By Jim McCloskey
For more than 20 years now, both as a printed magazine and as the WaterShapes web site, we’ve focused more or less exclusively on custom, high-end, full-featured projects, the thought always being that by offering a steady diet of information about watershaping at the highest levels, we’d do the best possible job of elevating all the trades involved in the design, engineering and construction of pools, ponds, fountains and various other waterfeatures.
I sense now that this elevated targeting might be problematic. Heck, what I’ve been observing locally for the past few months is making me nostalgic for cookie-cutter, inexpensive pools of the sort I grew up with and now have in my own backyard – the kind that dot our neighborhood in Woodland Hills, Calif., a place where the earliest generations of residential swimming pools dating to the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s are still in the ground and still being used.
My own kidney-shaped pool, built in 1981 or ’82, had some nice upgrades, including a raised bond beam, an attached spa and, for its day, a robust equipment set – and it was clearly something within reach of the young family that owned the house before we did. More important, our pool was not alone: Over the fence to both sides are much older rectangular watershapes, even more modest and just as family-friendly.
These and other pools in our neighborhood were nice enough for years, but now I’m hearing that they’re seen (and widely dismissed) as “starter” pools that require serious updates and upgrades to make them interesting in real-estate transactions. It’s a by-product, I think, of the consumer media’s fascination with glamorous pools as well as of a crop of cable television shows that put elaborate poolscapes on display and are setting homeowners up with outsized expectations of what backyard water is all about.
I’m happy to observe that the pond industry – young by comparison to the pool and fountain sectors – still fully embraces the concept of “starter” ponds. In fact, that industry has done itself a favor by internalizing the thought that most pond owners go through three levels of possible involvement as they get used to being around living ecosystems. So a starter pond is followed by a bigger pond and then, and often finally, by a third and quite amazing pond.
I can foresee a time when pondmakers will start jumping over the preliminary steps and use their knowledge of consumer behavior to persuade clients to vault right to the third stage. I would mourn such a change, preferring instead to witness the formation of relationships that might last 20 or more years as homeowners gradually figure out what they really want.
Of course, the simpler processes and practicalities of pond creation make these relationships more fluid and forgiving in the modern marketplace. By comparison, swimming pools seem immutable, with upgrades and renovations involving substantial commitments of time and funding.
And don’t get me started about public pools that cost tens of millions of dollars to build and assorted millions to repair. Again, it makes me nostalgic for the drab middle-school pool where I learned to swim: Built during the Great Depression, that one came cheap and was light on fine details, but it served generation after generation of children as they learned to swim – no slide, no climbing wall, no splash pad, no climbing frame or water cannon or lazy river in sight.
My fear is that we stand to lose a lot if entry-level pools (and other basic watershape types, for that matter) are pushed aside – hence my emerging concern about WaterShapes’ role in all of this. If costs continue to rise and watershapes slip entirely beyond reach of young families who require little more than a ready, basic source of recreation and relaxation through long, hot summers, where does watershaping go?
Where will new swimmers come from if public pools aren’t built at all or are too expensive to repair? Where will tradespeople learn the ropes if fewer pools get built and no wells of experience continue to develop? Is the watershaping industry driving quality, price and features up with a long-term vision of what that means for the future?
I console myself by hoping that followers of WaterShapes will see what’s coming and respond in productive ways to marketplace dynamics. If you’re already thinking about the importance of starter-level products, that’s great. If you’re not, please do: The industry’s future may well depend on it!
What are your thoughts on this subject? Please let me know by commenting below!