Aquatic Technology Pool & Spa, "Creating Water as Art."™

Aquatic Technology Pool & Spa, "Creating Water as Art."™
Pools as an art form - the way it should be!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A One of a kind!

Aquatic Technology Pool & Spa
Paolo Benedetti

Creating a high-end custom luxury swimming pool or aquatic environment that is "one of a kind" project for a client, is a relatively easy feat for an "aquatic architect." Since each client & site are unique, once a design has been tailored to fit each element, the results will be a true "one of a kind."

A client purchased a unique property in Montecieto, CA. The property was designed in the 1920's by the founder of the "Santa Barbara" architectural style, George Washington Smith. Though Smith had no formal architectural training and only designed for a decade, he generated 80+ designs, of which 59 were built. Smith designed for the rich and famous of the time, Dr. Fagan (married to Charles Crocker's daughter), Charles Crocker, Van Wyck Maverick family of Texas, Jackling (Copper Baron) & George Steedman (industrialist).

The property was on 20+ acres in the hills of Montecito, with commanding views of Santa Barbara & the Pacific Ocean. All of the buildings had heavy distressed timber open-beamed ceilings, large over-hanging rooflines, tile and stone floors, thick stucco walls, wooden windows recessed into the walls, heavy plank wood doors with cast iron hardware, and wide open floorplans that opened onto the central courtyard.

Though the client wanted to completely renovate the estate, everything had to look as it would have in the "period." This quickly became the genre... "it is period?" Whether in it's manufacturing methods, appearance or materials, everything bit of materials had to be "period."

We were however allowed to utilize modern construction techniques, but the results had to look old. So we set out to locate handmade glazed spanish tiles - each one was slightly different from the next, hand forged bronze plumbing fixtures, hidden electrical plugs, cast iron drain grates... in essence a material sourcing nightmare. Yes, there were a lot of hours dedicated to just locating acceptable materials. The internet helps, but it still is very time consuming.

This brings us to a point where I should discuss profit margins & mark-up. On projects where we are expected to deliver detailed, unique, or custom materials, gross margins of 35-40% are not unheard of. These margins cover the overhead and time in locating & sourcing special materials for a project. Also, there has to be some profit left over for the designer/contractor, in order for them to stay in business! Though the total dollars paid by a client for "mark-up" can be enormous, there is a tremendous amount of effort & hours spent "behind the scenes," for which we have to be reimbursed.

The samples, mock-ups and materials viginettes for the client to approve, also bear costs. There are costs involved to acquire, assemble, transport, display, and dispose of the samples. Sometimes, tile samples for instance, may require a 4' X 8' mock-up panel in order for the cleint to envision the whole theme.

The net results for the clients, are a project that works with their California-Spanish architecture. One that looks original to the site, that no one can distinguish from a true "period" element.

A true one-of-a-kind!

Paolo Benedetti - Aquatic Artist
"Creating water as art."™
Aquatic Technology Pool & Spa

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Structural Engineer rules!

Aquatic Technology Pool & Spa
Paolo Benedetti

Since a high-end luxury custom infinity edge swimming pool (structure) in built into the ground, it is logical and required by the building codes to obtain a geotechnical report (soils report). A soils report is always done when structures are built upon the soil (e.g.: a building foundation). So why would you be so foolish as to build a structure entirely within the soil without a soils report?

HELLOOOOO..... The pool structure is even more dependent on the soil conditions, than one built on the soil!

The structural engineer will utilize the characteristics of the soils, as defined by the soils engineer, to design the structure. I proffer that the soils engineers actually overstep their bounds, when they venture into the realm of structural engineering, by even daring to specify minimum design criteria. Instead, the soils engineer should focus on the site's soil conditions & characteristics, and how they may influence the proposed structure.

