The New!

By Jim McCloskey

I celebrated another birthday on September 9, and one of the coolest gifts I received was the word that a major renovation of was ready for final review – and would, crossing that hurdle, be ready for public launch alongside release of the September 20 edition of the WaterShapes newsletter – this very day!

It’s our first major update in several years and the first wholesale change since we launched the full site back in 2012.  In addition to a cleaner, clearer, more open look – mostly made possible by widening the template by about a third – there are new type styles and colors to go along with more and bigger images.

It’s an important step for us, largely because the new system is entirely mobile-friendly – a real necessity in modern site management that means even my children might be more inclined to take a look at what their dad does to keep busy.

It’s also another huge step away from the measure of control I had over the way things looked when WaterShapes was a printed magazine:  Now some algorithm or other figures out how things will arrange themselves on the new-fangled mobile page.  I don’t exactly like that, but I see so many advantages in mobile-friendly formatting that I can’t complain more than half-heartedly.

The thing I’ve been told is that any major upgrading like this will introduce some weirdnesses that can’t be anticipated and won’t be spotted until people really start digging through the site using all the many platforms there are across the globe.  Everything can be massaged and corrected, I’ve been assured – but finding some of the subtler deviations may take time, so right up front, I beg your indulgence while we comb through everything.

I also beg your assistance:  If you see something that’s off kilter, please do let me know by dropping me a note at so I can get our team on it right away.


My daughter, who saw the new in preview form, reminded me how tortured the process of revamping the printed version of WaterShapes had been when we tackled that task in early 2009.  We’d gone through the first ten years of publication with no more than some interim tweaks:  When the time came to go whole hog all at once, I was apparently a bit obsessive about getting things right.

Our Art Director did a fine job, of course, but I kept worrying about shaking things up in the throes of a difficult economy and kept wondering whether readers and advertisers would like and accept the changes we’d made.  Yes, I was a bit obsessive:  The new design had been in development for months by the time we rolled it out, and I recalled having the same sorts of feelings and anxieties as when we launched the magazine in the first place back in 1999.  I felt a bit silly then, and I guess I’m feeling a little silly now.

Change isn’t easy, but with something like this, it’s important:  We’re keeping up with technology, which is crucial, but we’re also gaining on the sorts of looks that make web sites appealing these days, and that’s crucial, too.  So give it a look and let us know what you think:  It’s taken us months to get here, and we can’t wait for some feedback!

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Another Look

By Jim McCloskey

Before I walk away from my little series of blogs on big transitions, I want to call attention to renovations, which I consider to be both a generational phenomenon as well as the greatest potential source of projects and market growth through the next two or three decades.

The swimming pools being built when I started paying daily attention to such things in 1986 were mostly primitive by today’s standards.  They were still mostly rectangles or kidneys, still had little more than steps and maybe a bench and were lit by one big 500-watt incandescent bulb.  The coolest ones had spas attached in some way, but these units were generally underpowered and a bit disappointing in the hydrotherapy department.

Thing is, there are millions of these “standard” pools around, every single one of them coming to a point in their existences where something will need to be done.  (I’m focusing on pools here, but I suspect the same may be said of vintage fountains, ponds and other waterfeatures.  I will also stipulate that a whole lot of these “standard” watershapes have been built in the past 30 years and that many of them could use some attention, too.)

In many cases, the “something” needing done will be mechanical and will be about little more than keeping the watershape plugging along; in many more, however, there will also be a call for cosmetic work to help a vessel keep up with the times and, more important, with the elevated expectations of new generations of homeowners.

This is why I’m so happy that my friends at Genesis/NSPF have turned their attention to what’s involved in these projects with a course entitled, “Construction 281:  Major Renovations.”  To my knowledge, they’ve run the class at least once already; they’ll be offering it again – for the first time on the West Coast, where I see most of the opportunities – on September 12 and 13 at Zodiac Pool Systems’ headquarters in Vista, Calif.

Genesis is pulling out two of its biggest guns for the event, with Dave Peterson and Bill Drakeley as instructors.  But far more important from my perspective is the inclusion of a third instructor, landscape designer Kate Wiseman, who will ensure that the focus of the course is broader than exploring ways, for example, to knit new concrete into existing structures.

That technical stuff is obviously important, but in my book, the hay is to be made with a pure aesthetic vision of what can happen in the backyard of someone saddled with an aging kidney-shaped pool.  Take mine, for example.

