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Aquatic architecture is an art form that can encompass the vast world of design traditions. Here, designer/builder Kevin Fleming discusses his transition from template-based production work to high-end custom projects driven by his design background. As he explains, reaching beyond the ordinary requires a commitment to education and work to elevate construction standards, a career-long campaign of professional improvement that is well worth the effort.
About 15 years ago, I worked for a builder here in the Northeast that focused almost exclusively on pools built using design templates, projects that many would call “cookie cutters.” Suffice to say it was not an overly satisfying professional experience.
Although I don’t by any means begrudge people who work in that arena, I found I was constantly frustrated by the headaches that come with competing on price, lower construction standards and the lack of financial rewards. I was educated as a landscape architect but quickly learned that working for a high-production builder pretty much meant forgetting everything I knew about design in favor of squeezing every dime out each project.
To make a very long story short, I made a conscious decision to change course. Good fortune came my way through a series of events that led me to partner with, and be mentored by, David Tisherman, who, as many know, is an outspoken critic of the pool and spa industry’s overall lack of design expertise and marginal workmanship standards. Those problems that are particularly apparent here in the Northeast, where inexpensive concrete pools and even less expensive vinyl liner pools are treated more as a commodity than anything approaching an art form or serious craft.
Above all else, through my years working with David, I’ve learned that the key to breaking free of the shackles of marginal work boils down to understanding and implementing the design process. I learned that projects based on design rather than repetition results in work that is far more professionally satisfying.
To make that transition, I first needed to completely change my mindset. That required education, travel, classroom sessions and independent study, which ultimately gave me the courage and confidence needed to work with demanding clients of means.
When considering what it takes to make this kind of transition, the first word that comes to mind is education. It’s common sense: To work as a designer — meaning, among other things, being paid for design work — you have to become educated in what design is all about. Design education is the necessary foundation for moving into truly custom work.
You’ve probably heard that before and rather than beating that familiar drum, I’d like to focus instead on the design process as a way to illustrate what it takes to be a genuine “designer.”
That process begins with the initial call from a prospective client. Naturally, the first component of custom design work is simply to understand who your clients are. Rather than trying to turn every lead into a customer, which is typically the goal when you’re involved in volume work, I have become far more discerning, meaning from the first “hello,” I’m as interested in determining if the client is a good fit for me as much or more than convincing them we’re a good fit for them. In fact, a large percentage of prospects who call already have, to some extent, determined for themselves that they want to work with us before picking up the phone.
That’s why my first question is how they heard about us, be it by referral, from our website or some other way. Not only is it useful to find out the avenues that best lead to inquiries, but also depending what they say, there are clues to what their expectations might be.
I also ask a number of basic questions such as where the project located, what the topography is like, if they have an existing pool, if this is part of new construction or a remodel, if they’re looking for a pool or an entire environment, etc. Once I go through those questions, I start to extract what it is they’re looking for, or think they’re looking for. That’s where things become much more interesting.
Oftentimes, the challenge right from the start of that first conversation is that they really don’t know much about the pool design and construction. That’s why there’s a sort of an education process where I talk in brief about things like soils testing, design style, proper engineering, project management and the all-important project budget.
Price is one of the easier issues when it comes to qualifying or disqualifying a client. In our work, we have a floor number under which we will not go, simply because it’s my belief that below a particular price point, it’s not possible to build a pool to a reliable standard.
In our case, given the design and engineering parameters we use, our projects start in the six figures. Those numbers adjust up or down based on site conditions, geotechnical reports, site-specific structural engineering, the materials palette and all of the remaining elements the client wants or needs.
If in that first discussion I learn that the client is shopping around based purely on price, I’m not interested and suggest they look elsewhere. Admittedly when I first started down this path, it felt strange and even unnatural to step away from the prospect. Now, after having worked this way for several years, I’ve become extremely comfortable saying, “We’re not for everyone.”
When they first call, many clients are accustomed to saying something along the lines of, “We want a 20-by-40-foot pool, what does that cost?” My response to that kind of bottom line inquiry is to follow with my litany of questions so that they understand budget is never determined simply by the size of the vessel. It’s like calling a car dealer and saying they want a car, but have no idea about the difference between a Mercedes and a Yugo.
Don’t get me wrong; I do welcome inquiries about price because that opens the door right away to talking about budget and, in some cases, leads to a very short call. On the other hand, when it’s clear the client is not shopping based purely on price and is willing to engage with the design process on the way to establishing a budget, then I know we’ve cleared that hurdle, at least initially. Once we’ve determined that they want a Mercedes, then we can discuss what kind of luxury they want with what option.
What’s interesting and at times tricky about those introductory discussions is that they don’t always come from the homeowners themselves. Often we’re hearing from an architect, landscape architect, general contractor or even the homeowners’ representative. One might tend to think that when you hear from a professional, such as an architect, that they should be more informed than a typical homeowner. Often they are and I can speak to them more specifically about structural engineering or soils testing, but I’ve also found that many are not as aware of the variables as you might imagine.
One of the most common and frustrating challenges I deal with on a regular basis is builders, architects and landscape architects who view the pool as a line item in a bid. A builder, for example, might spend $50,000 on a set of plans for the house, but when it comes to the pool, they’ll show a rectangle on a site plan with absolutely no details and ask for a price.
On one hand, you do have to adjust the discussion based on who’s calling, but to a large extent, regardless of who’s making that initial call, there’s always a need to find out what they know or, more importantly, don’t know about the multiple aspects of the project.