The soils engineer should define the characteristics of the soils [e.g.: load bearing capacity, surcharges, expansive indexes, liquifaction potential, vertical sheer planes, earth quake fissures, poor coefficient of friction, insufficient load bearing capabilities, consolidation issues, weak sheer strengths, slope instability, expansiveness issues, saturation indexes, lithostatic pressures, seismic stability, tensiometer pressures, or potential for ground water subsidence (sink hole)]. If special construction methods must be employed to overcome any of these issues, then recommendations should be made. Care should be exercised to actually avoid specifying a size or extent of the remediation required.

By avoiding any actual specifications, the claim that the structural engineer "over designed" the engineering, will be avoided. Since the soils engineer is never (almost never) a structural engineer and rarely has performed any load or surcharge calculations, they are "speaking out of school" when they venture to define any specifications.

For instance, if caissons will be required in order to support a structure, the soils engineer can define the foundation design as "in order to overcome the expansive soil conditions & to obtain the required set-back clearances, drilled caissons or deepened foundation design(s) may be employed." This type of verbiage avoids the potential "over-designed" conflict between a neophyte soils engineer, ignorant general contractor, or arrogant architect (I'm not saying that all are... I'm a GC too!). The soils engineer has no business specifying "a minimum of 10' deep X 12" diameter drilled caissons with (4) #4 rebars 10' O.C.," when they have not performed any calculations and are not qualified to do so!

It is the structural engineer who is responsible for specifying the type of structure, defining the foundation type & design, and quantifying the elements of the structural design... all based upon the soil conditions that are outlined in the geo-technical report.

When the structural engineer later specifies "40' deep X 24" drilled caissons with (8) #8 gr-60 bars, #4 gr-40 spiral ties 12" O.C., 12' O.C. ....." there is always a collective gasp from the peanut gallery. However, those same individuals who claim "this is way over-designed" have not performed any load calculations, or calculated surcharges from adjacent slopes, soil conditions, or seismic events. They are merely "shooting from the hip" and "shooting off their mouths."

...maybe because they are only used to being around sloppy & shoddy work, built with less??

Are they really looking out for the owner's best interest??

Paolo Benedetti - Aquatic Artist
"Creating water as art."™
Aquatic Technology Pool & Spa

Saturday, April 11, 2009

It is all in the details...

Aquatic Technology Pool & Spa
Paolo Benedetti

A client once described my job as an "aquatic artist," where I get to create art with fluids (water) & solids (stones, tiles, concrete, & steel). But I must add, that it is in the details that separate a mobile home from custom home, a Maybach from a Prius, and a cookie cutter pool from a commissioned design. An off the shelf item @ WalMart will never compare to an item that is custom designed around & for the owner.

Personalized details, whether it is a hand measured, cut & tailored suit, a custom home, hand crafted & fit Italian leather shoes, or an architectural pool, take forethought, planning, lots of supervision, and time.... and don't forget money!

The forethought means that the designer knows from experience, training, and sometimes their natural intuition, what to ask of the client. Being able to interview a client & get them to reveal personal details about themselves, is the hardest part of gathering the information. Some clients don't want to reveal personal details and others simply do not understand the importance of "getting inside their heads." The best client, is the one who will reveal the truthful answer to any question posed.

Why would I ask if they skinny dip? or if their family medical history includes diseases that may create mobility issues in future years? or if they are planning on getting married? or having children?

I have had multi-billionaire clients look at me in disbelief, because I had audacity to ask such questions. Though they were prepared for these type of questions (or so their assistants told me they were), these questions are important!

If their pool experience is often sans swimsuits, then I have to be concerned with the lines of sight from the neighbors, paparazzi, even low flying aircraft. I may situate the spa closer to the master bedroom, to reduce the "exposure" across the yard. I may include overhanging elements to block cameras in helicopters. For privacy and security concerned clients, I may even camouflage elements of the design, so that they are not readily recognizable to satellites (Who's concerned with satellites?? Have you ever played with Google Earth, and viewed a virtual 3-D image of a location?).