My own pool was built in 1983, six years before we bought the house.  It was rather hip for its day, with a raised bond beam along the back of the pool and a spa elevated by a quarter-inch or so above the pool’s waterline.  But it is also so standard as to be laughable in this context:  It has a set of shallow-end steps and two deep-end benches to go along with a single 500-watt incandescent light (shining directly at the window of our den, so I don’t recall using it more than once or twice).

It has a narrow ribbon of plain beige decking, red-brick coping to go with the red-brick raised wall and a strange blue-and-brown waterline tile with a white-plaster finish.  There’s a single-point suction head in the deep end, and the same in the spa – a perpetual safety concern for me and a reason I’m extra-vigilant when kids are in the water.  The only thing “modern” about our pool is the equipment pad, which I’ve updated a couple times through the past 30 years.

And the fact is that just about every pool in my neighborhood – and there are dozens of them within an easy walk of my front door – is similar to mine, the big difference being that mine was built in 1983 while most of the rest were installed in the 1960s and ’70s and are in need of even more mechanical and aesthetic attention.

Just about every day, I see a story about an old public pool that’s being closed or demolished.  Much less frequently, I see an item on one undergoing a major rehabilitation.  I would hate to think that there’s a similar proportionality in the residential sector, with more people giving up on their watershapes than are renovating them.

Perhaps those who emerge from the Genesis course will take up the cause and start deliberately, purposefully marketing their services to people with existing pools in serious need of updating.  I see this as an exciting possibility, a lucrative opportunity and, above all, a chance to change the way people think about their existing watershapes – that is, as constantly upgradeable works in progress rather than as static monuments to days long gone.

The before-and-after shots with blank-slate yards are truly satisfying; those with old pools as the starting point can be downright thrilling.  If renovations are a key part of what you do, congratulations – and keep up the good work!  If this is an alien concept to you, please do give it a good look and watch The Genesis course schedule:  If I’m right, it’s going to represent a huge percentage of the construction business for the next 20 or even 30 years.

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Generational Shifts

By Jim McCloskey

Ever since I completed my last WaterShapes World entry – the one on the passing of Herman Silverman and John Kelley, Jr. – I’ve found myself thinking about the coincidence of their having been 30 years apart in age – that is, with a conventional “generation” between them.

It reminded me that I joined the watershaping game in the midst of a grand generational transition, at a time when those who’d built the industry in the years after World War II (including Herman Silverman) had begun fading from the scene and a new group in their thirties and forties was stepping up onto the main stage – John Kelley among them.

I started with Pool & Spa News in 1986 at 30 years old, and I was aware through contacts with industry people of all ages that the transitions then under way were consequential and often painful.  The old guard, which still spoke with the most emphatic voices in the industry (including the one wielded by my boss at the time, Jules Field), had, like my parents, been through the Great Depression or its aftermath and had witnessed World War II in grim detail.

Many of them thrived in the booming postwar environment and built good, solid, profitable businesses through the ’50s and ’60s and beyond.  For all that, however, by the mid-1980s lots of them were feeling marginalized and maybe even disrespected by an up and coming generation that didn’t seem to appreciate all they’d been through in their lifetimes.

Some of the “old timers” I met in my early days in the industry were true pioneers and were probably justified in feeling underappreciated.  But more generally, the new generation saw the attitudes embodied by their older professional associates as outmoded at best and, at worst, as serious impediments to progress.

This sort of intergenerational tension is common, of course – but it’s particularly complicated in industries where there are lots of family-owned and -operated businesses.  Mom and pop are successful and proud, the story goes, but their kids see them as set in their ways and overly inclined to hold onto the reins of authority.  This leaves the older generation with a sense of competition that leads them to resist change and hang on to protect their legacies.

And now, just beyond 30 years of my own participation in the industry, the wheels are turning again.  Some in the younger generation are struggling to be patient if they’ve managed to stay in the family’s business at all.  But lots of them took the good educations their folks were able to afford because of the success of their businesses and put those degrees to good use in other fields of endeavor.  Some have come back, but many never will.

I could go on and on about these cross-currents of change, because I’ve watched the process unfold in countless businesses through the years, no matter whether the focus has been pools, ponds, fountains or some other slice of the watershaping pie.  And now that I find myself in the old guard, I’m starting to recognize and understand the nature of the conflict.  But I also see clearly that the situation is different these days than it was in the 1980s – a fact that gives me great hope.

