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!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Plan Inclusions

Aquatic Technology Pool & Spa
Paolo Benedetti

Swimming pool plans are incomplete with merely a site plan, generic mail order structural engineering, and no plumbing schematic, electrical schematic, equipment layout, construction details, and construction specifications.

Exactly how is the project going to come together? What is the clients' level of expectation?

Without complete plans and drawings, there simply can not be ANY attention to detail.

Cross sections of the project & surrounding area are essential in establishing the proper elevations during the grading process. The grading occurs BEFORE the actual digging of the "hole." It helps to know at this stage if there are going to be inches or feet of base rock under the concrete decking.

Are the main drainage trunk lines to be installed at this time? Are there utility lines (current needs & future site expansion) that need to be installed?

Is the coping or stone on the pool bondbeam going to be 2 inches or 6 inches thick?

While this may all seem trivial, errors in establishing the correct elevations can result in water flowing towards the house, concrete above the stucco weep screed, steps of various heights, etc.

An experienced designer knows what questions to ask during the planning stage. While anyone can call themselves a designer, it is their design experience and education that are critical. Creative problem solving is the key... do they come up with solutions to conceal objects that the project must have, but that people don't NEED or WANT to see?

A true designer will be focused on BOTH the design and the clients needs. The design should work with the site & the buildings'... as if something was missing if it wasn't there.

Sometimes the clients don't know what they want. By that I mean that they might even be insistent that they have a particular feature... but they do not know WHY they want it. A good designer will be able to find out what they are "REALLY" looking for... the large grotto may have been a "must have" to block out the neighbors view of the pool or to provide a jumping platform.

The underlying WHY is so critical, as it then allows the designer to offer alternatives that will then work with the site & design. The client gets the true function of the element they were after, while the design integrity is maintained.

It DOES NOT HURT TO ASK QUESTIONS DURING THE PLANNING PROCESS.... the worst that can happen, is that the client can say "no." That's better than later hearing, "would have, could have, should have," or "why didn't anyone tell me?"

Complete plans for the permitting process may be as simple as a site plan, a few cross sections to illustrate relative elevations, and the structural engineering. In fact the least amount of details provided to the building & planning department, the better.

However, the construction plans need to be detailed.

There need to be cross sections of the spa seating, showing steps, seat, floor & water depths. Cross sections of the pool showing benches, steps, and other key elevations.

Cross sections and plan views of design details need to be provided, so that the installers can anticipate & effectively bid their scope of work. Electrical, plumbing, low voltage, data, lighting, and drainage schematics need to be provided.

The locations of the junction boxes for lighting, sound, data/communications will all need to be specified. Plumbing lines might need to be brought up above grade to provide air-gaps or loops. While absolutely necessary for the proper operation of the vessel, these elements can be placed almost anywhere with the proper amount of planning. Where are the lights going, at what elevations & angles, and what wattages?

The equipment pad and area should be laid out to scale, justifying & illustrating to the design team the need for such a large area. oftentimes, the pool equipment area is grossly undersized.... because people just don't know.

Laying out the equipment area, allows the plumbers to place the pipes in the proper location, ensuring an efficient mechanical system - both operationally & for future service needs.

What are the forms going to be made of? 3" bender board tied to rebar or dimensional lumber with stakes & kickers for support? How will the tile be installed? What are the setting materials? What standards are being followed?

What details are being incorporated? Concealed deck drains, skimmer lids, spaside remote controls??? These need to be identified, so that the client knows what is going to be delivered & how it is going to be built. What depths are the spa benches? Where will the waterline be on the clients' body? Benches & backs sloped & reclining? What are the heights of the various steps?

These and hundreds of other detail type questions are what make custom projects, truly custom.

Vessels can be made into works of art.... with the proper questions, planning & forethought.

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

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Proper planning equals stellar performance

Aquatic Technology Pool & Spa
Paolo Benedetti

Not just vanishing edge, infinity edge, knife edge, slot or perimeter overflow pools require extensive & detailed plans. The extent of the typical plans & details for a swimming pool, only includes a "flat plan" and the generic structural engineering.

