Chasing Inspiration

By Jim McCloskey

You should take a look at the article linked below: It’s about a Florida home called Woodsong that architect Alfred Browning Parker built for himself in 1968. I know that if the article had not mentioned the year and named the architect, I would’ve thought this place was of more recent vintage.

Parker, who passed away in 2011 at the ripe old age of 94, was among the many disciples of Frank Lloyd Wright and a firm believer in the use of organic forms in architecture. But it’s clear his style was also a direct response to living and working in Miami and having the opportunity to exercise the potential it offered for year-round indoor/outdoor living. The result with Woodsong is a home that includes a 90-foot-long pool as well as a koi lagoon, waterfalls, tons of glass, easy flow from the interior to the exterior, rich woods and lush tropical plantings.

When I first saw the photographs, I was caught up short by the round, spillover waterfeature because it looked like a contemporary spa: I figured it had to be a later addition. But in studying the images, I persuaded myself otherwise because of how thoroughly integrated the feature is within the home’s structure. My best guess now is that, rather than being a spa, it’s a fountain basin with an innovative spillover feature, which would make it more suitable and likely in a 1968 project.

Either way – fountain or pioneering spa – it’s a cool touch with its mirroring cutout to the sky above. And there are other details here worthy of mention, from the long overhang that traces the path of the narrow pool to the way Parker worked around the existing trees and fully embraced keeping them as a precondition for his own work on site. Gorgeous, and inspiring.

To see the article and its nice collection of images, click here.

***

Pondering Woodsong while on a long walk the other day, my thoughts flowed back to the late 1980s and early ’90s, when vanishing-edge pools swept into our collective consciousness. Most people who started working with them thought they’d originated in France as a very recent design development.

Then I ambled along to the late 1990s and a time when all sorts of interesting work was being done by fountain companies who were finding innovative, dramatic ways to make water leap, spurt and dance with light and in time to music. Many people thought this was all pretty much brand-new technology, largely unprecedented.

And then I stepped toward the mid-2000s, a time when the watershaping world was agog at the advent of variable-frequency drive pumps. Again, many assumed this was all-new technology – maybe even something tailor-made to meet the perceived needs of watershape designers and builders and their energy-aware clients.

As I stepped along the trail, I pulled up other examples of perceived breakthroughs of either a design or technological sort, but the three mentioned above will do here: As you may have guessed by the way I slanted things in describing them, the conventional wisdom we drummed up about their “novelty” in all three cases was off the mark.

I was there with Skip Phillips, Brian Van Bower and David Tisherman, for instance, when we visited a home built in Los Angeles in 1958 by John Lautner that had a slick vanishing-edge detail a good 25 or 30 years before they started showing up in France and, even later, in the United States. Leaping jets of all descriptions are found in Renaissance gardens of 16th-century Italy – and in Moorish Spain hundreds of years before that. Lighting and music became part of fountain packages more than a century ago, and it didn’t take much research to learn that General Electric took out its patent on a variable-frequency drive motor in 1910.

It all goes to show that when it comes to ideas, there’s not much that’s ever really “new” under the sun – but that’s not my main point here. Instead, what seeing Parker’s Woodsong reminded me of is that timing is everything and “discovery” is often accidental.

I don’t know where John Lautner found the inspiration for the edge treatment at Silvertop; I don’t know what led Renaissance or Moorish architects to think of water in vertical terms; and I don’t know who finally figured out that variable-frequency drives would be a good fit for pools and spas. But I’m grateful that vanishing edges, choreographed fountains and variable-speed pumps have spread far and wide – and, as important, are indelibly here to stay.

What’s next? Well, I’m pulling for someone to spot cool details in Woodsong that deserve broader exposure and application. Might we find the next vanishing edge in his achievement and the way it mixes Mid-Century Modern lines with contemporary outdoor-room sensibilities? Gorgeous, and inspiring.

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Satisfying Feedback

 

By Jim McCloskey

It’s happened before: I’ll write one of these blogs or a Travelogue, and within a few minutes of releasing the newsletter a reader will send me something that either adds to, explains or (rarely, thank goodness) contradicts something I’ve written.

Back in December, for instance, I wrote about the regional differences in the ways watershapes appear in winter, noting that my pool in southern California may well be at its visual best in our cool months and contrasting that with the grave aesthetic effects winterizing has on watershapes of all forms where deep freezes are a factor (click here).

I expected some blowback for calling out winterized pools, but none developed. I did, however, get a note from an old friend who commented on the logistics of celebrating Thanksgiving on the road: He’d tried the same thing a couple years ago when his family started to disperse across the country and, as we had, rented a big house and tried to stage things as though the feast were being held in the family home.

It didn’t work that way, he wrote: “You had good luck in your kitchen, but ours wasn’t up to it and we ended up spending a lot to get all of the pots and pans and tools we needed. And the thermostat in the oven was off by quite a bit, so we had to watch like hawks to make sure things actually cooked.

