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Standard Bearers

200603DT0

200603DT0

I want to clear up a misconception: Although the programs my colleagues and I stage through Genesis 3 are easily associated with the “high end” and the work of several people associated with our programs may be said to exist at the cutting edge of watershape design, it is simply untrue that we are promoting construction standards that somehow go above and beyond what the rank-and-file industry should be practicing.

When we talk about watershape “design” and “construction,” it’s important to understand that although those two things go hand in hand, they are completely separate considerations. Design is what makes pools and spas either ordinary or extraordinary and is about materials selection, shape, color, elevations, lighting, water effects and location in a setting – basically a whole range of aesthetic possibilities, bells and whistles.

For its part, construction is a completely different animal. Whether you’re building a basic, unadorned rectangle or an all-glass-tile pool with a vanishing edge hanging off the side of a mountain, the standards for construction should always be the same, without exception. In fact, when it comes to construction, I believe the terms “high end,” “cookie-cutter” or “midrange” are completely irrelevant.

Our industry isn’t about promoting high-end construction practices to be followed by a few; instead, its about pursuing and advocating sound construction practices that should be applied by everyone.

JUST AWFUL

If there’s one thing about the watershaping world that continuously drives me crazy, it’s the existence and persistence of a sub-professional mindset that says creative designs and affluent clients deserve one set of standards, while projects with more affordable designs can acceptably be built to another, less stringent set of standards.

To me, middle-class clients who’ve commissioned modest projects deserve watershapes built to standards every bit as reliable and effective as affluent clients who are looking to impress their wealthy neighbors.

Frankly, viewing things any differently amounts to a form of class-based discrimination. To those who cut corners on basic construction just because the project price tag isn’t in six figures and you feel a need to scrape out a bit more profit, I suggest either changing your approach – or getting out of this business and going off to ruin someone else’s industry!

I feel so strongly about this because I’ve encountered absolutely jaw-dropping construction misadventures over and over again. I’m not talking about a state of affairs of years gone by, not by a long shot. No, I’m talking about projects that are being built right now, and they’re a bloody disgrace.

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This project is bad on many levels. First there’s the soil, which is not native, was never compacted and was strewn with junk (roots and other debris) at the time the concrete was applied. Also, the framing was slipshod, lightweight and bound to move during concrete application. Then there’s the use of flex pipe, which has not been recommended for watershape applications for years, particularly not in regions (such as the one in which this pool was ‘built’) where freeze/thaw conditions prevail.

In these pages, I’ve often compared watershapes to automobiles. We all know the marketplace is filled with affordable cars as well as those that cost more than some people’s homes. Imagine a world in which Hondas, Toyotas, Fords, Chryslers and Volkswagens were built to a lower safety standard just because they cost less than $100,000. If the automobile industry applied the same approach that we see in watershaping, road fatalities would shoot off the charts.

Yes, Ferraris, Porches, Jaguars and BMWs are prettier and have fine leather interiors, advanced electronics, expensive paint jobs, fancy wheels and dozens of other details that are superior to more-affordable cars, but they are not superior when it comes to having functioning brakes and headlights or reliable engines, seat belts and air bags.

Every driver on the road deserves to operate a vehicle that is safe and reliable. Period. I can imagine some of you thinking that watershapes are luxury items and do not warrant being seen in the same light as automobiles. To that I say, “Bunk!”

First of all, watershapes represent significant investments to those who sign the checks, and these clients deserve to have their investments protected and their patronage respected by our industry in the form of reliable structures and systems. Second, there are safety concerns with watershapes, and in some very important respects, inadequate construction does in fact result in physical hazards.

PUNCH LISTS

To make this point more clear, let’s get specific. (And forgive me for specifically sticking with pools and spas here, as it is the focus of my experience and expertise.)

Let’s begin with concrete itself, the most fundamental of the materials we use. I’ve been stunned time and again when I’ve been involved in cases where core samples of existing failed structures indicate that concrete that has been applied to 1,500 psi or less. These shells, of course, should be built with concrete at a minimum of 2,500 psi.

There’s no mystery to why someone would go with less. It doesn’t take a detective to know that these weak structures are out there because some contractors deliberately fail to put enough cement in the gunite or shotcrete mix in order to save money and boost the bottom line. They hope, of course, to elude detection. After all, the concrete structure is invisible once the work is finished, and if it doesn’t fail, who will be the wiser?

I get angry just thinking about that rationalization. It is unethical, crooked even, and it should never happen – but it does, unfortunately, and probably on a daily basis among some builders.

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The litany of horrors with this project continues with the fact that no steel was placed for the steps or benches — an open invitation to shrinkage cracks — and what steel there is has been arranged haphazardly and below minimun standards. This makes it hard to credit the builder for the split drain, and while I can see a bonding clamp, who knows whether it will actually be used? No client deserves such shabby service from a contractor — no ifs, ands or buts.

And what about structural engineering? One of the Top Three Stupidest Things anyone has ever said to me was something I heard just last year when a subcontractor remarked, “Why do you want to bring in a structural engineer? All they do is ruin projects.”

