photo of pool tile art
Photos by Randy Beard | Pure Water Pools
photo of pool tile art

photo of pool tile art

Designer and builder Randy Beard of Pure Water Pools (Costa Mesa, Calif.) has established himself as one of Southern California's premier custom aquatics specialists. Serving an affluent clientele located mostly in the well-healed communities of Orange County's south coast, much of his work in recent years has focused on renovations, projects that often result in truly memorable transformations.

It may sound a little corny, but when you stop and think about it, some remodel projects are so amazing in their outcomes that you might accurately compare them to caterpillars and butterflies. The humble caterpillar undergoes a hidden transformation to emerge as the airborne and colorful butterfly, inarguably one of nature's most delicately exquisite creatures. Likewise, when certain lackluster pools and spas are recreated with artistry and skill, they become something far different and grand, as well – nothing less than true works of aquatic artistry.

Call it the ugly-duckling syndrome, Pygmalion aquatics-style, or the pool version of Extreme Makeover; such transformations deliver the ultimate "Wow!" factor. It's the magic of the before-and-after picture and exactly why one of the great joys of remodeling swimming pools lies in the opportunity to change things for the better.

The project pictured here, like many remodels, was all about that thrill of recreation, a process driven by the clients who made no bones about the fact they wanted something spectacular to replace their dreary existing pool and spa. Perhaps it's no coincidence then that throughout the design they insisted on images of butterflies.

FROM THE GROUND

We'll get back to the butterflies below, but in far more terrestrial terms, remodeling work has become critical to the survival of our industry. Clients who remain affluent are far more prone now than they were three or more years ago to focus on what they have in favor of "buying up" in the real estate market, all part of the hunker-down mind-set that's worked its own transformation on our economy. Rather than sink money into new properties, these all-important upper-middle-class to wealthy consumers are investing in their surroundings and sometimes the results are truly transforming.

photo of pool tile art
The deep color of the field supports reflections, while the mosaics reward closer viewing, all conspiring to create a scene that is both subtle and dramatic. (Photos by Randy Beard | Pure Water Pools)
photo of pool tile art

photo of pool tile art

This class of client is keeping many of us in the design and construction side of the business in the game as we all hope and wait for our economy to finally rev up again. Maximizing these opportunities means developing the ability to look at what's there and re-imagine the scene; then render that vision through close focus on details and perfect execution.

In this case, there was a lot to work with. The house was originally a spec home, and although it's obvious the basic layout and concept of the pool and spa combo was done by someone with true design skills, whoever built them went on the cheap when it came to finish materials and overall product selection. The pool had good bones from both a design and structural perspective, but was badly lacking in hydraulic function and execution of aesthetic details.

Like many projects, this one came by way of personal referral; a neighbor in this case who we had worked for in the past. Always a great starting point with a new client, in today's sales environment, it's critical to follow up that referral with a strong online presence as well as sophisticated presentation materials. That's why I always direct clients to my website and other online resources and litter their coffee tables with photos and brochures.

In this case, it was almost too easy. The clients wanted to create a pool and spa that was aesthetically on par with their beautiful Spanish Colonial-style estate home, located overlooking the Pacific in a development known as Pelican Crest, an ultra-wealth enclave in Newport Beach, Calif. Although as unpretentious and down-to-earth as just about anyone you could hope to meet, these clients had an ample budget and an abiding love of art, travel and the finer things in life. Spending well into the six figures, suffice to say they spared no expense in upgrading their private slice of aquatic paradise.

MAKING THE WORKS

The existing pool wasn't a complete catastrophe, as are many we still see these days. It had a nice rectilinear design complimented by a sweeping radius vanishing with an attached spa. The entire affair measures about 35-by-18 feet containing approximately 30,000 gallons, all well positioned on the lot to take advantage the beautiful ocean views, surrounded by some lovely limestone decking the clients wisely wanted to keep in place.

As is true of many remodels, there were two sides to the project: the aesthetic treatment and correcting past technical errors. Starting with the technical side, there were two primary problems. First, the circulation system wasn't designed properly and was suffering from the common misstep of slightly undersized plumbing and an oversized pump.

photo of pool tile art
We increased the system's surge capacity by raising the outer wall of the vanishing edge trough, which also created more space for the mosaics. (Photos by Randy Beard | Pure Water Pools)
photo of pool tile art

Because the clients wanted to leave the decking undisturbed, we were left to correct the hydraulics primarily by way of replacing the pumps with Pentair's Intelliflow variable-speed drive units, which we could easily calibrate to match the optimum flow requirements of the system. We replaced the entire equipment set with Pentair products, including a new heater and filter, as well as a new Compool Control system.