“I know now that I should have asked tons of questions before picking a place to stay. As it was, there was so much drama that we decided we’d never do it again. But then I saw your article and it gave me hope. It’s a nice idea for preserving family traditions, but if we ever do it again I want to make sure the kitchen is ready for us. Either that,” he concluded, “or call in a caterer!”

That’s interesting: Our experience was truly satisfactory as far as the kitchen and overall experience went, but we also were so exhausted that we decided hiring a caterer would be just the ticket next time.

***

Shortly after my Travelogue on the Machine de Marly appeared in December, a reader sent me an article titled, “That time when the fountains at the Gardens of Versailles consumed more water than the entire city of Paris” – a bit ungainly but certainly descriptive! It was published on The Vintage News web site (click here) and provided a much more detailed history of the Versailles fountains than I offered in my own brief article (click here).

The hydrology of Versailles is a fascinating tale of excess, with the desire to have abundant water and flowing fountains putting huge (and ultimately unattainable) demands on the local water infrastructure. And even the grand Machine de Marly was inadequate: At peak capacity, it couldn’t provide enough water to run all of Versailles’ fountains at once, and the article’s writer concludes by reporting that even today, with modern pumps, water supply is still an issue.

I can only admire the ingenuity of the work-arounds, which were covered in fine detail in The Vintage News: “Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the French Minister of Finances and notable politician of that period, came up with a system by which the people who maintained the fountains would signal each other with whistles upon the approach of the king. The whistle was a sign that if a fountain was off in that moment, it needed to be turned on. Once Louis XIV had passed that particular operating fountain, that fountain would go off and a whistle would be blown from there to signal for the next one to be turned on.”

In an era when “off with their heads” was more than a colorful phrase, I can only imagine the tension on the grounds when the king decided to venture into the gardens – which he apparently did with staff-discomfiting frequency.

***

My thanks to readers for both the suggestion and the amplification: I love these exchanges, believe me!

 

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A Toxin-Free Future

 

By Jim McCloskey

The three most recent editions of WaterShapes have carried trailblazing articles by John Cohen on his quest to define and develop a toxin-free approach to swimming pool and spa water. I offered no comment when the series started, basically because the articles had to stand straight and tall on their own – but also because I wanted the complete set of documents to be available before I registered my own thoughts on the subject.

Through the past 20 years, we at WaterShapes have encouraged just the sort of systematic commitment to high-functioning water quality that Cohen has pursued on his own for more than 30 years. We’ve published several articles on natural swimming pools and bog-filtration systems, and I particularly recall a feature on an ultraviolet-based system developed by Randy Beard of Pure Water Pools.

We’ve also covered numerous projects in which designers and/or builders have kept an eye on cutting levels of chemical usage in their pools and spas. These have generally been one-off systems, however, developed in response to the specific needs of specific clients. And for the most part, they’ve been aimed at reducing levels of the use of conventional chemicals in traditional, chlorine-based systems.

But John Cohen has always looked at these issues from a grander, more holistic perspective than most of us ever did. Not only does he want to deliver toxin-free pool water to every one of his clients: Through these three articles, he’s clearly hoping to persuade others to take up the cause and join him in reshaping the way the industry looks at treatment of all water that comes into contact with bathers.

It’s my strong belief that what he’s suggesting has a good chance of becoming full-blown, industry-wide reality someday, and here’s why: While his methodology cuts certain mainline chemical manufacturers out of the picture, it also opens the door to the involvement of equipment manufacturers on several different levels, inviting them to join a race to develop products that function within the parameters of the integrated arrays he’s cobbled together on his own.

And keep this in mind, too: The concept of non-toxicity resonates among consumers today in ways it didn’t even a short while ago, mainly because of extensive, detailed media coverage of various contaminants being found in pool and spa water – a gathering of toxins that no level of chlorine, bromine or straight filtration will ever reckon with to the required degree.

Remember all those headlines about urine levels in commercial pools? Remember the stories about the discovery of traces of all sorts of pharmaceuticals in their water? Remember the coverage of sanitization byproducts – contaminants few of us had ever taken seriously before? And what about the reports on hot-tub lung, Legionnaire’s disease and cryptosporidium? To paraphrase Cohen from Part 3 of his series, it’s easy to see pools and spas as chemical swamps, but too few of us have been seeing them as potentially hostile chemical swamps.

I’ve known John Cohen for many years now, and the passion guiding his crusade to remove toxins from pools and spas is both deep and, I think, laudable. It must be frustrating, daunting work, because he knows he’s after a moving target and has to deal with new morsels of information emerging from the scientific community almost daily that make him double back and evaluate both the efficiency and efficacy of his equipment arrays and his approaches to an ever-growing cast of observed contaminants and toxins.

