Renovation Time

By Jim McCloskey

The weather has taken a turn toward heat in the time since I wrote my last blog:  It’s been in the 90s several times recently, and it reminds me of an even hotter stretch early in May 1989, when we moved into our current house and settled in as a family with our first swimming pool.

When we arrived with our truckload of boxes and furniture at around 9 am that first day, it was only a few minutes before we noticed that the pool was bright green, shot through with filaments of algae emboldened by a lack of any water circulation and a run of hot days in the week since the previous owners had left and we were cleared to move in.

We’d deliberately arranged for utilities to stay active through the transition, so that wasn’t the issue.  Actually, someone had taken it upon him- or herself to remove the “on” tab from the pool’s clock, either to save us some money or, more likely, to ensure we’d need to make an emergency call to someone who could remedy the situation.  However it came down, it was an unpleasant surprise made somewhat worse by the fact that, with two very young children to get settled, I was too busy to do anything about it right away.

The thermometer topped 105 degrees that first day of our occupancy and stayed in triple digits for several more days.  On the third day, I finally made it over to a local pool store with a water sample and a weary smile on my face.  The woman behind the counter looked at me like I had a couple heads, but when I explained the situation she swung into action and laid out a game plan that would keep me busy after work for the next two weeks.

Gallons of chlorine, quarts of algaecide, hours of brushing and three filter split-and-cleans later, the water was clear and happy again:  Nearly three weeks had passed, and finally we were able to take our first swim.

I’ve been my own pool guy ever since.  I started mowing lawns and maintaining landscapes when I was eight, had always done my own interior painting and most of my own carpentry,  plumbing and minor electrical work – and there was no way I wanted anyone else to have a hand in caring for my pool, which I’ve now run for 29 years.  There have been occasional repairs and installations for which I’ve called in help through the intervening years, but once I pulled through the introductory hell of un-greening the water in May 1989, I’ve always figured there wasn’t much of anything I couldn’t handle.

That’s worked for a long, long time, but now we’re recognizing the fact that our pool is nearly 40 years old and needs big-league help.  The drainage system has never been adequate, for one thing, so the decks have been pushed around by our clay soil and we’ve had some issues with cracked coping stones and a few popped waterline tiles.

The plaster is original, too, and needs attention.  By the time we moved in, generous acid use by our predecessors had stripped copper from the pipes (yes, they’re all copper up to the equipment pad) and turned most of the once-white interior a blotchy robin’s-egg blue.  We never minded it, but now, older and wiser and finally a bit impatient, we’ve decided to leave its rundown appearance behind us and go instead with something nice, smooth, consistent and fresh.

The equipment has seen some upgrades through the years, including the addition of variable speed pumps, a more efficient heater for the spa and a salt chlorinator, but we want to start all over with an ozone system.  We also want to include a real automation system in place of the one an electrician friend and I rigged up a couple decades ago using a bunch of X-10 home-automation switches.  It never worked very well, but it nonetheless convinced me that the concept has merit.

But mainly it’s the cosmetic stuff.  The outdated perimeter ribbon of drab decking, the never-pretty waterline tile, the bullnose coping in the spa that hits me right in the shoulder blades and the faded, deteriorating plaster finish all cry out for attention – and they’ll be getting it sometime soon.

We’re just beginning our conversations, and I can guarantee you that you’ll hear all about our progress in this space as the project unfolds.  Watch for it!

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Water Wonders

By Jim McCloskey

I’ve seen two articles recently that I must share – one inspiring, the other amazing.

First the inspiration:

It’s tough for aquatic facilities to be recognized at all when it comes to the rigorous requirements of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program:  These projects can be substantial energy users and unquenchable with respect to water consumption.  But through the years, creative designers have found ways for them to make the grade.

I even know of two (there may be more?) that have been certified as LEED Platinum, which is an astonishing achievement.  LEED Gold aquatic centers are a rarity, too, and one that was recently recognized with that status is surprising because of the extent of the complex, which not only includes three full-size pools, but also a spa, drinking fountains, steam and sauna rooms and 34 showers.  On the surface, it seems an unlikely candidate for LEED recognition.

The facility is located on the campus of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and was designed by MJMA (Toronto) along with Acton Ostry Architects (Vancouver).  To meet LEED water-efficiency levels, the site includes a water-management system based on recycling and an underground cistern that can store 350,000 gallons of rainwater at a time.  (In the course of a year, about 700,000 gallons enter the system for subsequent use.)