If they have genetic issues that may cause mobility issues or the future need for aquatic therapy, then I have to consider access issues - and I may propose a ramp/beach entry or shorter steps, and will definitely rough in anchor points for future handrails. Is the project to be a swinging bachelor pad or a love nest?? Does it have to be made compatible for children?

These questions are necessary, as it allows the project to be designed with the clients planned future lifestyle changes in mind. It allows the project to seamlessly evolve with the changing lifestyle - and done properly it should eliminate the future need to remodel the project because it is dated or they "outgrew it's usefulness."

After being armed with the necessary information, the design can be created around the client. I cannot plan for the future, the client's lifestyle changes, the peeping paparazzi, or even avoid the clients least favorite color, if I am not armed with the that information. The designer needs to get to know the client... and this may mean a couple of meetings, meals, or a glass of wine (or 2 or 3 glasses of wine!).

Planning.... preparing for the future. The designer can specify the infrastructure to support the future changes that the client anticipates. It is easier to install the utilities for future site development while the property is being excavated. It is much less expensive to install the anchors for future handrails & handicapped lifts, speaker conduits, lighting circuits, and control systems while the yards is "opened up." It is "pennywise & pound foolish" to try to install any of these elements after the concrete & stonework has been completed.

It order to coordinate & ensure a flawless execution of the details, there must be a lot of supervision during the "build-out" of the project. This is so that the designer can communicate with the craftsmen & installers, exactly what they were envisioning. They have to be able to get it out of their head, into the installers head, and then into creation! It is impossible to include every tiny minutia into a set of plans. Some details need to be expressed & specified during the installation - some others, the client needs to see as they are being installed. An example is the adjacent tile rosetta pattern around spa jets... it might be a insignificant detail that the client would otherwise pass on, if it is discussed while the project was being planned. But when the project is being installed, when they can actually see the difference, the client can weigh the importance of the detail. The client can actually see the difference between individually miter cut tiles, and the lazier, faster & easier way of just fanning them out, thereby creating wider spaced pie-shaped grout joints.

Like a fine wine... good things take time to age. A quality job cannot be rushed - PERIOD! For example, there is no way to speed the curing of concrete, grout, thinsets, or other cementitious materials. Through proper scheduling, these mandatory periods can be happening while other activities occur. Additionally, fine craftsmanship simply cannot be done on a production line. Fine details are elevated to an artform!

Money... what more needs to be said? Fine details, close supervision, and increased production time all contribute to higher expenses & overhead. But, the finished product is a true work of art, one that will exceed the owners highest expectations! And like art, it is a personal expression of the owner - something that only the owners can place a value on. These are priceless works of art - ones' that can only be replaced at tremendous cost.

It's all in the details... and after all, don't you deserve the best that life has to offer?

Paolo Benedetti - Aquatic Artist
"Creating water as art."™
Aquatic Technology Pool & Spa

