It’s great that more and more people in the watershaping business are interested in becoming custom designers. The way I see it, the future of the industry rests in the hands of those who strive for creativity and excellence in their work.
Unfortunately, however, there are those out there who are brash enough to declare themselves “designers” without any sort of credentials to back up the claim – that is, without having done what it truly takes to understand available options and create great designs. Setting your sights high is a wonderful thing, but it’s only the very first step on the road to realizing your true potential. The hard part comes in doing the work it takes before you even get to try to attain your goals.
I bring this up in a column about “Details” because lots of people ask me where I get these ideas. Here’s the straight answer, minus any trace of the arrogance that some people ascribe to me: I have been trained and educated to do what I do, and I work very, very hard at applying what I’ve learned and been taught.
I went to school for more years than I care to remember and earned advanced degrees in drawing and design. I have immersed myself in the histories of industrial design, art and architecture. In the years since I left school behind, I have worked very hard to translate what I learned in other fields to become a watershape designer and builder. And I continue my education every single day by keeping my eyes open to the best of what’s out there by way of architectural, interior and landscape design.
THE EDUCATION CONNECTION
Before I go any further, let me make three key points:
* This is a column about education, but unlike the vague discussions about the importance of education those of you in the pool industry have read over and over again for years, I have a very specific suggestion about how to improve things.
* What I’m saying here is my own opinion and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of my Genesis 3 partners, Skip Phillips and Brian Van Bower, or any sort of change in our own educational mission.
* If you’re a big fan of the educational agenda of the National Spa & Pool Institute, what I’m about to say might make you uncomfortable, even a bit angry.
That said, please consider the following.
When we talk about education, what we’re really talking about is value. You can get one level of education – one form of value – by going to high school. You get another at a junior college, another when you earn an undergraduate degree and still other levels as you move up to advanced degrees.
You can attain these credentials by attending vocational institutes, state schools or private schools; you can go to the school down the road or to a prestigious institution such as Harvard or Stanford. Each of these levels and places of education involves different levels of personal commitment in terms of time, difficulty and cost. The cold, hard fact is that the higher you go, the more time it takes, the harder it is to keep up and the greater the investment becomes.
As a person who’s spent years pursuing higher education, I’m bothered by people who pass a lower level of training off as something more than it really is. It’s not that my feelings get hurt; instead, their inability to perform as promised hobbles those of us who’ve been taught to know better.
And this is true despite the fact that a great many people in the pool industry say how much they love education – or, more accurately, the idea of education. You hear it all the time, and you read about it in all the trade magazines. The problem is that their usual definition of education is what happens in seminar halls at trade shows.
The notion of actual, formal education isn’t even part of these discussions, yet the plain fact is that designing and building pools is about more than fixing a pump, masking cracks in pool shells or cleaning filters. Yes, those things are important on some level, but they don’t do anything by way of truly elevating the trade or helping people design and build better watershapes.
What we need as an industry is to learn the things that can’t be taught in a day, a week or a month.
As designers, we need to have at our disposal all of the communication tools that help us lead our clients to visualize what we hope to accomplish for them. We need to know about balance, proportion, color, scale, lines of sight and a hundred other factors that go into good design. We need to know how to do detailed, three-dimensional renderings. We need to know architectural history and the principles of architectural design. We need to learn about resources and how to apply them.
As builders, we need to know how to read (and execute) complicated structural plans. We need to know about steel and concrete and finishes. We need to understand hydraulics. We need to embrace the importance of soils and geology in what we do and get away from the mentality that says understanding soil conditions is the homeowner’s responsibility.
It’s not that people in the pool industry are uninterested in true education – I know and have worked with many who are – it’s that they’ve never been presented with higher education as an option.
There’s no certificate program in reading plans; there’s no place to go to get a doctorate in aquatic design. Those avenues of higher learning are unavailable to this industry, and until that changes, we’re always going to be hand-me-down trade instead of a stand-up profession. The bottom line is that we need to close the gap between what we should know and what we do know.
Where to start?