As reported by Architect magazine, “The 85,000-square-foot UBC Aquatic Center is more than just a recreational facility for UBC staff and students. Envisioned as a community resource, the swimming center was also created to provide a high-performance training and competition venue for Olympians and includes separated sections for Community Aquatics and Competition Aquatics.”

The facility is covered by an angular roof that lends the structure a flash of visual drama while helping channel rainwater into the cistern.  And there’s more:  A long skylight crosses the building to bring in natural light, and there’s an air-flow system that whisks away chloramine-contaminated air from the top of the water surface, replacing it with fresh air.

It’s all quite involved, but this kind of program and its attention to key details may be the only way to keep big aquatic facilities relevant in years to come.  Simply inspiring.

To see photographs of the facility and the brief article, click here.

Now for the amazing:

As the article at Mother Nature Network ( puts it, “Water might be the weirdest liquid in the universe, and now we know why:  H2O might seem simple, but how it arranges itself is bizarre.”

Let’s start with water’s unusual density:  Most liquids become denser as they cool down, but once water’s temperature drops below 39.2 degrees F, researchers report, “it defies this general rule and instead becomes less dense.  By the time it freezes solid, the resultant ice actually floats on liquid water. . . .  That’s not all.  Water also has an unusually high boiling point, and an absurdly high surface tension.”

Why is water so odd?  Nobody knew until just recently, when researchers used a supercomputer to model how water molecules are organized.  “It turns out that at room temperature and as ice, water has a tetrahedral arrangement of molecules, which is essentially a pyramid shape, and it’s this shape that apparently gives water such amazing abilities.  To test this, researchers were able to run computer models that arranged water molecules in other shapes besides the pyramid. What they found was that as soon as the tetrahedral arrangement was broken down, water began behaving more like a normal liquid.”

Vive la difference!  

To see a brief summary of these findings, which were originally published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, click here.

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A Memorable Milestone

By Jim McCloskey

I’ve recently returned from four days of celebrating the 20th anniversary of Genesis with friends and colleagues in Paso Robles, Calif. – about 35 miles away from where it all started for them at Morro Bay on the state’s Central Coast.  The weather wasn’t as brilliant as it might have been, but everything else about the event was top notch and entirely befitting the occasion.

In the days leading up to the gathering, my mind kept wandering back to the first Genesis schools I attended at the Inn at Morro Bay.  The programs then were ambitious but relatively loose, with course leaders finding paths through vast heaps of fresh material.  There were often variations in scheduling and structure – and more than a few on-the-fly adjustments when it came to determining just how things should go.

Happily, the curriculum-related issues all sorted themselves out within the first several editions of what was then known as the Level I Design School.  New balances were struck, new instructors appeared, lots of subject material was tried and refined; gradually, things settled down to a point where the system became workable and familiar.

As for the original closing banquets, one quick decision was made that, no matter how important the pig-based theming of the organization might be, it would never again be a good idea to march a 600-pound porker into the room.  Long story short, the pig made a mess of the place and wasn’t invited back.  The associated costume party came and went as well:  Before long, a certain dignity caught hold as the three gents who ran the show began to appreciate the fact that Genesis had real influence and staying power.

What most caught my attention during the recent celebration is the reality of a changing of the guard.  Only two of the founders are still associated with the group, and both Skip Phillips and Brian Van Bower seem to be settling comfortably into roles as the program’s good-will ambassadors.  This transition has created higher-profile roles for (among others) Dave Peterson, Bill Drakeley and Mike Nantz.

Alone among those three, Mike has ties that stretch all the way back to the group’s earliest days, and I think it’s great that someone with awareness of the organization’s history and evolution is so involved in shaping its future.  He came up through the design/drawing portion of the program – where it all really started – and I’m guessing that one of his de facto roles is to represent the artistic side of the curriculum as a balance to the more-technical inclinations of his two colleagues.

For their parts, Dave and Bill have brought engineers’ attitudes about structure and discipline to the group – a practical change I discussed in this space about a year ago, when I commented on the fact that current Genesis classes come off like clockwork compared to the more free-form, improvised approaches that were so much a part of the package 20 years ago.

Back in 1998, when we were all a lot younger, the Genesis movement and its philosophical compatriots at WaterShapes were brash experimenters:  We threw all sorts of things at the walls to see what would stick.  While some elements of both entities faded quickly (porkers at parties, for one thing), the important point is that what has endured has, to this day, been subjected to constant pressure, refinement and polishing.  Components that make it through this process keep on advancing and being improved – and any added elements have to make sense.