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Vanishing Edge Pools

Paolo Benedetti discusses the intricacies and complexities of vanishing, infinity, negative, knife edge, perimeter overflow, slot overflow, disappearing edge or flooded edge pools...
What ever you want to call them, a vanishing edge pool is a pool wherein one (or more) sides of the pool are slightly lower than the operating water level. The most generic term for these edge effect pools is "a water in-transit pool."
While strikingly beautiful, they are actually quite hydraulically & structurally complex. Because they are oftentimes built on a mountaintop or the edge of a cliff, they require a geo-technical investigation and appropriate structural engineering.
The hydraulic design of these types of pools is very complex. In fact, these pools require 2 separate filtration systems. The primary system is utilized to filter, heat, and sanitize the main pool - just like a regular swimming pool. The second system, draws water from the surge tank and returns it to the upper pool. A significant quantity of water may be required to raise the level of the pool, to create the "spill over" effect. The catch basin may be attached to the main pool or it may be remote holding tank. These 2 systems are in addition to the pumps & piping required for the spa jets, water feature(s), pool cleaner, and solar panels.
The volume of the plumbing needs to be calculated on some styles of these pools, as some rely on gravity drain lines to return water to the holding tank - lines that must be filled each time the system starts. The surge tanks need to be adequately sized to accommodate bathers' displacement, wind displacement, and storage of the "water in-transit" necessary to raise the main pool to the appropriate level to create the edge effects.
The with proper pipe sizing, the primary filtration pump can be as small as 3/4 HP. Depending on the project requirements, the secondary edge pump may need to be as large as a 3 to 10 HP. This is usually due to the quantity of water required to both raise the water level in the main pool and overcome the surface tension of the weir materials.
Small pumps or large pumps - Confused yet?
Don't worry, most swimming pool contractors and designers are confused as well.  The vanishing edge system (effects pump) requirements are determined by the linear feet of edge to be flooded, the edge tolerances (materials highs to lows & installation perfection), pipes to fill and flow rates required to ensure that the gravity gutters & pipes are scoured (water moving fast enough to carry away any debris).
Those that don't understand these complexities oftentimes under design or go for the overkill.  Either way the property owner loses... a system that does not operate correctly or one that consumes way more energy than is remotely required.
Taking the easy way out - edge filtration
Many pool builders & designers in a effort to "save the client money" (and make more money for themselves), eliminate the secondary filtration system. They may either delete the entire secondary system or just it's filter tanks.
By eliminating the filter tanks, they cause this system to blow the debris that collects in the catch basin back into the main pool. Since the edge is a giant weir, a majority of the debris in the main pool ends up in the catch basin.
Imagine what will happen every time the edge pump comes on.... a cloud of dirt and fine debris will be blown into the main pool, clouding the water. Just what a client desires when showing off their pool to guests or hosting a party! I know of a pool builder who routinely deletes the edge filtration system from projects that we design. I know, because I get the call once the project has been completed - complaining that I created a "faulty design." After viewing the finished project, it becomes readily apparent what the cause is... Yet this builder continues to build in this manner. I am sure he will only change his ways after a client's lawsuit.
If the secondary system is eliminated entirely, then the main pool filtration system will be forced to draw it's water from the catch basin. This forces the pool builder to install a pump that is significantly larger than what would normally be required... remember that the primary filter pump can be a mere 3/4 HP vs 3-10 HP for the edge system.
Though there was an initial savings of about $5,000 by eliminating the edge system, the electricity costs over the life of the project will grossly exceed any savings. This is stepping over dollars to collect pennies!
An electronic automatic fill device is another requirement. Many pool builders & designers rely on inexpensive mechanical toilet float style auto-fills. While they are functional, they are the wrong choice for a water in-transit pool. But, hey they can save $200! If there was no wind and no one ever swam in the pool (and therefore were no waves), these mechanical auto-fills would work okay. The problem is, these pools are dynamic. Wind causes waves, swimmers displace water & create surges, and some plumbing lines for the edge system may need to fill when the system activates. These variables cause the mechanical auto-fill to surge, turning on & off with the wave action. The repetitive hissing sounds from the auto-fill is annoying enough. Add the rythmic water hammer on the plumbing system within the residence, and you have enough to cause most homeowners to immediately voice their complaints.
An electronic auto-fill has a built-in delay, thereby ignoring minor bather surges, waves, or fluctuations in the water level. This eliminates the annoying hissing & resultant water hammering in the plumbing. It also has a fail-safe timer, that prevents it from becoming stuck in the "on" mode for ever.
Back flow prevention
Another requirement, is the need for failsafe back flow prevention (in addition to check valves) on EVERY plumbing line that returns to the upper pool from the surge tank. When a check valve fails (and they WILL fail - not IF they will fail, but when!), the back flow prevention device will prevent the back siphoning of the upper vessel into the catch basin. On a hillside, dumping 30,000-50,000 gallons of water down the slope will be catastrophic for the foundation of the pool, the hillside or the living room of the downhill neighbors! Imagine all of that water and mud sliding into the neighbors backyard, followed shortly by the swimming pool?!
