Be The Dream: Make Yourself an Invaluable Part of the Process

By John Ogburn

Luxury pool & outdoor living is, well, just that, a luxury. It has been said that necessity is the mother of invention. The debate between needs and wants is another topic all together; nevertheless, there is no question that the demand for increasingly complex outdoor living environments has pushed the need for professionals that can help clients realize their dreams. Specifically, professionals who continue to hone their skills in order to confidently and competently lead the way innovating new forms and functions in watershapes and the surrounding outdoor environments. It never ceases to amaze me, the growth of the industry and the opportunities we continue to see. In order to deliver at a high level on these opportunities, it takes a Team of professionals – from the equipment manufacturers with perpetual R&D improvement processes to the experts in construction who masterfully orchestrate the various build trades to execute the plan. Typical of any process involving contributions from many to accomplish the one goal, I believe the Team is only as strong as it’s weakest link. With this in mind, I feel the “natural selection” process applies to one’s own role within the dream to reality process. Adapt to survive…this may be too primitive of an analogy, and perhaps for the point I’m trying to illustrate here, the revised variant of strive for perfection to become invaluable works best. As with any supply & demand equilibrium, the increased demand for these luxury environments leads to a saturated provider market. How do you elevate your game to rise above the mediocre and become a valuable member of the Dream Team?

For the projects I have the good fortune to be a Team member of, I fulfill the design role, and as such, I will be focusing on my process within this area. Yet, I feel the broad concepts and approach I will be outlining are applicable across all roles of the dream to reality process, along with the varying business models ranging from design only to design + build + service companies. The basic tenet of my approach is – there is no substitute for hard work. I am a firm believer that if you want to succeed at a high level you have to be willing to put in the work required to achieve that success. This begins with the training and education that allows one to become qualified and sought after, carries into continuing education and, of course, then into the work. My personal aim is to place a higher value on the quality over the quantity of the work that I produce. By being selective and taking on less, I can devote appropriate time and maintain a higher standard for my work. Too much on the to do list and I get stretched too thin. Simple, although this balance can be tricky, especially from a financial standpoint. However, I feel if you work hard and prove your value, discerning Client’s are willing to pay a higher rate for a finer quality of work and service in comparison to the status quo. In other words, I prefer being on the positive side of the phrase – you get what you pay for.

In my case, the term Client can refer to a few different relationships. In the more traditional sense, my clients are those that seek my services for a project they are interested in for themselves. I also work routinely with a few select luxury pool and outdoor living contractors, along with several luxury custom home builders. It is my strong desire to work with clients and alongside Team members who recognize my passion and proficiency; otherwise, there can be an under-appreciation, and therefore, a devaluing of the services that I offer. In my view, those who do not appreciate the quality and finer details of the work are simply not my client’s, and recognizing when this is the case and when to move on is an important skill all it’s on. In order to maintain a high quality level of deliverables and service to my Client, I focus the majority of my energy on sharpening my skills and improving upon the work from project to project. My aim of course being to establish and uphold a strong reputation and in turn a self-sustaining business model based almost solely on word of mouth, an organic and honest approach in connecting with new potential clients. I personally much prefer this method over spending a disproportionate amount of time and/or money on a targeted marketing strategy, chasing new client leads in which I have no authentic connection. The key to success here is to routinely exceed expectations. The Client is paying for your expertise and work, and when you’re able to exceed their expectations and eliminate any doubt about the value of your contribution to the project, their confidence level with you soars. This inevitably leads to referral and repeat business. Let your work speak for itself. Strive for perfection to become invaluable!

The general structure of my process typically goes something like this – Design Consultation > Site Analysis & Evaluation > Design Development > Design Presentation > Construction Documentation/Support. There is nothing exceptional or out of the ordinary about this format, though I will highlight some of the ways I try to go above and beyond the commonplace.

