Look Before You Leap

by Marco Perella

We all have that year or project that played a major role in getting us to where we are now. When I look in the rearview, this one pops out as a major direction change that would forever influence how we approach projects.

The year was 2010. The economy was not looking too good. We had ridden the .com and funny money wave for many years and had found a nice niche in the $250k to $1m resort-style outdoor living market. With 10-15 full-time employees, I had become a glorified babysitter. And while I was pretty happy, I always felt like I was in a race. The downturn in the economy ultimately forced some changes and though it was not welcome at the time, I now appreciate the shift it created.

I had two years of Genesis Education behind me, including construction school and one of my first hydraulics classes. I decided to start building the pools on our projects, after having subbed them for the previous twenty plus years. I was unsatisfied with the “top builder” I was using and the prospect of having more control of the process and stepping up quality became our goal. I had always wanted to build pools but never slowed down to take the time to learn what I needed to feel confident. Genesis3 slowly changed that.

I also discovered Watershape Magazine—I was hooked! The internet wasn’t remotely close to what it is today, and I wasn’t particularly web-savvy so the magazine was my resource into cool pools, information and the industry. I wanted to design and build what I was seeing was possible!

My entrance to the pool industry lacked good timing but we weren’t ready to give up yet. Our company downsized and “all-hands-on-deck” became our new approach.

A referral came in for a possible pool on a 40-acre property in Healdsburgh, centered in the middle of stunning wine country and located on the top of a ridge. I met the owner on the site and he shared a design from a local Landscape Architect. The owner’s current design was terrible–I was able to highlight that his design was huge investment that was mostly hidden from sight. In fact, he would only see his pool when walking down to use it. Instead, we proposed to build something he would enjoy every moment he was on the property—both from the pool and looking out from the house. I knew it would be a challenge as the grading fell off fast. Really fast. Photo A.

We were hired to redesign and the project moved through the process.

Our design placed pool level just off the existing patio level in order keep the pool within sightlines from inside the adjoining kitchen, family room as well as the patio. This also meant the outside edge would be somewhere near 18’ above existing grade. We also added in our company’s second vanishing edge to date and our first slot overflow on the patio side: Go big or go home.

The pressure was on. The client’s son was getting married and they wanted to throw a party –the process needed to accelerate.

We sent our design to engineering. We knew piers were in order but we could only speculate. As soon as we received engineering, we had the challenge of putting numbers to our one-of-a-kind design. Uncharted territory. We had designed a traditional trough as that is what we knew and proudly used our hydraulics education and surge capacity math to size. The cool surprise was what material would support the pool: geofoam.

The education process that would forever change my approach to projects began. I dissected the plans down to each component and built in my head step-by-step. I would be doing this project myself with the help of one carpenter and an occasional laborer or two.

This sounds exciting, and it was except for the client’s bully attitude and the pressure to turn around numbers quickly. If the numbers were not right, this project was canned. The state of the economy and the opportunity to bring this vision life clouded my better judgement. I’ve always been a stick counter so calculating the materials portion was not too difficult. But working on a steep hillside with some unique materials meant things could go south fast so a fine line was set. Think this through tight and methodically. I had never played with geofoam or piers sticking out of grade by 8 ft so there were some things to learn.

Presenting the proposal was unnerving. Of course, it was more than the client was willing to spend by a good amount. Project canned. Now what? “Let me think on this for a few,” I told him. “You’re only as good as your solutions,” we like to say. I couldn’t give up yet although our client’s attitude sure made me want to throw in the towel.

My breakdown of each step made value engineering much easier. The outer wall and its supports were target as they looked redundant. I recalled a trough detail in a Genesis class and approached the engineer with the thought of a version that would grow out of the pool wall and channel water to a tank below. We could also shorten the pool by approximately ten feet without compromising the intent and vision. NOA was able to make the structural changes for a minimal charge and if those two changes alone saved around $80k.

Lesson learned: There are always options—so keep looking.

The project was back on and deadlines were set. Showtime. Having spent some time in a cabinet shop, it’s hard not to keep looking at the little marks between the larger ones on the tape measure. Ultimately, my attention to detail is a good thing although I would get plenty of comments. When your end-goal is to have as perfect an edge as possible, 18 ft above grade, the small marks are worth noticing.

The batterboards would dictate the layout from day one. Everyday we would reference back to them so it was vital to take care to do everything possible to make them perfect and able to withstand months of construction, facing woodshrink and warping, as the project grew out of the ground. We wanted account for everything. Months later and still our daily guide.

Lesson learned: Start perfect to stay perfect—it pays off!

