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The Dotted Line
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The Dotted Line



I started my May 2001 column by expressing the belief that watershape designers should be paid for their designs in the same way interior designers and landscape designers are paid for theirs – and by indicating that lots of watershapers I’ve met are interested in knowing more about the mechanics of how this works.

I put off addressing those issues last time because I saw a need to establish criteria for offering such services in the first place. In other words, there’s much more to being a watershape designer than simply declaring yourself to be one, and I set up two dozen questions intended to clarify what I meant.

Once you’ve answered those questions predominantly in the affirmative, once you’ve determined, through training and experience and confidence in your abilities that you really should be paid for what you know, then and only then is it time to move on and take a look at how you’ll be paid.

And believe me, once you’ve made the decision to begin selling your services as a watershape designer, it pays to be both careful and methodical in how you set up the contracts that cover the design task. A clearly written agreement – one that defines what is to be included in the design work and, as important, what is not – is a true cornerstone in a larger foundation of positive customer relations.


The first step in fitting the terms of a proposed contract to a potential design client involves answering yet another set of questions having to do with the specific project at hand.

In many respects, this is the usual sort of information you should be gathering from the client in the natural course of doing your detective work. All you’re doing is turning your focus a bit and establishing ballpark dollar amounts not for construction, but rather for the fees you’ll charge for your design.

[ ] How complex is the design? Jobs get complicated in lots of ways, but design complexity most often has to do with the number of water elements or systems you’re proposing and the scope of the project. If you have a job with a simple pool/spa combination, there’s often (but not always) less design work than would be true for a project that encompasses, for instance, a pair of reflecting pools, a natural pond, an underground grotto and a perimeter-overflow pool system.

There are also site-related issues that can complicate a design. If you’re building on an extreme slope, for example, or on a waterfront or in a high water table or with extreme soil conditions – those sorts of considerations clearly add hours and degrees of difficulty to the overall design challenge and need to be considered up front.

[ ] What level of detail are you providing? Typically, as a job moves up into the range of high-end custom watershaping, you’ll be called on to approach the design with a greater level of detail. Less-challenging pools that call for standard treatments of edges, attached spas and adjoining areas do not require the same level of detailing as do projects that have unusual edge treatments or call for advanced architectural or artistic elements as part of the job.

[ ] What are the clients’ expectations? This is a crucial factor in all aspects of the project and especially in the writing of the design contract: You must make certain you’re to be compensated when you hit the target of client expectations; you also must nail things down as much as possible to be certain you’re not dealing with a moving target.

On a general level, you know that if the clients want a highly creative design – one that’s broad in scope and loaded with great details – this will drive your time involvement and pricing to higher levels and determine how you structure the contract to meet those needs. But even a simple project can outstrip the big, creative one with respect to your time involvement if you don’t go to the effort up front to figure out what they really want from you.

[ ] What will you provide? Are you providing an original design or a reworking of an existing design? Are you providing material and equipment specifications? Does your “design package” include additional services, such as the review of contractor proposals, site visits, ongoing supervision or consulting throughout the construction of the project?

It’s important to establish the extent of your role right up front so both you and your clients know how the relationship works after the design itself has been submitted. In lots of cases, dropping off the drawings is the end of my involvement. Other times (and to varying degrees), there’s more to be done.

[ ] What’s the timetable? This one is fundamental and has a lot to do with how much you charge. How fast clients want something done tells you, for example, whether or not you’ll need to push other projects aside to get the work done.

You need to size up the complexity of the proposed project and determine whether you’re at liberty to side-track other projects for the amount of time it’ll take you to work out the details of the intruding task. Just remember: If you jump in and find you can’t make it work, you’ll have two dissatisfied sets of clients instead of one!

And then there’s the design task itself: I believe that if you’re being asked to provide service on a short schedule, you should be compensated for accommodating the clients’ need for speed!

Once you have these five pieces of information, you can get to work and focus on all of the nuts-and-bolts issues that still need to be settled – not the least of which is the basis on which you’ll charge.


This is actually a bigger decision than one might think: Will you be charging a fixed price for the overall project, or will you charge at a specific, time-determined rate? I’ve found that there’s merit to both approaches – and that there are times when the specifics of a project really will lead you to one method over the other.

The fixed-price approach as clear as can be from the consumer’s point of view, which is doubtless why I’ve found that so many of my design clients are happiest when they see a dollar figure tied to a clear definition of what those dollars are buying. From their perspective, there’s certainly a comfort factor in being able to fit all of the costs associated with the design of the project into a firm budget; indeed, many are reluctant to enter an open-ended agreement for fear of where the final cost may end up when all is said and done.

Retained Knowledge

I always charge a retainer fee for my design jobs. This is simply an amount of money I require up front to continue with the project.