To a large extent, the educational tune for the industry has been called by NSPI. Each year, NSPI and its regions stage shows and offer dozens, perhaps hundreds of seminars on the basics mostly of how to fix things – service-oriented skills like repairing pumps, acid-washing pools and the like.
In organizing programs, I believe that what NSPI has done is follow the path of least resistance. It’s easy to set up a session on fixing pumps, for example, because you can draw on the technical services staff at a pump manufacturer to come and fill a two-hour session with good information.
To be sure, this is “education” – but it is of the most basic sort and works for topics that can be covered adequately in an hour or two. Through the years, however, NSPI apparently has come to believe that this educational approach is right for every purpose.
I’m not ascribing dastardly motivations here: All I’m saying is that NSPI and the organizations that have followed its lead have generated educational programs that simply don’t work when it comes to the higher needs of the industry and its designers and builders. What I’m saying, bluntly, is that when it comes to design and construction, NSPI-style education is totally inadequate.
As far as I know, the pool industry is the only worthwhile trade that doesn’t have a viable school with professionally trained instructors who have curriculums to follow and teaching standards and formal accreditation. What we need rather than easy access to thin information of the kind you get at trade shows is the type of education you get in a true educational system.
Without formal training, there’s no way that our industry can grow. Yes, the number of people working in it may expand or contract depending on the economy, but product limitations brought on by inadequate education will keep us from pleasing our clients as they should be pleased and will forever doom us to life on the fringes of the design community to which I think we should belong with architects, landscape architects and other top professionals.
Consider all of the Landscape Architects who read WaterShapes: They make legitimate claim to that title by pursuing rigorous degree programs at major colleges and universities. And to participate in full in their trade association, the American Society of Landscape Architects, they commit to participating in a rigorous, career-long program of continuing education so they stay current and keep applying the basic principles they learned during long hours in the classroom.
The seminars at ASLA’s annual conferences don’t look all that different from NSPI’s in terms of time spent in the hall or even subject matter. The key distinction is that ASLA’s courses are meant as reinforcement and true continuing education, not as the sole educational resource.
This educational void in the pool industry hurts everybody: It hurts the consumer who receives a less-than-adequate product; it hurts the builder who doesn’t know what it is to take pride in what he or she does; it hurts the insurance companies that have to cover the cost of lawsuits that come when ill-informed builders get in over their heads; and it hurts the manufacturers whose products are specified or sold by a generally uneducated trade.
So how do we fill this void?
I think we need to reallocate resources away from the status quo and move them into a new institutional structure that invests in our future. In case you were wondering, I even think we need to look beyond Genesis 3’s schools (as good as they are) and develop an approach that will carry the next generation of pool designers and builders to a whole new plane of excellence and success.
In any given year, there are approximately a dozen NSPI-style shows for the pool trades, and most but not all are staged by NSPI itself or its regions.
Give or take a bit, each is supported by the same set of manufacturers, and the educational programs include the same basic sets of seminars. Every year, organizers’ claims of record turnouts make eyebrows rise higher and higher, because the impression most exhibitors are taking is that the aisles and seminar rooms aren’t as full as they once were.
The problem with the trade-show habit beyond its great expense is that, like any addiction, this one is hard to break. So each year, the same group of faithful attendees shows up to take a look at essentially the same products from familiar suppliers – and everyone finds less and less to value in the exchange.
Let’s be bold: Why not shelve all but the national Expo, which itself could be pursued on a lesser scale, and free up the resources that would be needed to set up a long-term investment in higher education? Making this happen will take courage – a brave manufacturer (or group of manufacturers) to step up and say, “Things must change.”
Even if manufacturers took just half of what they spend in chasing a dozen shows all across the map and pooled those resources to endow a watershaping program and curriculum at a single college or university, it would be a start.
And that start is just what we need. It is a curriculum I would have pursued had it been available to me umpteen years ago, and it’s one many I know in the industry would pursue – even given the chance now that they’re long past college age.
Imagine a place where you could learn about everything from art history to hydraulics to business law, from materials of construction to color dynamics to lighting. Think about the doors that would open in the design community with the training and knowledge and credibility you’d acquire.
It’s a brave, new world for our trade – one I think we should pursue.
And I promise: Next time, I get back to Details.
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.