Learning about geofoam as soon as possible (where to get it, dimensions available, trucking, moving, workability, etc.) was vital. When we knew what size fit the criteria, we made sure the bench cuts in the hill matched this within inches so as we could keep cutting and back-filling to a minimum. These foam blocks were like huge Legos. Access required transferring pieces off flatbeds onto the shoulder of main road, ten minutes down the mountain, and shuffling uphill in smaller truck (while trimming overhead branches on route up while nobody was looking). Again, again, again and again. Careful handling of the foam blocks kept the “snow” to a minimum.

Lesson learned: What seems like a simple task is not always so. Don’t assume.

There’s no manual on how to logistically build a project like this so write your own. I am extremely fortunate in my life to have worked with two master craftsman who have been building fine homes for 40 plus years each. Old school boys. Darryl and I go back to little league days together and we still work together. Tim and I worked together for at least double-digit years. On this project Darryl was building a house with a friend so this was my first opportunity to work side by side with Tim. Tim always used to get in my ear, ranting about prebuilding and controlled environments. He made some sense but I didn’t have the available bandwidth to fully absorb and apply. That would change on this project and forever be engrained to this day. Tornado Tim or Slash as I sometimes called him seized the opportunity to apply his concept and craft. We premade all the form panels we could on a perfectly flat area we created just for fabrication. We spun top and bottom plates on 1 1/8” plywood to the exact radius of the design and squared up each panel with plywood again knowing that the more accurate we were now, the more precise the walls would grow to be.

Lesson learned: Square and plumb! Controlled environments for prefab rules!

Making our own pretend construction manual meant thinking of the next step and beyond that, and how our actions now would affect the future. We made the tall outer forms taller than the bottom of the pool and the first shoot, leaving them on to support the cantilevered trough when we acknowledged that no seam at the transition would be stronger and present fewer potential issues.

Lesson learned: Think ahead, think further ahead, then think backwards, too.

Bracing the piers that would grow from grade and pass through the yet to be installed geofoam, to the bottom floor of the sun shelf, was one of the more nerve-racking steps. Fear of a leaning pier made for restless nights. Photo G also shows the bench cuts dimensioned to match future Geofoam block size.

Lesson learned: If you keep thinking about it, consider it a premonition that needs addressing. Brace, brace and brace again.

A major part of the process was constantly mapping out visual references to be used by all parties involved. The steel crew wants to jam and not think too much so we decided to map out the profile of the pool floor and grade beams (which would be in the foam, not actual grade). In cabinetry we call it a story stick. I’m not sure what to call it in pools but I can assure you it was a wise move. The red tape in the picture was the profile that once mapped out was what we would foam to and the steel crew would follow, as well.

Lesson learned: Taking the time to preplan and map out will accelerate the install and labor, eliminating the need to burn those last braincells when things need to get done.

The geofoam turned out to be quite the adventure. Cheap electric chainsaws were key. The hot wire was ok, at times. It’s a thrill when it’s hundred degrees out and the reflection off the white is tanning you, yet have Styrofoam snow sticking to you!

This would be my first project where no trenching was involved for plumbing, as all routing was left to our discretion. Foam trenches! We had to account for this as we finally reached the level of the bottom of the pool. Our plan was to build the exterior walls up to prepool floor level, foam fill and then continue with pool forms on top of exterior wall forms, which we left installed to slow down curing. By doing this, we would also be shooting the pool shell monolithically (if it technically made a difference). Basically, create a nice level work area then start working up again. It was also crucial to get all plumbing in before any steel as the steel schedule was so intense, it would require test panels and all sorts of application protocol. The photos below show how much fun the steel crews had. Seismic is our local engineering buzzword every time we ask why so damn much. When all said and done over $20k went towards special inspections and observations as required by code and engineering. Welcome to California.

Lesson learned: Think in terms of stages. Always.

Considering stages especially applied when phasing the shoots.

Once the super structure was completed, the process became all about the aesthetics. The payoff on all the diligence spent with precise batters came to fruition as the compound miters on the tile and stone at the radiused curves were so much easier to execute.

There are still many many more sub stories to this project. Though the stress throughout the project was no bueno, the buzz for me was taking the risk to complete such an enormous (with a knucklehead client) that could have been disastrous and derailed at any stage. The level and uniqueness of the engineering and execution has since made all other projects feel very tame. It has given us the confidence to take on any “challenging” site or design, knowing that if you look before you leap, you can land feet first. An extra bonus was working hands-on has forever helped me with estimating intricate jobs. It also helped me decide to stay small, specialize when possible and maybe even jump up from the glorified babysitter rate.

Looking back has been fun. Knowing that without having taken that challenge, then we wouldn’t be what we are today—that makes it worth it.