoice; accept vendor credits to be used later; or take free materials for my personal use.  I have turned down such offers in the past, transferring them instead to my clients by insisting that less-than-aboveboard vendors extend these “discounts” to my clients instead of to me.  And I apply the same rules to subcontractors who work with me on my projects.

I look at it this way:  Getting caught performing any of these acts, even if just once, can ruin my reputation and cast a cloud over anyone associated with me (business associates, subcontractors and vendors alike).  It might, in fact, destroy my business, and I have no desire to end up on the wrong end of a civil lawsuit or in jail with a criminal-fraud conviction.  Then there are the IRS audits, the license revocations – and the sure knowledge that these schemes all have their ways of unraveling.   

What will happen to you if your vendor goes through an audit, the IRS discovers irregular accounting practices and then come after you to review your books?  What if someone gets hurt on the job, a lawsuit is filed and the state audit reveals irregularities?  What if some clerk in the vendor’s shipping office mistakenly attaches an invoice to your delivery instead of a packing slip and your client discovers the actual price paid for the materials?

To me, this is all like playing golf in a thunderstorm:  I want nothing to do with any of it!

-- P.B.

Once actual production has started, I insist on the vendor sending me three units from the actual production run.  The client and I compare the fresh material with the samples we already have:  If all is well, the client again signs and dates the samples – the production samples this time.  If there are any issues to be raised, the time is now, not after delivery of the full run.  To me, this is the essence of clear communication and documentation.

If the materials are made up as a blend (as with glass-tile mosaics), I want samples that have been thinset onto cement backerboard and grouted.  This mounting and grouting is important, as the tile will look different once it is set – particularly glass tile.  And it should always be a premium white thinset, as gray thinset will dull the color of the tile and change its degree of reflectance.

As a rule, I’m always willing to pay for these samples and cover any freight charges.  Most suppliers are willing to provide samples at cost (or even gratis), but I’m always prepared at least to pay for freight.  This stuff is heavy, and the fact that it comes to me from around the world is why I have accounts with DHL as well as UPS and FedEx – just to make sure there won’t be any problems in getting the material when and where I’ll need it.

When I’m a new client, almost every supplier I’ve ever encountered has charged some type of fee for samples and/or freight.  Once I actually make a substantial purchase, however, the rules of the game change, those same suppliers take me seriously – and lots of courtesies begin to flow my way.  

It’s at a point now with certain vendors where I don’t even need to ask for things:  They’ll send me updated sample kits, for example, or new offerings and promotional literature and catalogs free of charge or for freight alone.  It’s simple:  Once they know me as a serious buyer, the doors open and most vendors will bend over backwards to accommodate my needs.

FORMING EXPECTATIONS

Inherent in all this building of relationships is my awareness that every vendor is different and that it’s important for me to be flexible in how I work with them and form my expectations of how far they’ll go to make me happy.

Some designers and builders I know are tremendously demanding and want the moon before anything gets beyond the exploratory phase.  As I see it, I don’t think I have the right to hold anyone’s feet to the fire until there’s money on the table:  If they let production schedules slide, delay shipments, misproduce samples of custom blends for which I’ve paid, then and only then do I have the right to complain.

For the most part, suppliers, manufacturers and quarries will custom-produce whatever you want so long as you (that is, your clients) have the wherewithal to pay for it.  At the same time, I’m cognizant of the fact vendors who do not normally provide materials to custom specifications will have their own adjustments to make and timing issues to resolve – and that there will be costs associated with having them perform beyond normal parameters.

As a result, I expect to pay more for custom work, including custom tile blends.  I know what each color costs, the proportions in which each will be used and the raw cost exclusive of making up the samples, so there aren’t many surprises when it comes to raw cost.  And I apply that same basic approach in figuring out what each special material I’ll be presenting to each client will cost.

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They say that travel is broadening, but I had no clear idea how helpful it can be in working with homeowners until I started to put that adage into practice for myself. To tell clients that I had been to the Murano studios in Venice, Italy (left) and had worked with the glass artists there is powerful stuff, as is having been to ceramic-pottery showrooms in Perugia, Italy (middle left), to Tureks’ stone-mosaics shop in Turkey (middle right) and, much closer to home, to the Rock of Ages Quarry in Vermont (right). These first-hand experiences almost invariably impress clients at the same time they absolutely inspire me.

Through it all, I’m realistic and keep my feet (and ego) on the ground.  Most vendors are willing to assemble special orders, but from their perspective it’s always a matter of scale:  If it’s a large order, I have lots of leverage; if it’s not, I back off and accept the fact that pushing won’t carry me too far.   

It’s with large orders that everyone reaps the benefits of the economies of scale.  Here, I’ve been able to negotiate larger discounts and eliminate custom-production charges based solely upon the total value of the order.  The vendor’s happy, I’m happy, and the client reaps the benefits with respect to ultimate costs.

That last point is significant:  Most of my projects are built on a negotiated “actual costs plus percentage” basis, so I am compensated based upon the costs of the materials plus the negotiated percentage of the gross margin mark-up.  Some would say this gives me no incentive at all to find the best price for my clients, but the exact opposite is true:  I know my next project is likely to come as a referral from a past client, so it is in my best interest to negotiate materials costs for them on the best possible terms.

IN THE OPEN

In considering the margins I charge with materials, I am aware of the fact that, whatever that cost may be, it has to cover a lot of ground.

This includes everything involved with acquiring the materials, from my stock of knowledge of general materials options to the effort involved in researching and sourcing specific materials for a project.  Then there’s time spent in testing various products and defining installation methodology and specifications.  And there’s also time on the phone and writing e-mails to negotiate pricing and delivery, coordinate customs clearances and freight forwarding, set schedules with trucking companies and arrange for off-loading, pick-up of the empty container, inspection of the materials and consideration of gross profit.

It all adds up, and I find that by making the process relatively transparent, my clients are satisfied that they’ve been dealt with fairly.

Through many projects and lots of interesting materials, I’ve learned two basic lessons:  First, it pays to keep your eyes and mind open to new sources.  By hunting down new suppliers with compelling products, I keep finding ways to set my work apart from that done by almost everyone else.  Second, communication is the key in dealing with both suppliers and clients, and I carry a strong desire for clarity and transparency right through to pricing:  It helps me avoid mistakes, inspires confidence in my clients and increases my value to suppliers as a quality contractor.

To me, working effectively with materials is one of the things that makes my projects worthy of being considered as works of art – and art worth keeping.

 

Paolo Benedetti is principal at Aquatic Technology Pool & Spa, a design/build firm based in Morgan Hill, Calif.  He may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . 

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