Every professional builder of any stripe has stories to tell about how a job that seemed good on paper headed south during construction. It’s a particularly common problem in homebuilding, where an architect draws a set of plans to make the client’s dream come true, and the general contractor is stuck in the middle, trying to make a profit while solving problems, dealing with change orders, and answering for oversights that originated elsewhere.
Pool builders have an advantage in this respect: Since the craft is so specialized, many established companies not only manage construction but also do their own design, and can work directly with homeowners to head off profit-eating problems before they materialize. In the best scenario, the plans would be flawless, the customer would never request changes after construction started, and subs and suppliers would deliver exactly what they promised.
The real world of pool building is a little messier, however, forcing contractors to be constantly on their toes as designs that look perfect on paper get rewritten — in concrete — in the field. For this article we spoke with three pool builders in various parts of the country to learn how different-size companies manage the execution of their designs. All three are successful, established businesses, and each of them has systems in place to deal with the inevitable problems that arise as designs get handed off to production.
Chris Anderson and his father, Robert, own Custom Design Pools in Friendswood, Texas, serving the greater Houston area. The firm builds and landscapes around 15 pools a year at an average price of $180,000, with some of the projects ranging as high as $600,000. Chris focuses on sales and design while Robert oversees scheduling and construction. In addition to father and son, the company has one project supervisor; all installation is performed by a team of familiar subcontractors, some of whom have worked with the company since its founding in 1994. One of the three company staff is in the field every day while a project is under way, addressing homeowner questions and concerns, and making sure the design is executed correctly. “This is key to why our company has grown,” says Chris Anderson. “Without a serious amount of overhead, I couldn’t stay in the office and design and never go out on a job site. In fact, I’m just as involved with the customer at the end of the project as I was at the beginning, making sure the aesthetic vision we discussed in our meetings comes to reality.” But with his father overseeing day-to-day construction, Anderson also is freed up to design and sell the next jobs.
Staying small and focused has gained the company a strong reputation in the custom niche around Houston, but there still can be bumps in the road from design to execution. “Anyone in the construction business that says they don’t have problems in the field is not being honest. … We always build a contingency into every contract to help cover anything that arises.”
On one recent job, for example, Anderson had to enlarge a shade arbor when it was discovered — well into construction — that the municipality’s setback requirements had changed since the pool was originally permitted. “We were forced to move the 16-by-7-foot arbor closer to the edge of the pool, but unfortunately one of the posts would have landed right on top of the skimmer cover, which was already gunited in place. For aesthetic reasons, we couldn’t move the arbor sideways, because it was centered on the pool, so instead we added 3 feet to the width so the post landed clear of the skimmer and the arbor was still centered on the pool.”
Anderson reworked the design and the company paid for the new timbers that were needed. The alteration cost around $2,000. “In the end,” says Anderson, “it’s a lot cheaper for us to spend a thousand dollars to fix a problem than to try to get that thousand dollars from the client and create a stressful environment.”
Mike Giannamore faces the same challenges as Anderson but at a slightly different scale. His company, Aqua Pool & Patio, in East Windsor, Conn., ranks 18th in Pool & Spa News’ Top 50 Builders list and is on track to build 60 pools in the next year. The firm keeps all aspects of pool construction in-house except for gunite and plaster. “Limiting the number of subs we use allows us to do some very creative things. But any time we use a sub, one of our supervisors is on-site,” says Giannamore.
The company uses a team of staff designers who also handle sales throughout the greater Hartford area, as far south as the Connecticut shore and north into Massachusetts. “Because of the area we serve and the custom nature of the pools we build, we don’t see our designers every day,” says Giannamore. “Most of their sales work is done at the homeowners’ kitchen table, miles away from the office. They are well trained; they are given a price list, they are given some flexibility to negotiate — ‘some’ is the key word — and they are sent on their way with hopes of bringing in a contract under deposit.”
Providing telephone and email support for the sales/design team is an ongoing challenge, since many of their questions come in the evening or on weekends, when a customer wants to know why a given item is priced the way it is. There also is a constant tug-of-war between selling a job to earn a commission but not pricing it too low to be profitable. Giannamore learned the hard way how to manage this dilemma, when several years ago a new salesman, no longer with the company, came in with a design that was clearly unbuildable for the contract sales price, which was tens of thousands of dollars too low. “When we informed the owner that we were not building the pool,” says Giannamore, “we were informed by the owner’s attorney that, yes, we were building that pool — at that price — or he would force us to do so.”
The company built the pool, but more importantly, it changed its sales contract, adding a clause at the end that says the contract is not valid until accepted by an authorized corporate officer, with a place for a third signature in addition to the homeowner’s and designer’s. “We learned that if we are going to have pool designers out in the field — and knowing we would be hiring and training new ones — that we needed some way to protect ourselves,” says Giannamore. “So now we have that line in our contract so that if a pool designer misses something, such as not accounting for a difficult access, we have the ability to walk away and not get sued into building someone a pool.” In the rare cases where issues do arise, the company works with the designer and the homeowner to adjust the budget or modify the design, and to make sure the homeowner doesn’t feel like a victim of a bait-and-switch tactic.
Bruce Dunn, of Mission Pools in Escondido, Calif., uses the same approach. His company, which has been in business since 1960, does residential, commercial and institutional work in San Diego, Orange, and Riverside Counties, with jobs ranging in size from a simple backyard spa to an entire waterpark. Mission Pools will build around 180 pools this year, with a total sales volume of around $20 million. The company keeps all construction in-house, from excavation to finishes (except plaster), and has 12 full-time project supervisors in the field who manage jobs from design to completion. “All of our supervisors are builders with a lot of construction experience,” says Dunn. “We rely on them as dual advocates — for the client and for the company — to make sure that what has been designed, drawn and sold is produced in a proper manner. Once a job is sold and on paper, you’re on the hook. You never want to hear from a client, ‘Well, your salesman should have known that.’ It just leads to an argument, and nobody wins.”
To prevent major problems, the company uses an audit process for its designs, including careful pricing of each phase of construction and a site visit by the project superintendent to get to know the client and look for any red flags in the site conditions. The contract is not final until senior management signs off.
“If a design has a specific flaw, then we won’t take the work,” says Dunn. “But that happens very infrequently, because our salespeople have been working for us for years.” In cases where an item is missed by the audit, such as plumbing that is undersized, the project supervisor will correct the problem during construction. “There’s no such thing as undersized plumbing,” says Dunn. “We always build to the best standards possible, but once the contract is signed, it’s an internal matter.”
The company fosters an atmosphere of constant communication to head off problems and learn from any mistakes. “We have a transparent organization — there are no closed doors in the office, no tiers. There is constant talking between superintendents, designers, scheduling, management. This produces a backdoor education for the designers. If something gets forgotten, hopefully it won’t get forgotten next time,” says Dunn.
Dunn stresses the importance of having a detailed set of plans: “The less detailed the plans are, the more opportunity for misinterpretation.” On one job, a complex, multi-level pool at a beach house, Mission Pools went so far as to hire an architectural modeling company to make a scale model of the pool and landscaping on a 4-by-8-foot sheet of plywood. “We had the model on-site during construction. When we had a question — How high is this fall? How wide are these rivulets? — we could literally take scale dimensions and elevations right off that model.”