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Between the warmth, abundant sunshine and ample rain, tropical locales around the globe are among the most lush and leisurely found anywhere. Many of those regions, such as Central America and the Caribbean, boast a seemingly endless number of desirable vacation spots famous for oceanic lifestyles, verdant forests and luxurious homes and resorts.
For those who design and build aquatic outdoor environments, these settings offer both great opportunities and, often, significant challenges. Here we'll look at what it's like to work in southern latitudes through the eyes of two master practitioners experienced in creating properties that excite the senses and stir the imagination.
Joan Roca, president of IMERZION Corp., Panama City, has been designing and building luxury swimming pools and their surrounding environments since 1975. Originally from Spain, Roca, who has designed pools in Costa Rica, Panama and Nicaragua, has gained widespread acclaim for his designs; his work has been widely published and is considered to be some of the best in all of Central America.
He rejects the idea of working in a particular style in favor of taking his design cues from the client and the setting. That flexibility has served Roca well as the region, although entirely tropical in climate, is extremely diverse in culture, economics, politics and topography.
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"My work is about looking for harmony with the environment," he says. "For example, the pool I built at my home in Costa Rica is surrounded by nature, so even though it's obviously built by man, it's designed to be a part of its natural surroundings. In Panama, the areas where we work are very different, there's a lot of concrete and buildings. Here we're building pools high above the landscape as part of the architecture. The pools we build in nature you would never build on the fifth floor of a high-rise or the penthouse. There it's more minimalist and geometric.
"Here in Central America there are many different types of settings and every property is different, so it's very difficult to make a general statement. Every project is its own statement."
While Roca's projects are influenced by the surroundings, he makes no pretense that his designs mimic their settings. Instead, they are meant to complement the environment, often taking advantage of vistas and providing dynamic proximity to natural elements. "When you try to compete with nature you're dead," he says. "Most pools look man made, so you use shapes, colors, materials and features that harmonize with the surroundings, but it still has the personality of a pool."
Unlike many other designers who rely on photo-intensive presentation materials in client discussions, Roca has developed an unusual style of deliberately not showing prospective clients photos of his past work or that of others. "I want to see what they have in their minds, so I never think about trends and what is or isn't in style."
Although he doesn't like to generalize about his work, Roca does say that his efforts in Central America are typically simpler than much of the high-end work found in the U.S.
"When I look at a lot of pools that are done in the United States, there is some beautiful work, but a lot of it is very busy with lots of features," he says. "You see a lot of decoration, laminar jets, fire features and perimeter overflows. I'm not criticizing it because that's what the customer wants, but in my work I often do much more simple designs without so many features."
Outside of the big cities like San Jose, Costa Rica and Panama City, working in Central America often means operating in rural areas where logistics are challenging and costly. "Customs and taxes makes everything more expensive, and it takes longer. But if you compare a pool built here to the same one in the U.S., it's still probably more expensive in the States because of labor costs."
Like in North America, Roca says it can be difficult to find skilled labor in Central America, a condition that has directly influenced his construction techniques.
"For a long time, we built shells with block systems because there aren't gunite crews available," he explains. "So I bought our own gunite rig and we built about a hundred pools with gunite. But here it's very difficult because it's hard to find trained crews, and if you're not building a lot of pools it's not very efficient economically. So we switched from gunite to poured-in-place concrete. We pour the floors and then we form and pour the walls — and we haven't had any problems."
Roca is outspoken about the lack of quality design and construction he sees throughout the region and has worked hard to become one of the few quality alternatives. "I don't think about what's popular here because what's popular is very bad. The big problem is that low-quality construction drives down costs. In Panama, many people have become accustomed to very low prices, and when you present them with what a pool will cost to build correctly they often think they can get it for much, much less. But then later, they have serious problems and they don't understand. I try not to work with those kind of people and I will turn down projects where they won't pay to have the project built correctly."
Mike Nantz, president of Elite Concepts in Lewisville, Texas, has been designing and building custom pool environments since 1991. A master member of the Society of Watershape Designers and longtime Genesis 3 student and instructor, he frequently collaborates with architects, pool builders and other professionals for design and pool construction.
Nantz began splitting time between his work in the U.S. and St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands in 2005. Since then, he has designed a number of projects on the islands of St. Croix, Jamaica, Antigua and Nevis; he has also worked in Costa Rica and Mexico. Nantz is an avid traveler and student of design and takes pride in challenging projects across a spectrum of styles and environments.