But getting back to the fun, it was great seeing so many familiar faces and meeting so many spouses:  It made the whole event seem like a grand family reunion.

Here’s a tip of the cap to good times – and another 20 years!


I do wish that two gentlemen in particular could have joined us, including my dear friend and former colleague at WaterShapes, Eric Herman – hale and hearty but unable to attend.  His absence left an emotional gap for me that was hard to overcome.

Even more so, the fact that Vance Gillette is ailing and was unable to attend left a huge hole in the proceedings for me.  His role in encouraging the formation of both Genesis and WaterShapes has been well documented, and the value of his support, encouragement and friendship cannot be captured in mere words.

My hat is fully off now, for both of you!

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A Long, Strange Trip

By Jim McCloskey

As this newsletter appears, I’ll be heading north to Paso Robles, Calif., to participate in the 20th Anniversary Celebration for Genesis – very much aware of the fact that it’s a two-decade landmark for WaterShapes, too: We started pre-launch activities related to the magazine at about the same time the founders of Genesis began organizing their first-ever school in Morro Bay, Calif., for the fall of 1998.

The first phone call I made about starting WaterShapes was to Vance Gillette, checking in to see if he figured there was room for a new publication and, more important, if he would support the idea as a prospective advertiser. He said yes on both fronts, then immediately suggested I contact three guys who were talking about starting a school to raise the skill levels of pool/spa designers and builders.

He gave me their names and I burst out laughing: Those he offered – Skip Phillips, David Tisherman and Brian Van Bower – were (after Vance) numbers two, three and five on a list of six people I intended to call that very afternoon. It was a beautiful nest of coincidences, and by the end of that first exploratory day, I was convinced WaterShapes could be exactly the sort of iconoclastic magazine I wanted it to be.

In the months and years that followed, Genesis and WaterShapes became so philosophically interlinked that people figured that either Genesis owned WaterShapes or vice versa. I took a bit of umbrage the first time I heard that one, because ours was a much broader marketing proposition that cobbled together a community including not only pool and spa people, but also landscape designers and architects as well as pond and fountain designers and installers – a community defined by shared involvement with contained, controlled water on a spectrum from birdbaths to lakes.

Before long, however, I was serene in my acceptance of the thought that the “ownership misperception” was generally encouraging (maybe even flattering) and reflected the awesome balances we had struck as both the magazine and the educational system developed. It was also true that Genesis had widened its focus over time, seeing the same value we did in bringing designers and builders from other disciplines into the fold.

It was a real, honest synergy – and a shared conviction that what we were all doing was having a positive effect on everyone who came in contact with us.

The two entities were marching on crisp, parallel courses until the Great Recession hit. The advertising base for WaterShapes effectively collapsed in 2009 and 2010, and we had a choice between reinventing the operation or joining a whole lot of other defunct boutique publications on publishing’s back pages.

Obviously, we chose reinvention – now as an all-digital enterprise. It took a couple years, but we retooled everything after stepping away from printed magazines once our July 2011 edition went into the mail, and the rest, as they say, is history.

I look forward to celebrating their anniversary with my Genesis friends in April, then do some private celebrating here in May. Twenty years ago that month, I conjured up WaterShapes while sitting in my spa on a warm spring evening with a tall, frozen margarita within reach. I knew before the plastic glass was drained that this was the Big Idea I’d been looking for when I’d started my publishing company a couple years earlier.

I knew as well that reaching out to Vance, Brian, Skip and David would be critical, and I cherish my memories of phone conversations and then of face-to-face meetings that helped me and WaterShapes’ founding editor, Eric Herman, align our thought processes and set our sights even higher than we ever figured we could.

It’s been an awesome ride. Thanks for your support through the years and dedication to the proposition that excellence in design, engineering and construction is not only a worthy, but also an attainable and essential goal.

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The Value in Sharing

By Jim McCloskey

With this edition of the newsletter, we wrap up two important article sets at once, with the second and final part of Robert Mikula’s and Simon Gardiner’s coverage of fountains as resources for civic participation and the last in Graham Orme’s four-part exploration of techniques for lighting pools, spas and other watershapes.