A flat plan is a "birdeye view" plot plan that shows where the pool and equipment are to be placed. That is it....

There is no direction provided to the sub-contractors as to the plumbing configuration, pipe sizing, the high & low voltage electrical schematics, elevations of the various elements, layout of the pool equipment, the position of the pipes at the equipment pad, the schematics of the equipment pad.

Left to their own methodology, you know that the plumbing & electrical will be the shortest runs possible. Afterall, do you expect them to dig trenches an extra 10 feet to hide something in a less obtrusive location? A return manifold will not be looped around the pool to balance the flow at each return fitting. The pipes rising up at the equipment pad will be placed haphazardly, necessitating excess elbows and an inefficient layout of the pumps & filters. You know the drill...

The electrical & lighting junction boxes, will be placed where they are "convenient" for the electricans, not where they can be hidden from view. Goodness, they might have to buy a light fixture with another 10 - 50 feet of cord... and install some additional conduit.

A few years ago, I prepared a proposal for an acquaintances' project. The project was a rectangular pool with an inside spa & an automatic pool safety cover. These are the ONLY pools that I build on a fixed price contract. Another builder was $35,000 less than us, so they went with the other firm.

I had the pleasure (& humor) of visiting the finished project shortly after the pool was completed. The spa dam wall was set too low, so that the operating level of the pool had to be kept below that which the skimmers required to operate properly. In other words, they had to keep the pool level low, so that the cold pool water would not spill over the spa dam & into the spa.

Since the waterlevel had to be kept low to use the spa, the skimmers could not function. There simply wasn't enough volume of water to keep the skimmers full. The pump would continuously lose prime & eventually fail.

The auto-fill was set at the wrong elevation. Because it was too high, it kept wanting to fill the pool to an elevation where the pool would flood the spa dam wall. If the client operated the waterlevel in the pool at the correct height, then the skimmers would operate properly, but the spa could not be heated. Imagine, having to pump water out of your pool (dump it to waste), just so that you could heat your spa. So much for that $3,000 automation system! Oh, and the auto-fill that wants to raise the level back up...

The dam wall that separated the pool from the dry pool cover vault (where the pool cover rolls up when not in use), was installed just slightly above the pools' optimum operating level. This meant that when people swam in the pool - people are supposed to swim in them aren't they?? - waves from bather displacement would spill into the cover box. This would waste hundreds of gallons each time the pool was used.

The final insult, was that the builder did not understand how the masonry cover trays were to be fitted. Masonry trays are Stainless Steel trays that hold concrete or stone over the pool cover vault. They are also called walk-on trays, as they are solid enough to support a persons' weight. Properly installed, it conceals the presence of the pool cover when the cover is open. The end pans, sat 1/2" above the decking at each end. A great toe-stubber if I ever saw one.

The homeowner was so proud that he was able to negotiate a glass mosaic waterline tile. The brand that was selected had a warranty that stated "The Company warrants that its Products, if properly stored and transported, will be free from defects in materials and workmanship from the date of sale until the date the product is installed ("Warranty Period")." Can you believe that??? (

Who in their right mind would buy anything that says in effect, "we'll warrant it, until you use it??" HELLOOOOO, get a clue here...!!! They should have ran for the hills!

And guess what... the tile started falling off of the pool walls a few months later. I do not know if it was due to improper installation or faulty materials. But in any case neither the builder nor the tile manufacturer would warranty the installation.

I was asked if I knew why the tile was falling off the walls. I asked to review the specifications for the installation crew, that the pool builder had prepared (knowing full well that they did not exist). Guess what... they didn't!

How was the installation crew supposed to know: what setting materials to use? What curing times were required of the browncoat (the leveling bed)? the correct crack control membrane? the curing time of the thinset before grouting? the type of grout to use? how long to let the grout cure prior to filling the pool? where to place the expansion joints in the tile? what to clean the tile with?