It helped that the suction-side plumbing was three inches and the return two inches; smaller than we would have selected but still large enough that it enabled us to use the adjustable setting on the pumps to observe proper line velocities.

Also on the hydraulics front, the catch basin for the vanishing edge was too small and was overflowing whenever the clients' kids jumped in the water. We solved that problem simply by raising the outside wall of the basin 18 inches, increasing the surge capacity well beyond any reasonably anticipated bather load. We also reworked the drain configurations, increasing the sizes of the sumps so that the system was, as best we can determine, in compliance with current VGB standards.

It's worth noting that according to the client, we've reduced the monthly operating cost of the pool by 50 percent.

ROOFING RECIPES

photo of pool tile artAs mentioned in the adjoining text, one of the reasons that we tent many of our projects these days is so that we can carefully control curing times for many of the products we use, especially waterproofing products.

There's been a great deal of discussion about waterproofing over the past few years and I've come down on the side of those who believe that it only makes sense to use these products when constructing concrete structures that hold water. It's a great way to ensure your work won't leak.

Unfortunately, there is no magic pill when it comes to waterproofing. There are scores of products on the market and they each have specific uses and application techniques. If you have a pool that's up in the air, for example, with no "positive side" water pressure, there are certain products you can use. If the pool is in soil, there are different products you'll use. There are topical products, products used in the concrete mix, some that create impenetrable membranes, others that alter the chemical structures in the concrete mix.

You can never just say, "I use this specific product and it's going to cover the variety of circumstances." The recipe has to be versatile because the circumstances we face are so different. Some of these products are cementitious products that contain acrylic, some are elastomeric, and you always have to be aware of the characteristics and the compatibility of the various products. Some will create bonding problems with thinset on tile surfaces; others will fuse with the thinset and create an even stronger bond.

My point here is not to be prescriptive. The world of waterproofing is far too broad and worthy of several discussions. You have to do your homework and a big part of that involves understanding the application techniques and how long things need to set up and under what conditions.

Using the tent helps us control those conditions and stack the deck in favor of a vessel that effectively and reliably holds water.

— R.B.

UNDER THE TENT

The lion's share of the work came on the aesthetic side of the project. For starters, the vanishing edges in the pool and the spa were battered away from the pools, which makes the pools appear smaller and in my view creates an awkward visual effect looking back toward the pool from the down-slope side of the property.

We removed the tops of the walls and recast them with the edges angled back toward the house, a fairly typical adjustment made on many vanishing edge remodels.

The remainder of the work was all about the surfaces. The existing pool had a common French gray plaster and cheap waterline tile. We probably could have gotten away with simply removing the tile and sandblasting the surface in preparation for the new all-tile mosaic surfaces, but that's not the way we do things in our company. I believe it's far better to completely strip the pool down to the gunite to ensure proper adhesion of the new surface materials. Also, in this case, when taking into account the new float material and thickness of the tile, the surface would have been thicker than the original plaster and changed the internal dimensions of the shell.

Also, taking the pool down to the concrete affords you the opportunity to implement a comprehensive waterproofing program, which I discuss briefly in the sidebar which accompanies this story.

Once the pool was completely stripped and all debris meticulously removed, we erected a tent over the vessel, which enabled us to control the working conditions. Over the past few years I've noticed that almost all the top tile installers have started tenting projects. Not only does that measure provide shade and more comfortable working conditions, it's a great way to keep random dust from wind out of the work area, it also helps stabilize temperatures and prevent delays due to rain.

Even in the mild climes of coastal Southern California, you can run into issues with temperature fluctuations and occasional precipitation, which can result in frustrating delays and even setbacks in the installation process. These days, manufacturers of waterproofing agents as well as tile installation products offer precise recommendations for curing times, which are crucial in preventing problems down the line. With the tent in place, you can ensure that the conditions will remain stable enough to allow those hydration and curing processes to take place.