For the purpose of this discussion, let’s assume the client or whoever is calling on their behalf does seem qualified, meaning they realize we’re by far not the least expensive option, that the budget will come only after we are able to pin down a number of project specifics and that the design process is exactly that, a process that will require multiple steps based on a variety of variables.
When I show up at the site of a prospective project, I immediately start looking for design cues while asking the client probing questions that will help me guide them through the process.
I’m considering the home’s architectural style, the furnishings, interior finish materials, artwork, color scheme, existing landscape and hardscape, surrounding views, anything that will give me insight into the clients’ tastes. I ask how they plan to use the pool — are they interested primarily in aesthetics, or do they plan on swimming regularly? Do they throw parties, how often and for how many people? Who is going to use the pool? Do they want the sound of moving water? I’ll also ask more general questions about their interests. Do they travel? Are they inspired by things they’ve seen while traveling? Do they like to cook outdoors?
The more questions you ask, the more specific information you’ll have that will drive the design decisions you recommend.
Quite often, the client doesn’t really know what they want because they haven’t been educated about pools. They have been educated about what faucet to buy for the kitchen, or tile options for their back splash, but the possibilities for pools is relatively unknown to most homeowners. As a designer, it becomes my job to imagine on their behalf, to show them all the beautiful possibilities they haven’t been exposed to. That exploration unfolds when I show them our portfolio. Reason being: when the client sees what he or she wants, it’s not at all unusual for them to decide that can afford a more expensive project than they initially thought, simply because they see options they hadn’t previously considered.
For example, I met with a client recently who didn’t even know that all glass-tile surfaces were available. She he had met with three builders who didn’t have any all tile projects in their portfolio, but when she saw our images of pools with glass tile interiors, she decided that was what she wanted, even though it meant more than doubling the cost of the project.
By the same token, there are times when clients want something that isn’t a good fit from a design standpoint. I run into that issue with features such as vanishing edges on a wind site, or perimeter overflows that don’t’ fit in with the existing architecture, needless fire effects, ugly slides, grottos in settings where they don’t really fit the scene — sometimes less is more.
The process is very much like detective work. Every client is different and every site is different, which means you have use your experience and design acumen to come up with a design program that fits the specifics of that situation. This is where there’s no substitute for design education. After all, unless you know a thing or two about Craftsman style, modernism, Romanesque classicism or any number of other design traditions, it’s impossible to know what you’re looking at and how the elements of those design traditions apply or not apply.
Good designers should always be on the lookout for those kinds of connections that can define the work. Oftentimes, I’ve found that what might at first seem a seemingly insignificant element of the home or its landscape can become an important part of the design scheme. Here’s one example I ran into recently on a first visit.
I went into the backyard and found a complete mess. The landscaping was overgrown and in many ways all wrong for the site. There were pavers that didn’t make much sense and a pond that was badly out of scale. But then I walked around a corner and found a beautiful 300-year old maple tree. Underneath it was an extremely old garden scattered with blue stone with moss growing in-between, an old rubble well also covered in moss and a small stone retaining wall that transitioned into an Argentinian grille structure.
When I commented on the scene beneath the tree they said, “We’re so glad you like it because this our favorite part of the yard. At that moment, I suggested that it become the inspiration for the design. I could see right away that the rustic scene could easily be expanded, which made perfect sense from a design standpoint and I then knew that it would make the clients happy.
I suggested that we locate the pool in an adjacent area on the lawn and continue with the broken, aged look of the pavers. I explained that we’d design it so the space was useable as a deck while retaining the rustic appearance. In my mind, I also knew that keying off the old set of structures and the tree would drive color and material choices. The basic concept simply became making everything look like it had been there a long time and had been well preserved.
Based on that program, I could see the interior finish would be darker, and the coping wouldn’t be precise or highly disciplined, but instead comprised of large, slightly uneven stone slabs. Ultimately, the pool would look like an old reflecting pond.
As for the tree, we planned to position the pool close enough so the tree reflects in the pool, but not so close as to compromise its root structure. I also explained that we would rebuild the area beneath the tree using much of existing materials. I asked them if they ever had considered having a pizza oven, which have become fairly popular these days. They loved the idea and now we’re taking the dilapidated barbecue and turning it into a pizza oven. I also suggested turning the old well into a fire pit. In addition, we’re going to reconfigure the space so it becomes a functional cooking area.
Had this been an ultra contemporary setting, for example, those suggestions would’ve been wrongheaded, but as it was, we had hit on the basic design direction in just a few minutes, one that excited the customer and made perfect sense for the setting.
The homeowners had talked to a handful of other builders, all whom wanted to put the pool smack in the middle of the yard. Now, by putting the pool more off to the side close the tree, we’re able to create an entire scene that has visual continuity and large dose of old-world charm. In this case, the clients don’t have the budget to redo the entire back property, it’s probably 3-4 acres, but by creating this outdoor room, they have an elegant and comfortable destination and may well come back at a later date and update the rest of the yard.
As professionals, we need to know more about what we do than anyone else does. Through design knowledge, we can accentuate and amplify styles and create emotional connections between the clients and the work.
We need to be able to talk about design traditions and explain the details and why they’re so beautiful. We need to understand color theory and explain the choices we make, including the material selections and every other element that goes into the design.
All of that means we are passionate about design and can convey that passion through the way we communicate. It’s our job to find ways to inspire and excite the client, to let them know they’re going to have something no one else does and that as their designers, we’re applying what we know to give them the best possible outcome.
When you reach that level, it’s a lot more rewarding than building the same thing over and over again.
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