For one thing (and at risk of painting with too broad a brush), I get the sense that today’s older generation – that is, my generation – is more willing to step aside than was the case 30 years ago.  The Great Recession of 2009 was a sobering experience, but it was no Great Depression.  Sure, it was a shaping event and scared the heck out of a lot of today’s business leaders – and still does – but for all that, it was just a longer-than-usual string of difficult but survivable years rather than the existential crisis experienced by our parents and others of their generation.

As a result, the set of life lessons learned by someone like me is different from the one that shaped my parents.  As I see it, fewer of us Boomers are about gritty survival and endurance, and more of us are about valuing the benefits that flow from skill and success.  We’re still working and will keep working as long as we feel useful, but we also think fondly about enjoying the fruits of our labors instead of figuring out ways to stay at the helm forever.

I hope I’m correct, because it means the current generational shift will be much less traumatic than the last big one.

Whether you agree with me or think I’m out to lunch, please share your own thoughts by commenting below!

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Sad Partings

By Jim McCloskey

Two recent obituaries caught my eye, one for Herman Silverman, who passed away in May at age 97, the other for John Kelley Jr., who was just 67 when he died in June.

I don’t believe I ever met Herman Silverman, but I do recall hearing his name so often that I felt like I had after I first joined the industry in 1986.  He’s always been part of my sense of the industry’s history, and whenever his name came up back then, I noticed that it was invariably with a tone of deference and respect.

In time and through conversations with people who had worked with or for him, I developed a clear sense of the extent of Mr. Silverman’s influence on an industry and product he loved.  I learned that he had a degree in landscape design and began Sylvan Pools (now Anthony & Sylvan) in 1950, which was cool enough.  But he also started building swimming pools for east-coast celebrities at about the same time Hollywood was discovering swimming pools out west – and therein hangs the tale of the industry’s explosive growth through the 1950s and ’60s.

More recently, I’ve learned much of what I know about Mr. Silverman as a person in conversations with Mike Stachel, who worked with him and maintained a close relationship with him long after Mr. Silverman left the pool industry behind in 1969.  I’ve enjoyed listening to everything Mike has had to say about his friend and mentor’s intelligence, his profound graciousness and the thoughtful way he went about living a long, eventful life.  Mike is himself a man of substance, and to hear him speak of Mr. Silverman with such deep and abiding respect and admiration led me to realize I’d missed out on something valuable by not knowing the great man personally.

In contrast, I knew John Kelley well, having met him shortly after I started as editor at Pool & Spa News in 1986.  Not only did I come to appreciate his passion for the industry and his business:  I also came to admire his dedication to the task of making what was then known as the National Spa & Pool Institute a substantial channel for expressing the industry’s core values and working toward its most meaningful goals.

On an entirely different level, I have John to thank for some of the finest culinary experiences of my lifetime.  He was a great dinner companion, ready to laugh and share his deep and abiding love of fine food – and for wine of just about every variety.  He was also a good man to know when a remote restaurant was involved, because in my experience he never got lost either coming or going in an era long before GPS made us all into expert navigators.

My favorite Kelley story:  During a long-ago Atlantic City Show, John and his wife Beth invited me on a quest to find New Jersey’s leading winery.  It took some doing, but John proved his infallibility as a roadmaster and we made it – although I think all of us wished we hadn’t.  The wine wasn’t undrinkable, but it was challenging nonetheless.  Beth and I kept quiet when opinions were asked, but John was generous in his comments and more knowledgable and encouraging by far than I ever could have been.  It was a pure form of kindness – unexpectedly sweet, just like the wine.

I will miss both of these men, Mr. Silverman because I know how much he meant to a dear friend of mine, Mr. Kelley because I know how much he meant to me.

With condolences and best wishes to those left with richer stores of memory than mine, I bid both gentlemen farewell.

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A Sinking Feeling

By Jim McCloskey

I’ve seen something of the future, and I’m afraid this part of it at least is going to be very, very sad.

We’ve just returned from a glorious vacation that took me and Judy to Venice, Italy, to celebrate her retirement after a long career as a teacher.  She’d been there before, more than 40 years ago, but I’d had to bypass it in my own travels through Italy at about that same time.  As someone who called Venice, Calif., home for many years, I’ve held onto an ongoing desire to see the real thing for myself.

More than that:  The canals, bridges and architecture have been calling to me professionally to witness one of humankind’s greatest-ever exercises in mass-scale watershaping.

