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Stepping Up



I’ve written several times in the past about the fact that more and more landscape architects and designers are getting into watershaping. As evidence, all you need to do is look at design-award competitions in the pool and spa industry and note the increasing number of submissions from landscape professionals: It’s even getting to the point in some programs where they’re outnumbering participants who come from the traditional pool and spa industry.

You’ll find even more evidence of this phenomenon on the web sites of landscape-focused companies, where you’ll see watershapes of all shapes and descriptions in most of their photo galleries. Moreover, many I know in the pool and spa industry have had the experience of seeing increasing percentages of their projects taking place under the auspices of members of the landscape professions.

This general trend isn’t new, of course, but what is new, I believe, is an extension of this tendency in which landscape professionals are elevating watershapes to the forefront of their design programs and are in fact making water elements of all sorts their key design elements.


In my own practice, for example, I’ve noticed a significant increase in projects in which landscape professionals are weaving multiple watershapes into given settings. You may need to put that point in context: After all, it wasn’t all that long ago that a typical landscape plan was focused primarily on planting areas, pathways and hardscape structures – with, almost as an afterthought, a single watershape in the form of a small fountain or, more commonly, a swimming pool of some kind.

Instead, what I’m seeing now are plans that could be fairly labeled “water-centric” designs. Just the other day, in fact, I received a plan from a landscape firm that has not only a pool and spa, but also a series of shallow, interconnected watershapes that are dispersed throughout the property. And I’ve seen others in which pools and spas are surrounded on a site by everything from ponds and streams and formal fountains to waterwalls, water-focused sculptures, reflecting pools and a range of other liquid assets.

As for the trend’s origins, it’s simply true that consumers love water. Whether it’s a primal urge or the fact that they’ve seen great watershapes on their travels or vacations, whether it stems from exposure to ideas in the media or to the persuasive powers of home-improvement shows, they all want to be around water. And it seems like they want that proximity more than they ever have before.

And let’s not forget that this is happening at a time when the real estate market is in pretty sad shape!

Better still, whatever the root source of this burgeoning consumer interest may be – whether it’s human nature, the appreciation of beauty, Baby Boomers’ focus on eternal youth, media exposure or any of a half-dozen other societal factors I might dredge up – it’s come at a time when watershapers are more willing and able than ever before to press into increasingly creative territory in response to their clients’ needs and desires.

The one thing I fear in all this is that trends come and go, sometimes with startling speed. As I see it, we have both the need and the ability to make these opportunities last!


Certainly, the extent of the opportunities will vary from watershaper to watershaper, but where it seems most promising is in those situations in which watershapers are finding themselves working as equal partners with (or taking the lead among) other professionals engaged in the design process.

Of course, this represents a distinct shift in mentality for most of us who came up through the traditional pool/spa industry, where we were once relegated to subordinate roles but now must move with confidence and personal authority among highly successful architects and landscape architects.

In some heady situations, it even means we’ll be called on to bring in top-flight professionals to work under our auspices, be they landscape architects or designers, lighting designers, civil engineers or even the architects we need to pull together great pool houses or other substantial outdoor structures.

Yes, there will be those among us who will extend the reach of our businesses to points well beyond the water and keep control of project details from start to finish, but the general trend I’m discussing reduces the need to think in those terms: In other words, this doesn’t mean we need to become all things to all people.

Personally, I find sufficient stimulation and professional challenge within the narrower scope of watershape design and feel no great compulsion to pursue other valuable forms of expertise. What I am compulsive about, however, is in learning as much as I can about those other disciplines so I can speak forthrightly and intelligently with architects, engineers and all the other professionals whose paths I might cross, whose desires I need to understand or whose services I might need to seek.

In other words, I feel no need to become a lighting designer, but I certainly want to speak that language – and on a fairly sophisticated level to boot!

The interesting thing about all this is that the same language-building urge is coming at watershapers from all these other disciplines as well. Indeed, I’m finding that watershapes planned for by architects, landscape architects and landscape designers have much greater precision than ever before. It’s rare these days, in fact, to see landscape plans that have the infamous “blue ghost” showing the general shape and location of a pool and labeled with the dread “by others.” (This sloppy approach was once so prevalent that I often joked that I was going to rename my company “others.”)


The world has changed, and we need to step up and greet it. To do so, we have to avoid thinking that everything is breaking our way and that all we need to do is ride the trends to reap their benefits. It’s not that simple.

To engage these trends fully, we need to be prepared to meet the expectations those other professional have that, in the initial stages, we can provide detailed plans calling out materials, a variety of construction details and engineering specifications for plumbing and equipment. Familiarity with computer-aided drawing (CAD) systems is a huge plus in these environments, basically because in team situations it’s much easier to follow, exchange and accommodate plan alterations using computers.

(What I’ve found, interestingly enough, is that not even CAD knowledge is a be-all and end-all: To communicate effectively and thoroughly these days, you need to be able to paint pictures with words using vocabularies understood by specialists. You also need to be able to draw with some facility, and it doesn’t hurt to know about three-dimensional rendering techniques, whether done by hand, in clay or with a computer.)

Another facet of this elevation of watershaping that’s a bit counterintuitive is that the water-centric design trend isn’t limited on the consumer level strictly to the so-called “high end.” As an example, I’m currently working with a client of relatively modest means who recently retired and has secured financing to revamp his home’s exterior spaces. His ambition is to surround himself with water – not just a pool and spa, but also a series of decorative waterfeatures spread all around the property.

He has a budget and it’s likely the project will be pursued in stages through a period of years, but that’s not important to him or me. What is significant is that he’s not just thinking in terms of a landscape that includes water, but instead that he wants an exterior environment that is completely defined by the presence of water.

This water-centrism is truly infectious. Indeed, I’m working on a design for a posh nightclub, and we’re talking about all sorts of watershapes indoors and out – including one in which patrons might actually get in the water. That would be a first in my reckoning, and I’m already cringing at the thought that both the building department and the health department would likely get involved.

Point is, regardless of where you perceive your business to be pegged – commercial or residential, mid-range or high-end – all watershapers need to be ready to step up and participate as equals in the design and planning processes or grab the reins and take the lead.


It’s exciting to think that we’re at a point where watershaping has become a true design specialty and that we have a place at the table with the traditional high-level design disciplines. More thrilling still is the fact that we are finding ourselves at the head of that table in many situations.

Ultimately, this cuts back to a core value expressed countless times in WaterShapes and in the Genesis 3 programs – that is, you must prepare yourself for success on all fronts.

The more knowledgeable you are about the history of art and architecture, the more you know about color theory, materials selection and presentation techniques, the broader your familiarity with all the disciplines that go into good exterior design, the better able you will be to assume a leadership role as part of a design team.

To be sure, there will be many situations in which you will still be subordinate to other design professionals, and it’s up to all of us to be able to work effectively in that capacity. In fact, the better job we do of assuming whatever roles we’re called to play, the more likely it is that we will be seen as more than mere team players and instead will move into the vanguard in the process of designing and building quality projects.

If you’re up to the challenge, the future is bright. I for one absolutely revel in the elevated station in which I now find myself as a watershaper, and my guess is that the vast majority of people in the watershaping industry will do so as well!

Brian Van Bower runs Aquatic Consultants, a design firm based in Miami, Fla., and is a co-founder of the Genesis 3 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 [email protected].

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