On the comfort side, the tent creates a sort of subterranean room, where the ground itself insulates extremes of both hot and cold. Suffice to say, it's a great way to work and worth ever penny of the added cost.

photo of pool tile art
We increased the system’s surge capacity by raising the outer wall of the vanishing edge trough. (Photos by Randy Beard | Pure Water Pools)

The tent stood for a full three months as we installed the various waterproofing products and then the float, thin-set, tile and finally the grout. And yes, you could compare the tent to a chrysalis or cocoon for the way it sheltered the exquisite transformation within.

NATURAL IMAGERY

After the initial waterproofing agents had all been applied and allowed to set properly, we went to work re-floating the entire pool, creating some precise and elegant contours on the steps and benches. Throughout that process, we checked and rechecked everything using water levels.

All of our crews are in-house and have been carefully trained in the fine points, including the use of water levels, which are infallibly accurate, so long as the two-man teams know exactly how to read the level. We maintain a strict 1/64-inch tolerance, but are almost always able to nail levels and dimensions on the button.

All of this set the stage for the centerpiece of the project, the tile mosaics. We worked closely with supplier Vita Nova Mosaics (Pacoima, Calif.) to develop both field tile treatments and spectacular mosaics the now grace the vertical surfaces of both the interior walls and the outside vanishing-edge wall.

photo of pool tile art
We completely stripped and then re-floated the entire structure, yielding clean surface and precise dimensions the extensive mosaic installation would later require. (Photos by Randy Beard | Pure Water Pools)

I've worked the talented artists at Vita Nova several times and their process always fascinates me. On this outing, the clients poured through scores of sample images, and mostly original sketches to come up with the various images. Those drawings were then transferred to massive digital plotter files, which in turn were plotted onto full-scale pages that were then used by the tile artists as patterns. Using a variety of stone, ceramic and glass tile materials, the team at Vita Nova painstakingly composed the mosaics by hand, then packed and shipped them with detailed templates and instructions.

The interior surface was rendered in beautiful emerald green with geometric patterns of varying blacks and reds, articulating steps and the border of the floor. When filled, the surface creates a deep reflective quality that captures surrounding landscape as well as the mosaics that rise above the water on the house side.

The mosaics are genuine works of art. The background is done in a subtle shifting mosaic of earth tones, giving the impression of a weathered plaster wall that you might find in the aging buildings of Tuscany, Italy, for example. Those subtle tones provide a beautiful contrast to the effusive mosaic illustrations that almost burst with a colorful variety of botanical elements of vine, flower, grass and shrub. There are classic architectural and geometric details and, yes, as so preciously mentioned above, lots and lots of butterflies.

Most notable of all, a mosaic illustration depicting a perspective view through arches looking out toward a Mediterranean countryside now festoons the outside of the vanishing-edge wall. Reminiscent of the landscapes painted by El Greco, we see distant Moorish buildings, rolling fields of an abundant countryside and iconic forms of Italian cypress, grape vines and bougainvillea.

The entire composition reminds me of richly brocaded tapestry you might stumble across strolling the Mercato Centrale in the San Lorenzo district of Florence, or perhaps a fresco found in a Venetian palazzo. There's no pretense of realism in this style of mosaic, but instead clearly derivative echoes of classic images of the Renaissance. For all the classic provenance of the images, one of the things I love most about this work in particular is how the element of whimsy neutralizes any sense of stuffiness. The clients' playful spirit shows through at every turn, mostly courtesy of the butterflies.

Not surprising, the attention to detail required by this kind of work is the hallmark of projects like this. The examples are too numerous to describe here, but I was particularly proud of the way we worked things so that the drains and fittings don't disrupt the aesthetics. In the spa, for example, there's a beautiful illustration of a lily on the floor. The drain cover sets directly in the flower's center so that the ring of the drain covers looks like part of the illustration. We used "pebble lids" for all the drains, which we filled in portions of the mosaics.

EMERGENT BEAUTY

The big payoff came when the tent came down and the pool was filled and operating. It was one of those great revelatory moments that you can't fully anticipate. The interplay of the materials and the water, the distant views, the beautiful home worked as if Mother Nature herself had been on the design team.

Okay, now I'm really overstating things now, but this one does stand for everything that's fun and beautiful about great remodel projects. Certainly, human hands will never come close to executing the magic that nature seems to so effortlessly weave, but when we have the opportunity to reach creatively, the power of change remains ever inspiring.

Comments or thoughts on this article? Please e-mail eric@aquamagazine.com.