About a week before we started our trip, however, my sister sent me a photo of St. Mark’s Square sloshing under several inches of water during a high tide.  This reminded me forcefully of stories I’ve heard for most of my life about Venice sinking and, in a double-whammy of epic proportions, more recent reports of its eventual inundation by rising sea levels.

1We went for a good time and certainly had it – great food, fantastic wines, incredible museums and a vibrant, nearly electric atmosphere – but just about everywhere I turned, I could see evidence that Venice is indeed in trouble.  Even at low tide, water laps at doors along parts of the Grand Canal, and there’s evidence everywhere that use of bottom floors of buildings across the city has been affected and limited by regular intrusions of seawater.

2On several of our stops, we could see three or four steps (including those at right, exposed by low tide) that once led up to these bottom-level doors have been effectively submerged by the famed canals’ water.  The problem is real, and it’s apparent everywhere throughout the city.

I can’t imagine what it’s like to be either a property owner or civic official faced with the inevitability of what’s happening, but I have to say that life goes on:  During our six-day stay, Venice was utterly packed with tourists (we were there during Biennale, a gargantuan, six-month-long arts festival the city hosts every other year).  Commerce and community marched on, doubtless because there’s no alternative.

3Yet there is clearly a general awareness of what’s happening and apprehension about what the future holds — and it’s only comfort of the very coldest sort to Venetians that their city is just a local manifestation of what’s happening or is going to happen to low-lying coastal cities across the globe as sea levels rise.  At least Venice already has an ample supply of boats!

It also has great creativity and defiance:  Italian sculptor Lorenzo Quinn, for one, sees what’s coming and has, along the Grand Canal – with the cooperation of the historic Ca’ Sagredo Hotel – installed gigantic hands to reference the peril in which the city finds itself.  Called “Support,” the composition (seen at left) is an epic reminder to passersby (of which there are hundreds of thousands daily) that what they see is all at risk and that Venice is likely beyond its point of no return.

If you’ve haven’t been there, go see Venice for yourself soon – while you still can!

In the months to come, I’ll be writing a couple Travelogues about this trip, which also included a long stop in Iceland.  I promise those stories won’t be so gloomy!

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Design or Art?

By Jim McCloskey

I spent a couple strange hours the other day, surfing through Internet references to what I have discovered is a fairly lively Art-versus-Design debate.  What I found was oddly interesting at first, but after a while, I began feeling underwhelmed by the whole discussion, which seemed mostly to be about trying to boil a truly complicated debate down to some essence one writer or another saw as both wise and irrefutable.

Most of the participants in the dialogue, so far as I could tell, were graphic artists of one sort or another, many of whom seemed to want to elevate what they do beyond Design to become Art.  And I agree with these folks that the lines are finely drawn between the two; where I part company with most of them, however, is in my refusal to believe that the distinction is as gravely important as their aspiration makes it out to be.

During this whole exercise, of course, I kept thinking about watershaping and how it fits into the discussion along with architecture and a clutch of other disciplines for which there’s room to consider such high-minded distinctions.  Along the way, there were two points that caught my eye, one practically based, the other a bit broader.

First, there was the thought that Designers work with clients and are to some degree bound into a transaction that places limits on raw creativity and freedom.  By contrast, Artists are effectively their own clients and retain complete control – even if the output is ultimately purchased and passes beyond the artist’s direct purview.

I can think of several people in the watershaping business who come close to meeting the standard for artistry set out here.  It’s a small group, mind you, and I’m aware that even folks on the level of Anthony Archer Wills and David Tisherman can’t escape the fact that they have clients they aim to please.  While those relationships aren’t always intrusive when it comes to crafting the output, it makes it harder to reach a clear conclusion in the debate in absolute favor of their being Artists.

But there’s this:  Michelangelo and Frank Lloyd Wright were ruggedly stubborn and flagrantly insubordinate, but both needed patronage to survive and develop their legacies.  Who would dispute calling them Artists?

The second, broader point that set me thinking asserts that, where Designers solve problems, Artists tend to cause them.  Of course, this one is a slippery slope, basically because it carries an implication that Artists don’t give a damn about either consequences or appearances, which is generally far from the case beyond the more abrasive of the fine arts.  But underlying it is, I think, a great case for preferring to be called a Designer rather than an Artist – particularly with an endeavor such as watershaping.

In my observation of watershapers through the years, I have generally found them to be problem solvers to a rather sublime degree.  For some, it’s figuring out how to fit in a necessary piece of pipe or some other functional detail to make a desired effect possible without impinging on aesthetic virtues; for others, it’s about achieving exactly the right flow using a scupper or fountain head that wasn’t exactly meant to work in the given application.  In other words, it’s all about reaching beyond the specifications and applying inspiration, grounded in experience, to get the job done.