His work in the Caribbean started by chance when he was contacted by an affluent St. Croix resident who had seen his work on the cover of a magazine. A dozen years later, he has become established in the region and owns a home in St. Croix.
"It all goes back to the idea that travel always enhances design," he says. "When you go different places, it expands your perspective; you look at things differently and gain a more educated point of view. You see different settings, cultural traditions, history and how those things have influenced people and society in different places. Working in the Caribbean, where each island has its own set of characteristics, only adds more arrows to the quiver."
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Nantz always works to create dynamic environments that take their cues from the client, the home's architecture and the setting. In the Caribbean, that has not meant building lagoon-style pools surrounded by palm trees and waterfalls, but instead mostly contemporary designs featuring clean lines and modernist details. Nevertheless, the tropical oceanic settings at his doorstep are part of his design inspiration.
"Certainly the jungles, the proximity to the ocean and topography create opportunities and challenges," he says. "But that doesn't mean I'm trying to mimic the surroundings. I instead respond to the client and the setting."
Somewhat ironically, the first design he created for the client on St. Croix was very organic. Located in a wild jungle setting, the design scheme was intended to evoke the feeling of a decaying sugar-cane plantation. "I was very influenced by the history of the island, which was basically all about sugar-cane production for the country of Denmark," Nantz says. "The plantations influenced everything. I used that as the basis for the overall design motif. Unfortunately, that design was never built. Instead the client opted for a small, very contemporary design in a courtyard, even though they did like my original concept."
In the dozen-plus years since, all of his work in the Caribbean has been contemporary. "You don't really see so-called 'lagoon-style' pools or naturalistic designs," he says. "When I talk to architects working in the islands, they all say that most people coming into the area who have money want something that looks new and fresh. They want glass so they can see the water and the landscape. Back in Texas, we do get people who want very natural looking environments, ponds with lots of rockwork and planted areas, but that's not been the case in the Caribbean."
The Caribbean Sea contains 28 island nations and more than 7,000 separate islands. The diversity found among the islands is one of the region's calling cards, and their remote beauty is one of the main reasons many people choose to return — and even stay permanently. For all of that rich appeal, however, the distance and differences from place to place can make working in the Caribbean challenging.
Nantz admits he's undergone a learning curve when it comes to logistics like acquiring equipment and materials, as well as procuring skilled labor. "My first stumble was when we were installing glass tile on my first project on St. Croix," he recalls. "The homeowner assured me he knew a local installer who knew how to set glass tile. Turns out he had never worked with glass tile before and had no idea how to do it. So, I wound up flying my tile installer from Texas down there to work on the project for three days. I also had to fire the plumber because he was doing almost everything wrong, and so had to also bring in my plumber from Texas."
Nonetheless, Nantz has diligently worked to find local craftsmen needed to execute his detailed designs and routinely consults with local contractors to make sure the work is up to his high standards. But, he admits, it is still very much an imperfect process.
"One of my most recent projects, a huge 4,000-square-foot pool on Jamaica, was all done with local labor," he explains. "It wasn't perfect by any means, but we got through it and there haven't been any major problems."
Working offshore also means getting specific with details such as electrical utilities, which operate at different frequencies than in the U.S. Most of all, the devil is in the details when it comes to moving materials through customs on the different islands.
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"It definitely takes longer with materials and equipment, and you have to be aware of the laws, which are different from island to island," he explains. "In Jamaica, for example, everything has to be assigned to a local entity that receives it and then transfers it to the jobsite. There's a tremendous amount of paperwork involved and you definitely run into delays even when you have everything in order. You have to address things in a specific way. If not, it gets stuck."
While the Caribbean is famous for its inviting climate, its southern latitude comes with powerful ultraviolet rays that can present big issues, especially for pool equipment.
"Because of where you are on the globe, the UV rays are intense and can destroy equipment. Every equipment set we do has some type of roof or shade structure," Nantz explains. "Otherwise, the client will wind up having to frequently replace those components. It's a straightforward solution and it's absolutely necessary."
Finally, building surrounding structures means coming up to speed on construction techniques for hurricane-force winds. "You don't really have to worry about that too much with pools themselves because of their low profile," he says. "But anything with a profile, such as an outbuilding or shade structures, you have to secure them with hurricane straps and other reinforcing measures. It's all part of working in that environment — you have to understand the potential impact of high winds."
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