Design Consultation – I view an initial design consultation as an interview process of sorts; an opportunity to understand if I’m the correct fit for the Client and vice versa. I have a few pre-screening techniques, and occasionally a nominal fee, I employ ahead of setting an on-site consultation in order to limit the time committed to inquiries that I may not be right for. When I do set an on-site meeting, I want to make sure it is as productive as possible. This is the opportunity to impress upon the Client your knowledge and professionalism, confidently, not arrogantly…which can be a fine line. I can’t understate the importance of developing professional communication skills and in being a keen observer in order to make the most out of the time spent consulting with prospective clients. This is the beginning of the discovery process in better understanding their needs and wants. Tuning into the Client’s style, family/social life, budget, etc. is a unique process each and every time, as no two client’s are the same. Great communication and observation skills will lead to a deeper connection with the Client and in turn a better understanding of how to serve their needs. This is not to say that the Client is always correct, because I certainly see part of the job as helping protect some from making poor decision due to their lack of knowledge specific to our field of expertise. This is, of course, why they reached out in the first place.

Site Analysis & Evaluation – To me, the name of the game throughout the process is precision, which all begins with a thorough understanding of the site and project area. If you begin with vague or imprecise site information, you can’t expect the resulting design to be the best solution, as invariably details will be missed. When I engage on a project, I seek every bit of information I can, collected both by myself and by other certified professionals. An engineered survey is a requirement, and in many cases a topographic survey is routine and/or I will accurately measure my own project area elevations. Because most of my design work involves three-dimensional modeling, I also thoroughly measure vertical dimensions, or in the case of new construction, I’ll work from the final site (and/or foundation survey) along with the final home plans. Being thorough in this process will ensure a solid foundation from which to build the design from, improving results.

Design Development – This is the process of taking the knowledge gained from the consultation and site analysis and applying the skills as a design professional, skills rooted in sound design principles and a firm understanding of the possibilities unique to our industry, to provide a quality solution for the project need. My goal is for a harmonious blend of aesthetics, function/ergonomics, and in being architecturally in-keeping with the existing/planned residence, while also balancing in the Client’s style, family/social life, the almighty budget, and any other pertinent factors specific to the project. Bringing all of this together into a cohesive plan that not only provides a solution to the specific project needs, but also stands as a work of art, is such a rewarding process to me. 

Design Presentation – A quality design deserves to be showcased in an engaging and client-personalized presentation. I spend a good deal of time creating three-dimensional fly-through visualizations that both accurately and attractively depict the developed design integrated into the Client’s existing or future residence. The time dedicated in doing so is worth the investment to me, as it results in a powerful communication tool for unparalleled client comprehension and excitement. With this resource, the review process becomes so much more meaningful and deliberate. The overall intent here being, to create a realistic window into their future, sparking a connection and intrigue of the possibilities.

Construction Documentation/Support – Upon review of the design presentation and any needed revisions, I prepare various construction documents to help move the project into the build phase. Three-dimensional visualizations are also very helpful in communicating the design details to the build professionals, but they are no substitute for scalable plan, elevation and section view drawings. The complexity of the project will dictate the level of detail needed in preparation of the construction documents, ranging anywhere from dimensioned layout drawings all the way through complete structural and hydraulic plans. For the structural and hydraulic needs, I have worked hard on establishing trusted and reliable relationships with other design and engineering professionals who are certified in these specialty areas. I also place a lot of emphasis on providing rapid support to the build professionals throughout the course of construction. As we all know, issues will arise during the construction process, and I like working collaboratively and efficiently to determine the best solution and limit any down time resulting from the problem.

Communication – I also feel it is important to mention that a common thread needed through all stages of the design process is professional and timely communication with both the Client and builders. Clients appreciate being informed; it’s continued assurance that they are in good hands and that positive progress is being made. With builders, steady communication ensures details are not missed and I also remain informed as to what is happening in the field, so I can provide any additional needed information in a timely manner. Being a great communicator will add even more value to the role you fulfill.

Perfection is unattainable, but the pursuit through continual refinement and improvement will pave the way to success. I encourage you to continue learning and working hard in the pursuit of perfection, I know I will. Strive for perfection to become invaluable!

I’m grateful for the opportunity to express these thoughts and I appreciate all who have taken the time to read. Please feel free to reach out with any questions or comments.

— John Ogburn of EnTerra Design Group