Here’s a question that cuts to the heart of what custom aquatic design is all about: Do you charge for design work? 

Traditionally, pool and spa industry professionals have kept design at somewhat of arm’s distance, meaning ours is an industry that, for the most part, has given away designs as a sales strategy. That practice, I believe, is one of the defining elements that separates aquatic design from other disciplines such as landscape architecture, architecture and interior design, to name a few. 

That started to change about 15 years ago when Genesis 3 came on the scene. I remember it like it was yesterday — the first time I heard anyone advocate charging a fee for design work. At first, the message was greeted with varying measures of reluctance, skepticism and cautious acceptance. For many, the concept was initially foreign and almost unthinkable. Charging design fees was simply not something that they had ever considered. 

Since then, a class of pool builders have embraced charging for designs with many reporting that doing so has transformed their business and elevated their status with potential clients. Charging a design fee has also helped many contend with clients who accept a free design and then contract with someone else to do the work, leaving the builder who did the design work out in the cold. 

Nowadays, it’s common for a builder to generate a design under a separate contract. Oftentimes that leads to a construction contract, while in other cases, the clients take the design and shop around. Either way, by charging for the design work, the builder has something to show for their effort. 

“It enables you to differentiate yourself from companies that don’t charge for design and it allows you to set time aside to do a better, more complete job on your client’s behalf,” says Scott Cohen, president of the Green Scene, a Los Angeles-based designer and builder of custom landscapes and aquatic environments. “I charge for all our designs and won’t even consider talking to a prospective client if they’re not willing to pay for my time. Going into the process with that understanding sets a tone with the client and supports the idea that they’re paying you for experience and talent.” 

Cohen’s firm has gained a reputation for tremendously creative projects that are uniquely tailored to his upscale clientele’s tastes and desires. “By charging for designs,” he says, “you’re able to elevate the work. It leads to better projects that in turn lead to other great projects. I can’t imagine doing it any other way.”

For as good an idea as charging design fees may be, it’s one that also raises a question that continues to vex the industry: What qualifies someone to demand a design fee? In other words, what does it take to become a bonafide “designer?”

As my good friend David Tisherman and other like-minded professionals often point out, simply declaring yourself a designer does not mean that you’re qualified. After all, design skill is something that has to be learned somehow. Even for those with a natural aptitude for design work, the process requires disciplines and rigors that are tough to come by outside of a formal educational setting. 

In other fields, such as landscape architecture, practitioners can point to their formal education as a credential supporting for-hire design work. The same thing is true of architects and certainly so for engineers. The pool industry, by contrast, does not have formal education as a bar for entry into the business. Fact is, most people in our industry have learned by doing. There are certainly builders these days who have become self-educated and/or have improved their skills by attending design-oriented programs, but to a large extent, the industry is populated by those who have learned from the proverbial “school of hard knocks.”  

That’s why for the most part, the de facto credential most point to is their track record. There’s no doubt that years of practical experience can result in skill sets necessary for design work, but there’s no guarantee that’s the case, so the issue of who is and isn’t qualified to do design work remains fuzzy at best. And there are those who point out that some people hanging out a design shingle in truth have no business doing so. 

It’s also important to note that being paid for design isn’t for everyone. According to Cohen, “There’s a lot of money to be made doing production-oriented work using design templates. There’s nothing wrong with that approach if that’s what you want to do. To reach beyond that, you have to invest in your own knowledge and skills, and that takes time, resources and effort.” 

In a perfect world, aquatic design will someday be supported by university-level education, and while there have been some inroads to that high-minded goal, the fact is, as it stands, those educational programs for the most part don’t exist. In the meantime, the designation as a “designer” in this industry is one that lacks an academic underpinning. Yes, there are degrees that can be re-appropriated into the aquatic realm, but there’s no direct roadmap, no identifiable criteria. 

On one hand, I believe we should applaud those people who now charge for their creative output, especially those, like Cohen, who have done the hard work of studying and implementing designs. On the other, there remains a cautionary tale about the legitimacy of those doing the designing. 

It’s a problem for which there is no immediate answer. 

Eric Herman is Senior Editor of AQUA Magazine.