That in mind, I know lots of watershape Designers and appreciate the way they look at something as it is and see a potential in it that transcends expectations.  That’s a gift, and perhaps their greater gift is being able to communicate with clients in a way that elevates the basic conception of what a space might be if there’s the wherewithal to let fly and make it happen.

After reading all about the fine points defining the razor’s edge at which Design might become Art, I’m left with my own wise, irrefutable thought:  If the Design is good – good in the sense that it tells a story and has a meaning and value beyond its raw appearance – it becomes Art by a sort of undefined consensus.

On that level, being a Designer is fantastic; being called an Artist is a worthy cherry on top.

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Nothing But Net

By Jim McCloskey

In summers long past, I’d come home from work, get into my swimming trunks, grab the newspaper and a cooling beverage and head for the pool.

On some days, I was left on my own for an hour’s worth of drifting on my big float, not a care in the world.  Before putting the cover back on the pool, I’d swim a couple dozen short laps and tend to any pool-related chores that needed doing.

On other days, I’d be joined in the pool by one, two or all three of my daughters.  There were two rules:  If I was still reading, they knew not to splash the newspaper.  And if any liquid remained in my plastic glass, there was a strict non-dilution-with-pool-water policy in effect.  In years of experience, I recall maybe one or two occasions (out of several thousand) where the newspaper stayed dry and my beverage untrammeled and I didn’t end up in the water with a child or two hanging on my shoulders.

Our nest has been empty for many years now, and my after-work routines are much different.  It’s been a long time, for starters, since I floated on the surface of our sun-drenched pool at any hour of the day.  All it took was my dermatologist asking me to keep basking because he wanted a new deck on the mountain home he assured me I’d helped him acquire and improve through the years.

I still swim when the sun’s not on the pool and probably use our spa more than ever.  And now that we have grandchildren, I’m getting nostalgic for the sensation of precarious buoyancy and for the joys of being around children at play.

To improve my lot in life (while protecting my skin), I’ve largely replaced floating on the water with gently swinging in a hammock a few feet away from the pool.  It’s not the same by any means, but it became more agreeable a year ago, when I finally set up our birdbath/fountain just off the deck:  The sound of moving water transports me back to days when my daughters’ furtive splashing was so often a part of my summer-afternoon experience.

Paler but a bit wiser, I am content – and I know I’m not alone in feeling better simply because there’s water nearby.


I speak with watershapers all the time, interviewing them about projects or hearing what they think about work they’ve seen on the site.  Whether they focus on pools, ponds, fountains or any other form of waterfeature, I almost always end up asking one of two questions:  What do your clients think about what you’ve done? Or, If you were the client, what would you think?   

In the former cases, the answers are universally positive, basically because we wouldn’t be talking about a given project for WaterShapes if the results hadn’t been pretty special.  In the latter conversations, the answers can get pretty interesting because few hold back when they see missed opportunities or what might be considered errors in design or execution.

I take responses from both angles with grains of salt, of course, because I know from the personal experiences I recounted above the asterisks that “client satisfaction” and its motivations are moving, evolving targets.  I also recognize the pride-driven biases of those with whom I’m speaking.  So while I know neither question gives me truly solid information, all of the responses have long infiltrated and informed the way I look for and evaluate projects to be published through WaterShapes.

Naturally, my own failings sometimes get in the way of my objectivity.  Back when WaterShapes was a printed magazine, a designer called to ask me why we’d selected a certain project for publication, letting me know pretty quickly that she wasn’t exactly pleased with our choice because it violated what she saw as basic principles of design.

I had to agree with her.  I knew from my conversations with the builder that he had responded both to site limitations and some specific requests from the homeowners in organizing the space.  That specific information hadn’t been included in the story – and, to nobody’s surprise, sharing it with the designer on the phone wasn’t enough to make her happy.

But again, she was correct and I’d let my familiarity with the builder and his process blind me to the fact that the project probably shouldn’t have made it into WaterShapes.  I learned from that experience, believe me, and I think I’ve done well ever since in holding projects we publish to high standards for design, engineering and construction – and have learned to set aside “mitigating circumstances” in the selection process.

As an ex-basketball player, I like to say that we shoot a really high free-throw percentage.  And that’s the way you seem to like it.

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