Pool at Sterling on the Lake, a suburban Atlanta community developed by Newland Communities.
Newland Communities Pool at Sterling on the Lake, a suburban Atlanta community developed by Newland Communities.

The pool is the crown jewel of any master-planned community.

This is becoming the case more and more often. Large developers such as Southern California outfits The Irvine Co. and Rancho Mission Viejo place a premium on lifestyle perks.

“They’re putting big pools in almost every section of the neighborhood,” says Brent Mathews, project manager for Consolidated Contracting Services, an Orange County, Calif.-based firm that builds recreation centers for housing communities.

To build this in-demand amenity right requires cooperation between the developer and the pool builder. One misstep or miscommunication can spell headaches down the line.

Here, we’ll explore how these parties can work together toward building stunning, tenant-attracting pools.

What to know about developers

Developers value relationships, so they’re not always going to hire the lowest bidder. Many residential builders who have tried to crack the commercial market by lowballing the competition learned this the hard way.

Mathews has always been hesitant to hire newcomers. He saw an influx of backyard pool builders enter the commercial arena when the housing industry crashed — and many developers took the bait. Mathews avoided working with these pool contractors on the advice of colleagues who had learned their lesson.

Sure, these pool builders were cheap, but they didn’t have the requisite skill set.

“They think it’s easy, but it’s a lot more complicated than at first glance,” Mathews says.

One of the largest projects he’s been involved with was a $13 million recreation building with a massive swimming pool containing waterfeatures galore — the kind of project he’s not going to entrust to a novice.

This is why developers demand bidders with a track record of building sophisticated community pools. It’s not just engineering expertise they’re seeking. General contractors depend on commercial pool builders to navigate the nuances of health codes, not only for the pool itself, but also for ancillary features such as the fence, restrooms and pump rooms.

Mathews recalls when a pool builder brought it to his attention that there wasn’t enough clearance between an eyewash station and a door leading into the chemical room. It was the architect’s mistake and could’ve resulted in an inspection snafu.

“We need their expertise from a code and functionality standpoint and their relationships with jurisdictions,” Mathews says. “We have to count on them.”

Pool builders can expect to serve in an advisory capacity even when they’re sidelined while surrounding features, such as the deck and bathhouse, are constructed. It’s not uncommon for a pool professional to install a shell in late fall and leave the job site until early spring. During this time, pool builders can be expected to consult on electrical matters, such as equipotential bonding, or instruct the builder’s concrete crew on the importance of expansion joints and other swimming pool sensitivities that other trades may not be aware of.

“There are so many things we’re constantly educating them on, because we feel that’s our responsibility,” says Jack Crowder, president of NVblu, a pool design and build firm in Chantilly, Va. “And it helps build the relationship.”

One more thing: Unlike homeowners, who generally can sign a check on the spot, developers tend to pay on a slower cycle. That means you may have to bankroll the project upfront and wait for compensation. Some developers will want proof that the pool contractor is in a financial position to do this.

“We can get verification on their financial status by either requesting a financial statement — however, most are private contractors and will not provide this proprietary information — or by having them refer us to their banker, who we will call to determine their capability to finance certain levels of contracts,” says Douglas Goff, chief operations officer with The Johnson Development Corp. in Houston.

What to know about commercial pool builders

Even in the niche field of commercial pool construction, housing developers will find differences between firms. Some specialize in both design and construction, while others solely focus on construction.

Aquatic Technologies falls in the latter category. “The scope of our creativity is making sure it doesn’t leak,” says its president, Ken Hart. The San Juan Capistrano, Calif.-based company is almost exclusively in the business of building pools for heavyweight developers such as Standard Pacific Corp., which ranks No. 11 on the 2015 Builder 100 list released by Builder, a sister publication to PSN.

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While most pool builders would like to land a contract for the entire project, from vision to completion, some are willing to take what they can get. That means a developer could tap one firm for the design and another to perform construction.

For example, Aquatic Technologies won’t come up with a pretty concept for a community pool, but it does offer design services that handle the nuts and bolts of the architect’s vision. These include plotting the equipment room, plumbing layout and mechanical specifications. Aquatic Technologies offers these services à la carte.

“Probably half of our clients currently have us actually design the project before it goes to bid,” Hart says. “And they will pay us independently for the design.” More often than not, Aquatic Technologies also will land the construction job.

Making it work

Long before breaking ground on that highly anticipated amenity, the pool builder and developer should work out some details.

  • First and foremost is the design

“We need to be part of the design team from the outset,” says Crowder. “Otherwise they make a lot of mistakes on the bathhouse construction or how they’re dealing with the chlorinated discharge … and the things that are going to be looked at by the health and building inspector.” Early collaboration also will curtail a common architectural error that vexes those in charge of the day-to-day maintenance of pools. Architects are notorious for designing pump rooms that are entirely too small. In some cases, pool builders can creatively stack the equipment to make the room manageable, but this is hardly ideal for the pool service technician who will have to work within these tight confines. Most likely, the designer will have to go back to the drawing board, resulting in costly change-orders.

In an ideal scenario, the geometry and gallonage of the pool and all waterfeatures would be planned first, then the pump room spec’d based on those figures. It also would behoove the developer to have all details of the bathhouse planned, such as the number of toilet fixtures and showers, before going to bid. Not only will this help get an apples-for-apples comparison when assessing bids, but it will help prevent health-inspection snags.

In some states this is mandatory. In California and Florida, for example, you can’t break ground on a commercial pool  unless you have a permit from the health department. Developers who have longstanding relationships with pool builders understand this. However, those who are new or operating from outside the state or country may run into red tape.

“Often we’ll see a newer developer or someone who is not familiar with the process say, ‘This is a hurry-up bid. We’re ready to go!’ And we have to explain to them that they’re at least a month-and-a-half away because that’s how long the health department is going to sit on those plans,” Hart says. “It becomes a real critical-path issue.”

  • Establish lines of communication

Given that swimming pools require the involvement of multiple trades — plumbers, mechanics, and electricians, among others — it falls to the pool builder to manage them all. To make things run more smoothly, they can designate an on-site point person who will interact directly with the general contractor’s site superintendent. Plus, it helps to have a project manager interface with the builder’s counterpart. “We try to follow a similar chain of command [general contractors use], so everyone knows who they’re supposed to be talking to,” Hart says. “Otherwise it does get confusing.”

Mathews concurs: “If something comes up, I want to be able to call someone directly and work through it.”

  • Meet and document often

Pool builders would be wise to keep copious records, including photos of each construction stage. If an issue arises, it’s good to have an archive for reference. Plus they’re handy during regularly scheduled meetings, which are highly recommended. During these meetings, the team can list all the overlapping tasks and determine which contractors will manage them. For example, who is going to keep the concrete shell moist as it cures? Who will fill the pool, and where is the water going to come from? Who will take responsibility for monitoring it overnight to make sure it doesn’t overflow? There also are electrical responsibilities to consider, such as running the wiring and conduit to the pool area and equipment pad or pump room.

While pool-related, these are things that don’t always fall under the purview of the pool builder, so it’s best to get them cleared up, in writing, before it’s too late.