I had been working as a designer at River Oaks Pools for approximately a year when a couple walked into the office one Saturday. I was still new, and with walk-ins, you never know what they’re going to want. These clients were great. They requested a pool with a grotto, slide, tanning ledge, waterfalls and lap lanes. We had many subsequent meetings around their kitchen table, looking out the window and dreaming.

Over time, the project became more ambitious — the waterfalls doubled in size and the cave grew bigger.

When construction started, I realized how challenging all of this was going to be. The clients owned two adjacent lots, and originally we planned for the pool to run across both. Then we found out that electrical cabling for the whole subdivision ran between the lots, so we had to redesign the pool.

The site was heavily wooded, with a 3-foot elevation change. This was one of the first times I’d dealt with something like this alone. The clients also wanted to keep all of the trees, so the pool’s shape was dictated by the lines of the yard. The vessel simply went where there weren’t any trees.

The project took about 10 months to complete. We had limited access to the site, which required a lot of coordination. In addition, the aquascape contains about 150 tons of rock. Every inch of the pool beam has moss boulders or natural stone. The beach entry has Oklahoma Turkey Creek brown flagstone. Even the pool tile is stone.

The grotto boulder is the size of a car at 12 feet long and 5 feet wide. We call it the Volkswagen rock. In the lagoon area, there are also some huge boulders that enable the homeowners to sit in the serene environment of their backyard while only getting their feet wet.

The clients love dark colors. The bottom of the pool is black plaster, and the vessel itself is quite deep, down to 10 feet near the cave. Boulder steps built into the pool wall lead to a big jumping rock under the waterfall. It gives you the feeling of being like Tarzan in the wild.

The project was finished in 2002, and it was stunning. The pool has a boomerang shape, with the cave forming its elbow. The water then goes out 50 feet in both directions. With this project, I learned the importance of elevation, architecture, color and engineering.

We entered it in the APSP International Awards of Excellence competition in 2003. It was one of 600 pool entries that year, and when it won the gold, that was the greatest feeling. All I could say was, “Oh, my gosh!” When we called the homeowners to tell them that it was honored with an award, they said, “Debbie, we know why. Our pool is what we wanted, and more.”

This project gave me confidence. I learned I was capable of being sensitive to my customers’ needs while also bringing something amazing to life. That’s my biggest goal today, to internalize clients’ priorities and make sure their dreams come true.

Since then, the project has been featured in Luxury Pools magazine. It’s also been on the covers of Signature Pools & Spas and Country Living magazines. I didn’t realize the magnitude of national exposure until a few months later. I started getting calls from people all over the United States, asking me questions about the pool: “What color stone did you use? How much rock is there? How deep is the pool? What color is the plaster?”

Folks also called from New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, California, Alabama and Georgia, asking me to design pools. I’ve considered it. It would be amazing to travel to other states and create pools for clients who are willing to go the extra mile.

I consider it a compliment that I’m able to pick and choose the jobs I do. Today, I have more leads than I can handle. For the past two years, I’ve worked only on referrals.

At the company, we call that project the Glass Pool, and it has become our signature design. All of our trucks are wrapped with its image.

Because of this project, now I push all clients to the extreme. I tell them that they should spend a little more to make at least one element out of the ordinary.

We’re a small company, so it’s nice to be respected. We don’t want to be big, but we do want to be exceptional. I’ve learned that with the right clients, there are no limits. It’s possible to find your vision and share it with people who appreciate it.

Even though I now have several pools under construction that I think will be just as incredible as the Glass Pool, I still recognize that it was my first great achievement.

Debbie Runnels-Pendley

Master Designer/Special Projects Coordinator

River Oaks Pools

San Antonio

Lessons Learned

  • Respect the shape of the land and the environment when designing a pool.
  • Define your client’s needs before you let your imagination run wild.
  • Don’t set limits on your creativity; encourage clients to embrace new ideas and designs.
  • If you have more leads than you can handle, be selective in the types of clients you choose.
  • Share your knowledge and success with others, and watch opportunities blossom.