Again, with proper planning and specifications, these grave errors could have been avoided. A little time, money, and proper planning in advance can avoid pitfalls in the execution phase.

The problem is now the property owners have a pool that does not operate correctly. They will have to disclose this at the time of sale, as it will be observed by a home inspector. And they'll have to make financial concessions to the buyers.

How does that car repair ad go??? "Pay me now or pay me MORE later."

And the worst part is.... all of these mistakes could have been avoided, as these details are readily available on the web, in articles by yours truely.

Paolo Benedetti - Aquatic Artist
"Creating water as art."™

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Architects' & General Building Contractors' construction budgets

Volume builders will freely provide quotes to build a project, based upon a flat "square feet" or "perimeter foot" calculation. They are usually provided a "flat plan" or "architectural rendering" (pretty picture) from which to prepare a bid. Keep in mind that these builders construct to the lowest standards that the markets will tolerate.

Architects and Custom Home Builders then rely on these figures when preparing construction budgets for the client. No structural engineering has been performed. No hydraulic calculations or plumbing schematics have been designed. No equipment has been defined. The finish materials & installation practices to be employed have not been specified. Tile and material mock-ups have not been approved. The fine details have not been worked out, nor has any scope of work been defined.

Show a custom home builder a picture of a house & ask him EXACTLY how much to build it... THEY WILL LAUGH HYSTERICALLY!! Then they'll rattle off a small portion of a larger list of questions... at best they can provide a price range - say, $100 to $1,000 per square foot. Or they may graciously provide "allowances" for line items. This is great for the budget, that is, until the property owners realize that they must shop at flea markets and second-hand stores to stay within the "allowances."

Because the property owners are insisting on a budgetary figure for the pool, these false and arbitrary figures get placed into the construction budget. These fictitious figures are then quoted to the property owner. This is how they become the gospel. The property owners are relying on it & think that they can actually have the vessels built for that price. Never mind that they were envisioning hand cut imported glass tile mosaic murals inside the vessels and Bellagio Hotel style interactive water features that dance to music.

Only later, as the change orders pile up, does everyone involved realize that the figures are invalid. Sometimes the property owner NEVER comes to grip with this reality. Reality usually starts to set in once the structural engineering & geotechnical reports are completed, and the finish materials start to be defined. Suddenly the pool is "way over budget." And, it it always the pool contractor's fault.

So guess what??? The lowest bidder wins again. The Home Builder only has a limited amount budgeted for the pool (based upon those invalid budgetary figures). They award the project to the lowest bidder to maintain their profit margins. And in the end, the project gets built by the pool contractor who can degrade the project the most, to satisfy these fictitious budgetary constraints.

It is best to get an aquatic designer involved during the design phase of the home. They will know the correct questions to ask, usually working around a "predefined budget." After all doesn't the architect start & work around this premise? How much do you want to spend? What do you expect for that money & can we get there from here? Before contacting a general contractor to price the construction of the buildings, all of the engineering & preliminary specifications have been determined.

All of the general contractor's subcontractors are bidding on SPECIFICATIONS... XYZ roofing materials, ABC wall veneers, etc. So why then, is the swimming pool contractor being asked to provide construction pricing based upon a pretty picture or flat plan? Why aren't detailed structural engineering, plumbing schematics, equipment specifications, finish materials, and installation specifications defined for the bidders?

Again, it is the "alignment of reality with the clients' expectations," that is the most important in keeping these projects on budget. Quoting invalid or fictitious budgetary construction figures only serves to undermine the clients faith in the Architect or General Building Contractor. It also gives the appearance that the valid construction figures from the competent pool builders are just "gold diggers," who are padding their bids. When, in fact these are the very builders that the clients needs to hire! Honest, forthright, and not willing to partake in the degradation of swimming pool construction as an art form.

Another method to "find" additional funds, is for the property owner to remove the pool construction from the General Contractors' "scope of work." This frees up the additional profit margin that the General Contractor would charge on top of the pool construction costs, as funds for the construction of the pool. But oftentimes this is still not enough to build what the property owners were envisioning.