I do so because this amount sets a threshold and indicates a certain level of commitment on the part of the client. In other words, requiring a retainer really sifts out the tire kickers. It also sends a message about the value I place on my own time and work.

Of course, demanding a retainer can create some awkward moments early on: I’ve been in situations where clients and perhaps their architect or landscape architect will be discussing the watershape design and immediately begin asking specific design-related questions. It’s easy to jump down that path if you’re not careful – and I know just how awkward it can be to pipe up and say, “I really can’t continue with this discussion until I’ve been paid a retainer.”

Still, I think it’s important enough to insist on a retainer that I don’t hesitate to speak up. More than the fact that they guarantee you level of income on a project, retainers lay a foundation of trust and respect that I find crucial to any good working relationship.

— B.V.B.

From my perspective as a designer, I can accept working with a fixed price in those cases where the answers to the five questions asked above are clear enough that I can proceed with confidence. And if I’ve done a good job in gathering information, odds are I’ll be pretty darned close in determining just how many hours of work the design process will entail and in setting my price accordingly.

Obviously, placing a clear definition of what you will and won’t be doing is especially critical in a fixed-price contract. Just as clearly, my risks increase if there’s any room at all for misunderstanding of what the customer is buying when they sign on the dotted line.

I cover some of that risk in calculating what I should charge on a fixed contract by building in an appropriate fudge factor. For starters, it’s important to have enough money in a job so that when the unexpected arises – which it almost always does in some form or another – I won’t need to worry about losing my shirt. How large that factor is depends on the project: The more challenging the job, the larger the need.

Given a proper fudge factor, I’m generally comfortable with fixed-price arrangements. In fact, I’d have to say that in all my years of selling designs, I’ve generally ended up making a bit more on fixed-price contracts than I would have had these clients opted for a time-determined rate. It’s almost as though the fixed price has a calming effect on these clients and makes the process go more smoothly.


Billing by the hour is a different kettle of fish. It requires a great amount of trust on both sides of the relationship and is therefore something that must be “managed” very attentively.

By way of illustrating what that means, let me tell you about a project that’s been going for more than a year: The client entered the process with the idea in mind that the design would “evolve” through ongoing collaboration. She knows that when I spend time talking to her or visiting the site, I’m going to bill her. She expects it and appreciates the freedom that our open-ended agreement provides. For my part, I find that I enjoy working with her on a time basis because of the trust factor and what it says about her confidence in both my ability and my integrity.

Dual Roles

If you’re working as both a designer and a contractor, I recommend handling the contracting portion separate from your design agreement.

The contracting segment of my business is a completely different entity. In our case, we may offer a value back (that is, something along the lines of a rebate of some percentage of the design fee) if we design a project and the customer decides to also have us build it, but that’s about as far as I go in linking the two.

— B.V.B.

For all that, however, I think it’s fair and reasonable to offer a time-based client an estimated range of costs in the contract. This gives us a starting point, and I offer it only with the clear understanding that the “estimate” can and will change as the contract progresses. As a rule, I haven’t found that customers working on this basis get too hung up if the costs go beyond the estimate – but they do appreciate a ballpark figure at the outset.

Either way you go, the keys to good and effective design contracts are clarity and conciseness.

It’s important to include all of the bits of information you need, but that doesn’t mean these documents need to be long or complex. In fact, almost all of my “Design Consulting Agreements” fit on a single typewritten page. I submit them on company letterhead and clearly call out the client’s name and project at the top. The agreement includes a description of the scope of my work and offers a fixed price or a fee schedule with an estimated cost.

At the bottom, I list additional services I make available, which serves two purposes: First, it defines things that are not in the contract; second, it also lets the client know that they can turn to me for help in areas such as contractor selection and supervision if the need arises.

This is also the time to hammer out details about travel, which involves a surprising range of issues as your reputation spreads and you begin to get “out of town” work. You can settle these issues out in any number of ways, but it’s crucial that you and your clients know clearly who’s paying for what. So right up front, I define issues such as air travel (and whether I’ll be flying coach or business or first class); I cover accommodations, too, and ground transportation and just who will be making the arrangements.

I’ll also spell out if my work will involve bringing in another consultant, such as a structural engineer, geologist or another expert to help in designing lighting, special water effects or landscaping.


The million-dollar question still remains: How much should you charge? Unfortunately, that is a question I absolutely cannot answer, other than to say that you need to determine both what your time is worth and what you need to earn in order to make designing for pay a profitable undertaking.

What I can tell you is that by clearly defining what is in and out of the scope of the design agreement, you will minimize misunderstandings with the customer and you will be able to accurately estimate the time you’ll need to get the job done. Beyond that, the dollar figure you attach to your time is something only you can decide.

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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