In the first instance, I have always enjoyed working with people who have a sense of the Big Picture as well as the insight and ability to explain it in ways that make sense and carry us all along for the ride. Rob and Simon have presented their perspectives on the machinations of fountain design in such a clear, down-to-earth manner that it’s possible, I think, to generalize their outlook well beyond the public fountains that form the core of their discussion.

Take, as one small example, their observation that stakeholder buy-in is more often than not the key to having a fountain accepted as part of a grander development. Seems obvious enough, but they define so many layers and nuances in the first article that when you reach the case studies in the second one, you understand the practicalities and structures involved in bringing ambitious projects to fruition – the many small persuasions that lead to pursuit of one major project.

Let’s scale that down to a backyard pool or pond: There’s an equivalent process of identifying not only the decision-maker, but also figuring out ways to work with those who surround that key individual to make the design work on multiple levels. What Mikula and Gardiner are discussing is, of course, on a much bigger stage with many more constituencies and many more opportunities for misperceptions, missteps and misalignments, but ultimately it’s not so dissimilar.

And the challenge they face is much larger: To draw a parallel, imagine what it would be like if, as a residential pool designer, your plans had to meet the approval of mom and dad as well as their aunts, uncles, siblings, parents and neighbors – not to mention a panel consisting of their kids’ friends and their parents. Getting anything done would be something of a miracle, and it’s at this point I see the rationale for getting as involved in the community as Rob and Simon advise if you want to make headway in the realm of municipal watershaping.

Nonetheless, their experience suggests the value of being somewhat more inclusive in designing, for example, residential pools: The more voices you listen to, the better able you are to turn a client’s backyard into something special – particularly if the intention is to keep the kids close to home and turn the poolscape into a social hub.

It’s a variety of philosophical discourse that makes me happy as an editor and publisher: Mikula and Gardiner know their business, and their willingness to share their insights is both generous and valuable.

Graham Orme’s look at lighting techniques for common watershape types and configurations is another example of this generosity and value: By going into such detail, Graham has done for watershapers what prominent television chefs did for cooking in that great stretch years ago when cable television was more about being informative and instructive rather than competitive and entertaining.

In the same way chef Emeril Lagasse made me confident that I could improvise once I knew the basics of a recipe or class of recipes, Orme has shared enough granular information that the process of lighting a pool or spa or fountain or even a pond is less of a mystery. Like the purveyor of a cookbook, he’s shared a bag of ingredients and measurements and a set of general principles. Now it’s your turn to take and interpret that information and apply it given the idiosyncrasies and specific characteristics of your own projects.

It’s all about patterns and possibilities, and these two sets of articles – one philosophical, the other practical – make key watershaping challenges interesting and maybe even fun in ways I hadn’t perceived before. This is the kind of article that keeps me going and makes me proud to keep doing what we’ve done with WaterShapes for nearly 20 years.

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Swimming’s Lessons


One of my strongest (and best) childhood memories is of the first time I managed to swim the full length of an Olympic-size swimming pool. Another of my strongest (and saddest) youthful recollections is of the first time I tried swimming that distance – and failed miserably: I started out well but found myself desperately dog-paddling to the side of the pool just after passing the halfway point.

As was noted by Wallace J. Nichols in the book Blue Mind (2014), humans love being close to and involved with water, no matter whether it’s an ocean, a river, a lake, a reservoir or a pond. That makes swimming as much an essential survival skill as it is a wonderful form of exercise and recreation – invaluable to all of us.

I was six years old when I “mastered” that skill. It seems young to me in retrospect but makes sense given the fact that we lived about a mile away from the Pacific Ocean: Learning how to swim – and swim well – was the key to becoming independent and to enjoying time at the beach.

Thinking back, I recall several lessons about independence wrapped up in the aquatic-education portion of long-ago summers. My mother accompanied me to my first week of swim lessons, then handed the chore off to my older sister. That arrangement didn’t last long, so a couple weeks into the summer I was riding a bicycle on my lonesome for the two miles or so it took to get to the municipal pool. It was actually a pretty big deal, because it involved crossing two busy streets on the way.

I also had to take care of a towel and the nickel I needed to pay for admission to the pool. So much responsibility! So many new experiences! That first summer, I didn’t get far enough into the program to qualify beyond the “minnow” stage. I’d made it past “guppy,” which was cool, but I couldn’t yet swim the width of the big pool and so didn’t qualify to become a “fish.”