Let me be very clear: No builder in this business determines the structural design or the ultimate cost of a shell or its supporting substructure. The soil conditions do! This is why it is dangerous to build any concrete structure without the input of a geologist, soils engineer and structural engineer. Even so, I know at this very moment that a huge number of projects are being built without this crucial information and engineering support.

How about structural steel? I’m amazed at those who, lacking a structural design, will more or less “eyeball” a steel structure, maybe using #3 rebar on 18-inch centers with no idea whether or not that is what the situation requires. Then there are those who don’t use dobies to provide necessary clearances between the steel and the soil. This one blows my mind! If the steel isn’t encased in the concrete, the structure is not properly reinforced. Yet we see it all the time: Rebar lying right against the soil as the concrete crew begins shooting.

To think that some people wonder why pools crack – simply mind-boggling!

THE BEAT GOES ON

In some cases, there are builders who actually tell their clients what they’re up to on some fronts and try to pass it off as a good thing. One of the great examples of this is found in the area of plumbing and circulation systems.

For years now, we at Genesis 3 have been pushing the notion that if we’re going to be in the business of moving water through pipes, it’s mandatory (not to mention common sense) to apply fundamental hydraulic science to the process. That only seems reasonable, but we live in a time when there are many people out there who still use small pipes and oversized pumps.

I suppose the twisted logic goes something like this: We can save money on the plumbing by going with a smaller size, but we’re going to give the customer more bang for the buck by upsizing the horsepower on the pump (at a somewhat greater cost, of course). After all, if one horsepower is good, then two must be better.

There may have been a time years ago when people in this industry truly didn’t know any better, but these days there are absolutely no excuses on that front. sound hydraulic information is available from every single manufacturer of pumps, motors and filters; Genesis 3 offers detailed coverage of these topics in its Level 1 and Construction schools; good information has been published repeatedly in all the trade media; and seminars on hydraulics are presented at just about all trade shows, good and not so good.

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By way of contrast to the other project depicted in this column, the construction approach seen here — framing, steel, plumbing, the works — is essentially bulletproof and will lead to a positive outcome for the client. Yes, doing things the right way takes knowledge, supervision, determination and a proper budget, but it’s something every client has a right to expect.

We as an industry know that larger plumbing and smaller pumps make for more efficient circulation and thus more energy efficiency and longer service lives for the components. Still, under the guise of “doing the client a favor,” there are those who stick to a false and antiquated way of designing circulation systems. Is it really that hard to follow manufacturer recommendations for pump, filter and plumbing sizing?

Then there’s the subject of main drains and safety. Out there in the real world are lots of pools with oversized pumps on undersized plumbing attached to single main drains. Flat out, you’re endangering your clients if you still build (or remodel) that way when you should, in fact, be splitting your main drains, upsizing your plumbing and shrinking your pumps on both new construction and renovations. It’s simple: Do the job right and measurable risk virtually disappears; do it wrong and you’re courting disaster not just for your clients, but for yourself as well.

The same sort of things applies to electrical systems. It’s staggering to me that there are watershapers out there who put people, water, metal and systems run by electricity together in the same environment without properly bonding and grounding metal components and structures in and around the water. This isn’t even something that saves money: It’s just plain laziness and carelessness (not to mention a code violation), and if it’s you, I can’t help asking: Are you trying to kill someone?

ON POINTS

I could go on with this cathartic exercise, but I’ll stop here with my discussion of sound and unsound construction before I even get to pet peeves having to do with tile setting (can you believe there are jobs out there where no tile float was ever applied to the raw concrete surface?) or setting up deck drains (forget about visually concealing drains, how about just making them work?) or plans lacking in any detail. There are also points to be made about using rebound to build steps (one of my constant agonies) and decks built without proper expansion joints.

My point is, you can look at just about any aspect of watershape construction and find scores of examples of how people in our industry, working right now in backyards all across the country, are completely ignoring what mostly boils down to commonsense construction practice.

Let me stress the fact that this isn’t about the “high end” or the “cutting edge” or custom-versus-volume production. Genesis 3 or no Genesis 3, what I’m talking about here is a fundamental obligation everyone in this trade has to provide clients with a baseline of quality construction based on reliable technical information. It’s a moral issue, an ethical issue and simply the right thing to do.

I’m not saying you have to bring freeway-type, A+ engineering and construction to basic pool projects. What I am saying is that we as an industry need to face up to our responsibilities, raise the bar and be aware at all times that cutting costs with basic construction is a foolish way to scratch precious little more out of a project.

In an environment where too many watershapes deserve Ds and Fs when it comes to construction quality, it’s time for all of us to hit the books, learn good construction practices and pick our grades up at least to Cs. In an environment where Bs and As are reserved for projects that exceed construction norms and deploy great materials, exacting tolerances and fine finish work, if we can’t at least strive for Cs as an industry, we’re not providing products, we’re offering a disservice.

David Tisherman is the principal in two design/construction firms: David Tisherman’s Visuals of Manhattan Beach, Calif., and Liquid Design of Cherry Hill, N.J. He can be reached at [email protected] He is also an instructor for Artistic Resources & Training (ART); for information on ART’s classes, visit www.theartofwater.com.

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