This is another positive argument for "cost plus % gross mark-up" construction.

Paolo Benedetti - Aquatic Artist
"Creating water as art."™

Structural Engineering & Geotechnical Reports

Now here's the dilemma... a volume pool builder provides a bid based upon a structure of MINIMUM specifications. They usually have not reviewed any geo-technical reports (aka: soils report) to ascertain just how strong the structure needs to be.

Pools are designed (usually) to hold the "forces of the earth out" & not the "weight of the water in." THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO WAY to determine the engineering requirements of the structure without defining the soil conditions on a site.

But most swimming pools are built with generic engineering, purchased in volume from a production mill engineering firm. These plans are valid, ONLY if the engineering used from the plan meets or exceeds the soil conditions of the site. It is the structural engineer's responsibility to review the soils report to determine what plans are required. IT IS NOT the pool contractor or salesman's job to define the strength of the structure. You're lucky if the contractor is a college graduate. And I doubt that they will possess an engineering degree or have an on-staff structural engineer (though there are a few out there!).

"Standard library engineering" is a cost effective & acceptable means of designing structures. However, the use of these type of plans is only valid if their selection and use is based upon the structural engineer's review of the soil & site conditions.

Some municipal planning & building departments are starting to become educated. Many are now requiring a geo-technical review of a proposed site. They are also requiring that the geo-technical engineer review the structural engineering to determine it's adequacy. Often times an inspection of the open excavation is performed to verify that the soil conditions are no worse than anticipated by the preliminary geo-technical investigation. Some municipalities may only require a geo-technical report in predefined "geo-hazard zones."

Bear in mind that the soils report is usually based upon a boring or test trench. The report is based upon this small sample of space upon the property. Oftentimes the test trench or boring will just barely miss (and therefore fail to identify in advance) an obstruction, large rock, incompetent pocket of material, or other deficiency. Yes, sometimes a project has to be halted while the experts (geo-technical & structural engineer) regroup to redesign the engineering.

The builder & geo-technical engineer CAN NOT be held responsible for these unforeseen obstacles. After all, it is the property owner's land... If buried treasure was unearthed, the property owner would surely be out in the yard laying claim to the bounty. So why are they not also the owners of any negative finds?

The foundation for a building has to be designed to meet the soil and site conditions. So why shouldn't a pool, which is built ENTIRELY in the ground, meet those same requirements?? Alas, IT IS! It is in the building codes (Uniform & California) that structures be engineered for the site & soil conditions..... and a pool is a structure!

When the pool cracks, goes out of level, sinks, or slides down the hillside, this generic boilerplate engineering will be invalid, if it was not selected by a structural engineer with the site and soil conditions as the determining factors.

In California, geo-technical investigations begin at around $5,000. When volume pool builders are competing on who has the lowest price, the requirement for the property owner providing a geo-technical report can "over price" their bid. Therefore, few will ever ask if a soils report is even available.

That should be the first criteria when selecting a builder - Does he take the initiative to inquire if a soils report is even available? If there is one available is he going to provide it to the structural engineer to review? Will the structural engineer issue documentation (plan notes, invoice, letter) that he has ACTUALLY reviewed the soils report?

Paolo Benedetti - Aquatic Artist
"Creating water as art."™

Fixed Price is not always the "Best Price"

A commissioned salesman works on just that... a commission. They have a "book price," the price schedule that is established by their firm which is the MINIMUM that they can sell items from their "menu."

If the salesman thinks that he can gouge you for some money above the book price of your project, that gets figured into the project as "overage." The salesman gets to split the overage with the company 50/50. Problem is, you don't get to see the "book price," just the bid.

Now, if he under bids the project & the property owner has signed a contract, then they dumb down the project as much as they can to increase their margins to come out profitable.

Working on a "cost + % gross mark-up" basis is fair to both the consumer & builder. The property owner is guaranteed a quality job and the builder is guaranteed a fair profit. The builder is not forced to "pad" the job for unforeseen items or for minor cost overruns.

