Just add water

Features - Formulas for Success

Before you dive into the pool business, take some notes from these professionals who know what it takes to design and install the ultimate water feature.

March 17, 2014

Pools are a natural fit for a landscape design/build firm that wants to add a dynamic dimension to projects. But it’s not a service to plunge into without careful study of the education and licensing required to execute pool projects. Lawn & Landscape spoke with three pool professionals about how they do it successfully.


Build by the book

Water adds another “sense” to the landscape, and the intimate outdoor spaces Scott Cohen designs for clients gain more texture, tranquility and recreational appeal when a pool is involved.

“It’s not just how pools look – but how they sound, and the environments we create by combining water with fire effects, with the reflection of trees and plantings and texture,” says Cohen, owner of The Green Scene in Chatsworth, Calif., and author of nine books, including PoolScapes and The Candid Contractor.

Pools set the mood in an outdoor living space. So incorporating this feature into a landscape is only natural for high-end designers like Cohen.

Cohen is a licensed landscape contractor, a general contractor and pool contractor in the state of California.

“We can design everything for homeowners, so they only have to manage one contract and one company rather than coordinating multiple contractors,” he says.

There is a huge learning curve in building pools. Common “rookie mistakes” can cost thousands in fines and repairs. Cohen inspects defects in the field for the Contractors State License Board and construction defect attorneys.

Soil is the culprit for two key problems that Cohen spots in pool designs installed by inexperienced contractors.

While landscapers are accustomed to testing soil for acidity or alkalinity, or its composition, the expansive nature of soil is often overlooked.

“We have to know what kind of soil we are dealing with because the pool shell needs to be designed to accommodate that,” he says, explaining why a soil test is always recommended before breaking ground.

Then, there’s the issue of differential settlement. The deep end of the pool might dig down into native soil, while the shallow end exposes “fill” soil used to grade properties.

Soils settle differently over time, which is why a crack may form in the middle of the pool shell, where it ramps up from the deep end to the shallow area. Cohen says involving a structural engineer can mitigate such issues.

Then there are pool renovations – a common scenario because homeowners want to revamp this space so it blends with a new landscape design.

People want that outdated “sidewalk” border torn up so that the lawn can be brought right up to the edge, called a “zero deck detail.” “The concrete pool shell has to be designed to handle that installation,” Cohen says. When concrete decking is removed and the pool’s bond beam was not designed to be a zero deck detail, cracking can occur. “We see that a lot,” Cohen says.

Pools are a natural fit for Cohen’s business – and for his clients’ landscapes. “I couldn’t imagine designing these back yards without doing the pool,” Cohen says.

“It would be like creating a painting but missing three colors.”


Tapping the pool potential

Swimming pool remodeling projects kept Signature Pools & Landscapes running during the recession, says President Eric Watanabe, a 28-year industry veteran who launched this start-up business a couple years ago.

“People had problems with their old pools, and they were not moving – they had equity in their homes and said, ‘We are going to remodel our pool,’” he says.

Not just any contractor is capable or licensed to do such work. But Watanabe is, and over the years, he has invested time and resources in education and certification courses so he can preserve outdated pools, design and build new ones and maintain control of the pool aspect of his landscape projects.

“When I first started in the business, I thought of a pool as … a pool,” Watanabe says. “But you realize the water is an art in the landscape, and it is a feature that can be enjoyed every day – you don’t have to be in the pool to enjoy it.”

Treating a pool’s aesthetic quality is a completely different approach to pool design than merely planting a pool into the landscape, Watanabe says. And that’s precisely why he sought out certification to design and install pools – so he could take the approach he wanted vs. depending on another contractor to execute this vision.

Earlier in Watanabe’s career, if a client wanted a pool worked into the landscape design, he had to involve a pool contractor with a separate contract. At the time, a landscape contractor in California could not subcontract with a licensed pool contractor.

“What happened was, you would not have complete control over the project,” Watanabe says. “If some of the elevations weren’t what you expected, you would have to piece together the rest of the landscape design. Or, you might get conflicts on finishes and tile. Design-wise, you want to have control over the pool and landscape.”

Carrying out pool design and installation requires licensing – but it also calls for experience that can only be learned from industry courses and others in the field who share their lessons learned. “It’s a landscape contractor’s responsibility, if they are putting in a pool, to learn themselves what it takes to build that pool,” he says.

Watanabe subcontracts out certain pool tasks, including plumbing because of the advanced hydraulics knowledge required, and structural steel, because it’s a trade that involves a great deal of expertise. It’s all about achieving efficiency on the job with specialized, experienced subs.

By partnering with pool industry specialists who manage specific tasks on the job, Watanabe can generally wrap up a pool project in a couple of weeks. “The longer you keep the pool shell exposed, the more chance of having problems,” he says of the importance of keeping the job moving along.

On hiring subcontractors and training his own people to do pool work, Watanabe reminds: “Your pool is only as good as the weakest link.”


Position pool services

A pool project begins with design – and ideally, it continues with ongoing pool maintenance services that Neave Landscaping in Wappingers Falls, N.Y., provides in effort to gain clients for life.

“We are a one-stop shop for the entire pool project,” says Kris Schmitt, landscape designer and an Association of Pool & Spa Professionals (APSP) certified building professional.

Neave Landscaping has been in the pool business for about 15 years of the firm’s 40-year history. In the past few years, the company has focused more intently on building its pool business, which is marketed as a distinct division of the business with a dedicated crew of four to six professionals who install pools, and up to three specialists who service them.

Neave Landscaping hired in experts to build this division, and taps into the Northeast Spa & Pool Association (NSPA) and APSP for education.

“The education is an investment for the company, but it’s necessary – and we see the payoff in terms of client satisfaction and the integrity of the project,” Schmitt says.

Neave Pools, which earns a 7-10 percent profit margin on projects, mostly focuses on specialty pool work including grottos, sun shelves and other features.

Of course, implementing a luxury pool design requires deep knowledge and ongoing training, Schmitt says. That includes understanding building techniques and codes.

“That is where contractors can get into trouble,” Schmitt says, adding, “The problem with pools is, once they’re in, it’s not like a plant you can move or switch out easily.”

Once the design is agreed upon, the company ushers clients through the entire process, including permitting, which can take up to six to eight months in some counties. The company performs much of the pool work in-house, though the firm subcontracts certain aspects, such as installing the shotcrete.

Meanwhile, once the project is complete, all clients are “introduced” to their pool with an educational session and walk-through to cover safety and pool supervision. From there, Neave often takes over seasonal pool open/close along with weekly service.

Neave also offers pool inspections where they’ll ensure pools meet the latest codes and are operating properly. This is an attractive option to new homeowners who purchase a property with a pool. Schmitt says that pools are “not something you want to just jump into” as a landscape firm. But the service is profitable, he says. And, it adds an element of creativity to the business mix.