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Value by Design
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Value by Design



Consider this scenario: You call up an interior designer. In the course of the conversation, you ask him or her to come to your home, walk around, take measurements and listen to your ideas about a new look for your home. That done, you want this design professional to go back to the office, draw up a plan, select materials and price the job.

Would you be expected to pay for this service? If you know anything about interior designers, you know the answer is a loud (and not inexpensive) “Yes!” It’s a trade where nobody works for free: Whether you buy 100 yards of carpet, a gallon of paint or nothing at all, you have to pay this professional for the design because, in and of itself, he or she assigns real value to the work.

Where you’d never get away with asking a professional with years of experience in designing home or office interiors to ply their trade for free, that is exactly what we tolerate and even encourage in the pool industry. We undervalue our design expertise by giving it away for nothing – a huge mistake.


As watershapers, many of us have years or even decades of experience in developing designs for clients who are shopping for what can be the second or third largest investment they’ll ever make. To give that design away demeans the value of that investment. After all, anything worth having is worth paying for – or should be, anyway.

Amazingly, however, that’s not how we collectively view our design work. For years, we’ve been taught that by offering ourselves as a “resource” to customers and prospects that we effectively bond with them, build rapport and draw them in as future buyers. Certainly there’s merit to that notion and its service orientation, but these good intentions very often lead us astray.

A quick example: Dave, a childhood friend of mine, bought a home with a pool not far from where I live. Before long, he ran into a problem with the equipment and asked me for a referral to a local service business. I suggested one, and my friend made the call.

The well-meaning owner of the service business answered the phone and proceeded to spend an hour telling Dave how to fix the problem. The owner did this with no expectations – not for a repair job nor with any real idea of whether or not my friend would ever set foot in the store or become a service customer. Once Dave hung up the phone, he called me laughing his head off and saying he wasn’t accustomed to getting that kind of information for free.

That’s the point: This customer wasn’t looking for a freebie – and he didn’t expect one, either.

Now, lots of people in the pool trades will praise the owner for sharing what he knew and criticize my friend’s callousness in ridiculing his generosity. I side with Dave here, however, because I believe the owner, despite good intentions, seriously devalued his professional expertise by giving away the service for free to someone who wasn’t even a customer and had no stated intention of becoming one.

This is exactly the sort of thing we have been encouraged to do in designing pools, spas and other watershapes for customers who have not yet signed on the dotted line. Through no one’s fault but our own, we have helped to turn our products into commodities. I, for one, prefer instead to think of what we do as providing a lifestyle at the same high level as architects, interior designers and other top professionals.


This whole question of whether or not to sell design services (or even to do custom designs at all) really cuts to the heart of the industry and how we view ourselves. And that’s just as true of volume builders as it is of the custom builder who tackles six or eight top-dollar projects a year.

I see this devaluing of our products as a collective lack of self-esteem, which is highly ironic when you consider the power and importance of what we bring to the table for our customers. To those who look at design work merely as a sales tool, I offer another perspective: I see watershapes as art as well as craft and suggest that if we all looked at our work as an art form, there would a far greater value placed on our design contributions.

Our customers certainly are willing to look at things that way and indeed want to think of their watershapes as being something special. Absolutely, the people I work with want more from a design than something that can whipped up in an hour in their living room – and I’m pleased and proud to oblige.

Consider the difference between the painter and an artist. The painter comes in with gallons of paint and dutifully coats the inside or outside of a home. He or she does a professional job, working hard at a fair price. The paint goes on, the contractor is paid and the customer pays little further attention to the work other than to take note of little flaws here and there.

By contrast, an artist may come in with just a little bit of paint and skillfully splash bits of it all over the place, declaring it a “work of art.” That person will collect a bigger fee than will the painter; what’s more, the work will be valued and enjoyed to a far greater extent by both clients and visitors alike.

We should count ourselves among the artists rather than the painters. In many cases, I’ve seen designs done for free that are incredibly good, even for what would be considered simple installations. In giving that drawing away for nothing, an opportunity is missed to connect the client to the project. By forgoing the opportunity to place a value on our design experience, we also miss a chance to earn money for time spent working!

Personally, I charge for my designs and drawings, whether I end up building the pool or not. Customers don’t question my doing so; more important, they are immediately more involved in the process – and they can’t wait to see the ideas in which they’ve chosen to invest.


This discussion of design value, art and customer perception leads to some key questions that can be asked of individual companies and of the industry as a whole: What percentage of clients are truly satisfied with the design and the overall performance of their watershapes? How many are satisfied with the total backyard environment? Are they happy with what they have relative to what they paid? Would you have done better if you had been paid more? Finally, who truly sets the price for what we do?

The answers to those questions may vary from client to client, of course, but how you answer them says a lot about the value both you and your customers perceive in the products and services you’re providing.

Consider the Rectangle

When you think of a rectilinear pool, odds are you don’t see a great deal of artistic merit or design potential there. If that’s the case, please look again: There are many aspects of backyard design that have nothing to do with vanishing edges and fancy features that work to define the overall value of the design.

Consider materials such as coping, tile, decking and interior finish as parts of that rectangle. Consider lighting and placement of the watershape within the overall setting and landscape. Step back further from the rectangle and capture the relationship of the pool to the home itself, the pathways to various portions of the yard, the entertainment areas and Zen-like places of repose and quietude. There are points of entry and egress and safety features and equipment needs as well.

Perhaps the rectangle perfectly echoes the architecture of the house or offers a visual counterpoint to its features and surroundings. Maybe the pool is rectangular because it is intended for lap swimming or volleyball or just because the customer loves the elegance and simplicity of its basic geometry.