The builder then has no excuse for not properly supervising the project, following proper installation techniques, or allowing the sub-contractors to perform quality work. This process also allows the builder to take proactive steps to correct issues, before the property owner raises them.

Out of the builders' gross profit, they will be expected to cover insurance (general liability) and their general & administrative overhead (office staff & expenses, advertising, vehicle expenses & insurance, management salaries, travel expenses, etc.). What is left over is their "net profit." Gross profit can run from 25-40% depending on the overhead associated with a project. Net profits in construction companies are usually around 10-15%.

Expect to pay on the higher end of the scales for "boutique" or "premium" builders. They usually take on fewer projects, deliver higher levels of supervision, quality & craftsmanship. They posses a higher level of construction skills and are more readily available for their clients. This equates to a smoother project with less hassles, and a finer finished product.

Another method, is to hire a "consultant" to manage local contractors, who in turn actually builds the project. In this scenario, the property owner needs to be prepared to actually pay more than if they contracted directly for the project. The property owner needs to be prepared for a lot of conflicts and to "back the play" of the consultant.

Constant conflicts arise, because the local contractor (and their subcontractors) do not possess the skills to build the project on their own. The consultant ends up having to "teach" the local contractor how to waterproof, set tile, place concrete - basically how to build a pool properly. This is where the conflicts begin...

The local contractor (who is working on a fixed price contract) refuses to perform aspects of the project as specified, and insists on "doing things the way we have always done." This is because they are not familiar with all of the various industry trade standards - and they bid the job, based upon their own evil ways. When they are "called on the carpet" the feud begins, change orders appear, owners get upset, and the project budget gets blown out of the water.

Isn't this exactly why the local pool builder was not a "direct hire" in the first place... because the owners did not have faith in their abilities, knowledge, and skills??

Paolo Benedetti - Aquatic Artist
"Creating water as art."™

Why you're the loser with the "low bidder."

For an off-the-shelf consumer product, one might be satisfied with merely "shopping price." However, when it comes to construction, shopping on price alone is the consumer's pitfall. Here's why...

A property owner desires the best that they can afford. They thumb through the yellow pages or surf the web, and select 4 or 5 pretty ads that appeal to them. They telephone and set up appointments.

A commissioned salesman comes to their house. This person routinely has limited "design sense," and is merely motivated by "making the sale." The product offerings that they feature are limited by those that their company has on it's menu.

The property owner is provided with a "free design" from each of the companies. Some are created from pre-defined tracing templates and others using "pre-packaged swimming pool design software." The "designs" are limited by the templates or by the offerings of the software program.

The salesman touts how he'll save the client money by utilizing 1 pump to perform multiple functions. They can complete the entire construction process in a few months & have the family swimming before "school's out."

The low bidder with the fastest installation schedule is awarded the project.

Will the property owner really get what they expect? You know the answer.... they are expecting customer service, yet how can the low bidder cover the overhead of staff to provide customer service?

The property owner will expect someone to be on the job supervising the sub-contractors... but how can they have a supervisor assigned to manage their job with such little profit margins?

Left to their own devices, the construction of the pool becomes a parade of unsupervised sub-contractors, who take the path of least resistance in everything they do. They will be "back-charged" by the pool builder, if they exceed the budgeted allotment for any aspect of the job.

To that end, the expectations of the property owner & the reality of the finances of the "low bidder" pool builder quickly collide.

Remember the saying, "You get what you pay for" ??

Over the years I have been involved in many construction defect litigations. Most of these are a direct result of the a misalignment of the property owner's expectations and the reality of hiring the low bidder. While we'd all love to have a Bentley for the price of a Yugo, face it.... it isn't going to happen.

A quality project simply CAN NOT be built cheaply. There are minumum standards that must be met. Established concrete curing times must be followed. Masonry drying times are dictated by industry standards. And these are the MINIMUMS. To finish a project in a few months, means that something is being shortchanged. And you can bet that it is the quality.

"Good isn't cheap & cheap isn't good!"

Paolo Benedetti - Aquatic Artist
"Creating water as art."™