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15yearsagoBy Brian Van Bower

‘One of the real tricks in any art form can be the challenge of exercising restraint,’ wrote Brian Van Bower to open his Aqua Culture column in September 2003.  ‘Bigger isn’t always better, and both scale and size do matter.  In other words, just because you can create something grand, it doesn’t always mean that you should.’  

‘This principle of proportionality has a sharp, specific meaning in the world of the custom watershaper,’ he continued, ‘especially when clients ask for something that is oversized for the property or more elaborate than is called for by the setting or surrounding architecture.  We all know where it comes from:  Clients have seen something they like, and it drives them to ask for features or an overall project scope that is simply too much for the available space.’


‘Things that were rare even ten years ago are in everyone’s mind these days, and we can expect clients to inquire about every conceivable permutation and combination of beach entries, waterfalls, grottos, slides, lounging areas, streams, bars with submerged barstools, bridges, islands, all manner of rockwork, various edge treatments, tile mosaics, overhead structures, decks, cooking and entertainment areas, lazy rivers, sculpture areas, fire effects and even fish tanks.  These are all wonderful ideas in the right context, but I believe we need to ask our clients and, ultimately, ourselves:  Do they work in the space we’re being given?’


‘Restraint begins with the obvious point that you have to be able to fit a project into a given space while leaving room for landscaping, decks and areas where people can comfortably move around the watershape.’  


‘I’ve always held that small projects afford the designer an opportunity to “turn up the volume” by using higher-quality materials to outstanding effect.  First of all, the costs associated with using expensive materials are tamed by the small space.’


‘By using quality tile, natural stonework or other materials, you can keep things simple and allow beautiful colors, textures and reflections to come forward.  This is why, in smaller spaces, I often try to nudge clients toward designs that include fewer and simpler visual elements [and] blend the watershape’s design into the architecture of the home.’


‘Implied within all of this discussion is a key point:  If you’re going to design great spaces for your clients, you need to learn to say “no” in certain situations.  It’s empowering when you gain the courage of your design convictions, and I’ve found that clients who are interested in finding the very best ideas for the space they have available will respect a strong opinion – even if it’s negative – so long as your position is reasoned and you can communicate exactly what you mean.’  


‘There’s a wonderful feeling that comes when you stand by your convictions in this way.  As watershape designers, we generally know more about watershaping than do our clients.  When we can use our senses of proportionality, scale and context and stand our ground when our clients’ desires conflict with what we know is best for the project, the results can be positive on many, many levels.’


‘[O]nce you nurture and internalize your own senses of proportionality and scale, you’ll find they reach into every layer of the design process – not just the initial ones having to do with where you place a watershape and how large it should be, but also those having to do with relative sizes of features within a design as well.’


‘To be sure,’ he concluded, ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and if the clients insists on building out a small backyard with a pool that covers three-quarters of the available space with water, then that ultimately is their choice.  How far you’re willing to go along with them is a decision only you can make.  Speaking for myself, I rest easy knowing that the design principles and practices I use tend to suit the needs of the space, all while satisfying my clients’ desire for something truly special.’

How do you work through these issues with your own clients?  Have changes in the market traceable to the Great Recession changed the extent to which you try to control the design process, or is the power all in consumers’ hands?  Please share your thoughts by commenting below!

Brian Van Bower runs Aquatic Consultants and is a co-founder of Genesis 3, A Design Group; dedicated to top-of-the-line performance in aquatic design and construction, this organization conducts schools for like-minded pool designers and builders.  He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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