Because these style of swimming pools are frequently built on the top of mountains or on the edge of cliffs, their structural engineering oftentimes requires drilled caissons or other complex foundation design. This complex structural engineering requires specialized training, construction practices, and independent testing lab inspections & material samplings/testings. The complexity of these concrete structures is similar to that of building a bridge overpass - beyond the licensing, training & expertise of most swimming pool contractors.
While these projects can be quite lucrative for a swimming pool contractor, the failure of such a vessel will result in major lawsuits. Many swimming pool contractors have attempted to build such complex pools, thinking that they are easy, only to make every possible mistake. If they are not an expert in such vessels and their intricacies & nuances, do you really want to be their learning curve??
Even if they have built "a few" of these type of vessels, due to the significant quantity of possible mistakes, do you want them making "just one" on your project? While the rewards of a properly executed project are astounding, the opposite results are disastrous!
I saw a pretty picture...
I recently heard of a California Horticulture contractor who attempted to copy a detail from one of our projects (Yes, another landscape contractor who ventured into pool design & construction - a realm they really do not understand). They attempted to place the spa along the vanishing edge, and have it appear that the spa was spilling over the horizon just like the pool. The problem, is that they did not understand the hydraulics & mechanical systems of creating such an effect.
Remember, that when the main pool filtration system is on, it draws water from the main pool skimmers & returns filtered/treated water to both the pool & spa? Because the spa also spills over the backside & into the catch basin, the water level in the main pool drops & the level in the catch basin rises.... eventually to the point where water spills out of the catch basin & down the hillside. Though they were able to "patch" a fix through creative programming of the automatic valving - it is a matter of time before an automatic valve fails to turn or a switch is accidentally left in the wrong position ...and the downhill neighbors get 50,000 gallons of free water! Greed won, brains lost!
This is just another example of how good intentions go bad.... biting off more that one can chew. Because someone has a mastery of an art, the execution of their craft appears easy to an outsider... because they know what they are doing! But by trying to execute a project for which they do not have an understanding or the expertise, is a time bomb waiting to explode. There is absolutely no acceptable excuse for these types of mistakes, especially when there are design consultants (like myself), classes (like the Genesis 3 courses) and reference literature available.
A vanishing edge on every hillside - not!
Just because a site is sloping lot, overlooks a body of water, canyon, or precipice, does not automatically qualify a project for a vanishing edge pool. I have actually talked clients out of a vanishing edge pool, when the lines of sight were not correct or when soils reports indicated that a majority of their budget would be required for foundations instead. Sometimes, a vanishing edge pool just "isn't right" for the site. A pool does not have to be a vanishing edge to be perfect for a view or hillside lot.
Exponential Cost
Lastly, property owners should not expect the cost of a vanishing edge pool to be comparable to a similar sized pool on a flat lot. There is a lot of additional finish work that needs to be completed. There is the secondary edge filtration system and complex structural engineering & foundations. The entire weir wall is a "free standing" wall, that requires additional steel, special form work, and unique talents of the shotcrete crew. There are the additional finish materials & labor for the catch basin & the backside of the weir wall (remember it is usually the length of the pool & 4-6 feet high!). Often times the outside of the catch basin also needs to finished. There is the added cost of constructing an equipment pad on a hillside (it should be placed at or below the level of the catch basin, which oftentimes requires footings, retaining walls, and access steps.). There is the matter of where to drain the overflow/rain water, without eroding the hillside.
Get shoehorned into a Yugo
In an effort to bring these expensive pools into the realm of mainstream affordability, some fiberglass & vinyl liner pool builders have attempted to build such vessels. I proffer that they are almost always lacking the proper geo-technical reports, structural engineering, and lack the proper details to prevent eventual catastrophic failure. These are usually package pools that are meant for flat parcels, being modified (by Tim Allen types) to wedge into a particular budget. The ones that I have reviewed always had a seam that was "bootleg" sealed or an under water joint that was critical in remaining waterproof. Again - if you cannot afford to do it right, DON'T DO IT! We'd all love to drive a Bentley or Maybach, but are resolved to drive a Ford or Chevy, because that's what we can afford. Just because a client wants a vanishing edge pool and cannot afford one done properly, does not mean that a builder should whore himself to create a modified vanishing edge pool from a kit!
How in the hell do they fasten a vinyl liner pool to the hillside? It is impossible to structurally tie the vinyl to a foundation or to contain a leak. They are just too fragile and susceptible to rips/tears to be placed in such a location.
Get Help
It's all about knowing what you are doing, how to execute it and knowing when to hire assistance when you don't!
You only pay for quality ONCE!