The next summer, however, I was a minnow for less than a week and, as a fish, faced a big hurdle in making it to “flying fish,” which was the level at which the pool’s tantalizing diving board became part of the fun. To advance, I needed to be able to swim the full length of the pool – and as I mentioned above, failed at it the first time.

I didn’t want to fail again, so I spent the rest of the day at the pool (a nickel bought a lot of pool time back in those days!) swimming my arms and legs off. By the time the pool closed, I was swimming side to side with few problems and figured I was ready for another competency test before my next lesson – but it was not to be: My guess is that I was so tight from past exertions that it just wasn’t in the cards.

But on the occasion of my next lesson, the wonders never ceased: I swam the pool’s full length, became a flying fish, and when it was free time at the end of the lesson, I was allowed to use the diving board. What a great day!

I bring all of this up because, first, the memories are so strong and clear that I’ve always figured this was one of my life’s shaping experiences. Second, and with great concern, I’ve spent a lot of time in the world of aquatics worrying that kids today lack the same sort of cheap, easy access to good swimming pools and effective swimming lessons that I had.

The challenge, it seems, is mainly economic: I know approximately what it’s costing to get my granddaughter ready for a lifetime of swimming, and believe me, it’s far more than what my parents paid for lessons for me and my five siblings combined, many times over – and even allowing for nearly 60 years of inflation!

Yes, there are communities where learn-to-swim programs are within reach, but I wonder how many parents can afford lessons in places where public pools of the sort I grew up with need to pull their weight these days to stay in operation and always seem to struggle to do so.

As the weather warms and summer draws near, let’s all of us who are involved in watershaping think about what we can do in our communities to put swimming skills within everyone’s reach. Please investigate local programs that sponsor or subsidize lessons, make donations, volunteer time – do what you can to help future generations value swimming as a lifetime, necessary skill and as a great way to exercise and have fun.

When all is said and done, to thrive in the long run we in water-oriented businesses need children to grow up loving water – and watershapes – as much as we do!

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Pure Persuasion

By Jim McCloskey

Early on January 10 – within an hour of unveiling the third of John Cohen’s trio of articles on his quest to deliver toxin-free pool and spa water to his clients – I heard from a reader who wanted us to repeat all of the articles as one document to make it easier to share with clients who might be interested.

“I want to let them know what a challenge it is to get rid of the stuff they don’t want,” he wrote. “I also want to let them know that it’s possible if that’s what they really want and are ready to pay for it.”

I filed that one away, because the sort of republication he was requesting is something we haven’t done before. It just seemed unnecessary. But then a second request came in from another reader, then a third – and by the end of the day, I’d decided that maybe a fresh, comprehensive version of the series wasn’t such a bad idea.

You can link to the combined articles through this edition of our newsletter by clicking its link or, more directly, by clicking here. All three parts are included, the only new element being a fresh headline that suggests the more comprehensive nature of the text.

In rereading everything to make certain the recombination process hadn’t disrupted or dropped anything, I was impressed all over again by the ambition and extent of John’s quest as well as by his willingness to share what he’s learned. It’s all about persistence and curiosity – and his utter refusal to compromise his essential mission of delivering pure, sustainable water to more of his clients.

The combined text you see here is lengthy and rich in detail, but it’s actually a condensation of a much longer document I’ve taken to calling “The Cohen Manifesto” because of its zeal and raw determination. The longer version ventures into additional hypotheses and speculations and digs more deeply into the philosophy John has developed and applied along the way. He intends to publish the full text on his Web site sometime soon; when it’s up and running, I’ll publish a link.

In the meantime, more than 1,000 of you have read the original trio of articles. I’m hoping that this unusual republication will help spread the word and get even more people involved with this emerging and important approach to watershaping.


It’s coincidental that the “Essential” article highlighted in this newsletter is one from 2005 about the efforts of a pond builder to make water utterly clear without the use of chemicals: We’d scheduled it into this edition of the newsletter several weeks before we made a final decision about when to rerun John Cohen’s articles.

The pond-making process described by George Forni in “A Crystal-Clear Mandate” harmonizes neatly with its pool/spa companion: As in all critical systems, it seldom hurts to over-engineer – and that’s just what Forni and his associates did by beefing up filtration systems and supplementing a large-scale biofiltration approach with sand filtration while using twice the usual count of skimmers to maximize the turnover rate.

I like where all of this has been heading for years now: Could clear, clean water with zero chemical/toxin-free intervention become an industry-sweeping standard?

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