All of these elements come into play in the design of even a simple rectangle. All are best balanced and employed with the help of a skilled designer – one whose experience will help clients achieve their goals no matter the shape the project ultimately takes.

– B.V.B.

The final question about who sets the price is particularly important because it has to do with a bigger question: Are you making the money you deserve to make based on the work you do, the experience you bring to the process and your overall responsiveness to the customer’s needs? This is absolutely critical, because your success is based on your ability to turn the answer into sufficient revenues and profits.

However you define “sufficient,” the bottom line here is that these numbers are too important to be left to the client: We must determine the value of our service. The customer may decide what he or she is willing to pay, but we should set the value of what we do.

I also think that we have far more control over what we charge than some would have us believe. Competitive pressures are great in many markets and margins can be thin, they say, and the best response to those pressures is to devalue the product in order to get the selling price as low as possible.

My response is just the opposite. In fact, I think the best strategy for any builder, custom or otherwise, is to add value to the service and to the product, and one way to do so is to set a price on the initial design service. Doing so informs the customers’ attitudes from the outset and puts us in the position of working for the customer as a lifestyle provider – a win/win proposition, because you make money for your skill and experience while the customer perceives and receives value simply by speaking with you.

In other words, charging for design work raises the bar for the entire design process and the subsequent installation.


I know that part of the natural resistance to our doing designs and commanding a price for them is that most people in this industry are not trained designers – as are architects, for example. I recognize that I’m not in that professional league, but, fortunately, I also recognize the fact that I don’t have to be in order to place a value on my designs.

When it comes to this part of my work, I have several options at my disposal but choose in almost all cases to do my own hand drawings. This is where I apply all of the detective work I’ve done with my clients and site, working on quality vellum sheets with artists’ pens, pencils and watercolors. I use various templates for things such as roofing materials, and I’ve worked hard to learn various techniques for conveying details like trees, the water’s surface and various hardscape elements.

Another option for those who face too great a volume of work to take time with hand drawings (or who simply don’t want to draw) are computer-aided design systems. Although I believe that my clients value the hand-crafted look of my drawings, there’s no doubt that computers are wonderful tools for those who don’t have the inclination or ability to draw by hand. Especially for companies that work at higher volumes, computer drawings are great because designs can be done more quickly. Some of these programs also generate equipment specifications and sizing details once basic parameters are set.

If you want to offer hand-drawn plans but lack the necessary skills or inclination, you also have the option of hiring a graphic artist to do the work for you. Many of these professionals offer services ranging from basic line drawings to full 3-D renderings complete with perspective and tremendous detail. This involves developing a working relationship with an artist and a fairly high level of communication as you discuss the scope and elements of the design, but it’s an effort that can pay off, particularly as a custom touch with higher-end jobs.

Bottom line: Even those builders who don’t put a great deal of time or effort into each and every design should think twice before giving away a design, even for something as simple as a rectangular pool with few bells or whistles. If my own designs were less elaborate than they are, I’d still want to charge a nominal fee for the service just to reinforce the value of the time, energy and skill involved in the design process!


As I just noted, I lean heavily toward hand-drawing – and I strongly recommend picking up the skills yourself if you have even the slightest inclination to learn.

You don’t have to be a natural to pursue this path, and take it from me, the process of gaining skill and confidence as you learn how to draw can be exciting. Lots of community colleges offer introductory courses in basic drawing or even architectural drawing or landscape architecture. Trade shows sometimes offer drawing courses, and drawing is the cornerstone of the Genesis 3 Design School.

I find the drawing process itself to be rewarding and personally satisfying, and I’m always learning new tricks. I remember how excited I was when I learned what I could do after filling in the water surface with a blue background: By placing a piece of sandpaper underneath the paper and lightly rubbing a white pencil over the rough surface, you can create an effect of foaming or churning water – a small detail, but one that looks great (and can’t be rendered with a computer).

These tricks and techniques all can be used to accentuate features and call attention to details you’ve included in the plans. For example, I prefer to include details of pathways in and around my watershapes; I’ll even highlight the location of the nearest bathroom to show that I’ve paid attention both to my customers’ needs and the full layout of the property. This is where all the attention I pay to my clients and their home before putting pencil to page truly pays off.

In other words, your ability to customize your renderings – whether they’re done by hand, computer or hired artist – demonstrates value to the customer to a far greater extent than would listing a long set of features in a written proposal.

This brings me to the final point about drawings – one that applies whether you’re charging for the service or not: Drawings enable customers to visualize their watershape and the overall environment you’ve designed. This visualization is a wonderful selling tool: The better job you do in preparing the drawings, the better able your customers will be to see just what you’re talking about and place themselves mentally in the space you want to create.


It’s not enough to do a nice drawing: You also need to use it effectively to get full value from your investment of time.

The way I see it, my drawings pull clients into the design process and prepare them to work creatively with our firm. Presentation counts, so I always mount the original drawing on a white background, frame it with a black mat, stow it in a nice leather case and make a big production of “unveiling” it when the time comes.

I’ve been selling design services this way since 1988. In the intervening years, I’ve had only one client reject a design outright. Many other customers have had lapses in wisdom and hired someone else to build the project, but I was in all cases compensated for my work.

In most cases – upwards of 90%, I’d say – my clients accept the design as is, offering little or no feedback for revisions. When they do ask for revisions, I’m happy to oblige (sometimes for an additional fee), and I do so knowing that their imaginations are fully engaged in the process.

That’s when the work gets both rewarding and satisfying: When you engage the customer in the process and see the excitement in their eyes, when you see them seeing themselves enjoying the design you’ve brought to the discussion, then you know deep down that you are providing something that has real value.

As a client, I’d pay for that. As a designer, you can be damned certain I’ll charge for it.

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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