Paolo Benedetti - Aquatic Artist
"Creating water as art."™
Aquatic Technology Pool & Spa

Monday, April 6, 2009

What's best for you? Devotion, loyalty, & uniqueness!

Aquatic Technology Pool & Spa
Paolo Benedetti

As an aquatic designer, first & foremost, my job is to educate the client. To inform them of their options, glass tile mosaic swimming pools or stone lined, sloped spa bench seats & backs or square, what final touches will make the finished project "theirs." But I must always keep in mind, "What is really best for the client?" More times than not, designs reflect the personality & biases of the designer. For example, we can all identify buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry, Antonio Gaudi, or Le Corbusier.

Many designers deliver projects with the same "feeling." Almost every architect, artist, fashion designer, etc. - people in every type of design field - end up in what I call a "design rut." It is human nature, to do what one is comfortable with. It is easy to "repeat" elements and features that one has already "figured out." After a while, this style actually comes to define the designer, further reinforcing this "design rut."

While the individual designers may disagree, I argue that if a someone can look at a building, clothing line, landscape design, swimming pool, etc. and name the designer, then that designer has found their way into the dreaded "design rut."

Being able to deliver a design, based upon the client's lifestyle & needs, the architectural style of the site, the period of the buildings, and the natural surroundings, requires a broad education. It is easy to specialize in a particular design style.... but a real "renaissance designer" can create an appropriate design regardless of the project influences.

If clients wanted the "same old thing," then they'd commission the construction of the duplicate of an existing design. But clients desire something uniquely theirs, not a rehash of something that's been done before.

Sometimes there are financial interests that motivate a designer or architect. An example: there is a S.F. Bay Area landscape designer who always designs in a french country theme. Little known to the clients, the fountains and architectural elements that he specifies in his plans, are from a firm owned by his wife. The designers wife travels to France, buying architectural artifacts for her business, only to be specified by his landscape design firm. Ethical?? NO WAY! But, until a client calls him on it, it will continue.... This is his motivation to only refer contractors, who "buy into his self-promoting supply-line program." This also places limits on the design styles that this individual can deliver. He is destined to forever create & deliver one design style... a single faceted diamond that will never shine!

Another motivation for a design, is that the designer receives a financial incentive from the vendors of components that they specify. Some incentives are in the form of discounts for personal use materials, invoice discounts or credits, or year-end volume rebates. Most of these are legal marketing programs available to everyone in the industry. A form of legal "kick-back." Wouldn't you rather hire a specifier who chose the best products, materials and equipment for your project based upon what is the best for you, and not so they can earn that free trip to Cancun?

What a clients really needs is a designer who is devoted to creating what is in their absolute best interest. Sometimes this is even in direct conflict with the client's desires. Other times it is in direct conflict with other design fields in the client's employ (architects, general contractors, interior designers, landscape architects, etc.).

A premier designer is the one who can first admit that they have personal biases and are aware of them. Secondly, the premier designer will keep these biases in mind, and allow themselves to rise above their desires and biases.

Only after rising to this point of consciousness, can the premier designer deliver what is in the best interest of the client, their lifestyle and the site. Versatility, is the sign of a true design genius! A unique multi-faceted fancy colored diamond that will sparkle forever!

...and not a rehash of the same old thing!

Paolo Benedetti - Aquatic Artist
"Creating water as art."™
Aquatic Technology Pool & Spa