When I first met him, he scared me a bit because he moved so rapidly from concept to concept that it was easy to think he was someone to humor rather than someone worthy of joining on the sort of game-changing adventure he’s defined. He may be a lone voice in the wilderness at this point, but I’m convinced that he’s onto something: The toxin-free concepts he’s advocating already make sense to his own clients, after all, so the rest of us need to get ready.

I commend his generosity in asking us along on his journey: He’s clearing a path to the future, and it’s coming at us rapidly.

 

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Reciprocal Energy

 

By Jim McCloskey

As I prepare to close the book on another year of WaterShapes, I can’t resist a bit of basking in the glow – a warm light radiated by an industry to which I’ve now dedicated more than 30 years of my life.

When I started back in 1986, that light was considerably dimmer. On the supplier end of things, there were too many companies willing to push unproved products out into the marketplace – stuff that came and went in the span of a season. To be sure, there were also dignified players who did things the right way, but those who chose to do their research-and-development work only after launching their systems into the marketplace set a tone that, at times, made me wonder what I was getting myself into.

On the creative side, there were relatively few professionals back in 1986 who truly deserved to be called designers. So much of the work was being pulled from template books and company archives that originality and innovation were as rare as were sensitivity to a site and its context. And with few exceptions, the true designers did all they could to avoid any association with other watershapers for fear of being painted with the same misbegotten brush.

Construction was a different animal in those days, too. The general ambition was to build faster and cheaper, so much so that I recall stories (mostly from Arizona and Florida) about pursuit of records for installation speed from the first shovel in the ground to insertion of the last drop of fill water. There were many quality builders in 1986, but they seemed locked in an absurd competition with contractors who low-balled bids, won good commissions and then under-delivered for disappointed clients.

Watershaping survived those darkish days, and so did I.

As I look back on 2017, I see that the nature of the game has changed to a depth and degree I never would have imagined 20-odd years ago. Suppliers, for instance, are delivering broad, deep ranges of outstanding products and systems, and some of them represent such a break with 1986 approaches that making comparisons seems a bit ridiculous. From lighting to control technologies and energy conservation to hydraulic efficiency, so many companies are on the same page now that it startles me – and makes me proud.

For their parts, designers have jumped so far outside the box I perceived in 1986 that comparisons are downright silly. Back then, architects and commercially oriented designers working on resort hotels had a near-monopoly on creativity and innovation. Now I see projects, particularly in the high-end residential market, that simply take my breath away. To be sure, there are many professionals who are borrowing liberally from their colleagues, but that’s always been the case – and the difference now is that the model projects are great and those who use them as guides are, of necessity, getting better and better at what they do.

Builders are set up in the same sort of positive feedback loop. I recall even 15 years ago listening to designers complain that they couldn’t find craftspeople who could consistently do right by their designs. I still hear those stories from time to time, but in general terms, the skilled workers in the watershaping marketplace seem to be up to just about anything these days. Partly it’s because modern plans offer them little wiggle room, but it’s my greater sense that so many of today’s designs have risen to a new, higher level that the trades have had no choice but to keep up and deliver.

When the partners in Genesis 3 started their crusade back in 1998 and WaterShapes magazine came on the scene a few months later in 1999, I saw our shared goals as having the potential to change watershaping for the better. I think that has indeed happened, but without many hundreds of designers, engineers and builders being willing and ambitious enough to step up to that elevated plane – and clients willing to demand more and better and beautiful – we’d be lonely indeed.

So while I enjoy the warm glow mentioned above, I’ll speak for my friends at Genesis and all of us involved with WaterShapes.com and raise the point that we’re radiating a reciprocal wave of gratitude. It’s a good time to be a watershaper, and a great, rewarding time to support and encourage their professional advancement.

The best is yet to come: See you in 2018!

 

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Thank Goodness

 

By Jim McCloskey

I wouldn’t have thought that a bit of Thanksgiving travel could teach me so much about the regional differences among watershapes, but what now seems obvious came as something of a jolt to me.

My youngest daughter has a new job in Philadelphia and couldn’t get away. Someone suggested we should just rent a big house in her vicinity and celebrate there for a change. After some research and lots of discussion, we settled on a place near Fort Washington, Pa., about 20 minutes from her apartment in downtown Philadelphia, and moved from a reliably temperate California environment to one settling in for a long winter.

Once we’d made our decision to go, things snowballed: Two of my sisters, both east coasters, decided to join us with their spouses, then came a couple local cousins, my brother and his wife – and before long there were 17 of us on the guest list, ready to go. I love a good party, and while I was a tad petrified by the thought of cooking a 17-pound turkey in an unfamiliar oven and preparing the necessary appetizers, side dishes and desserts in a kitchen with unknown plates and knives and service amenities, I jumped in and did my best not to put any constraints on the menu.

I arrived at the house early in the afternoon the day before the feast – a good three hours before anyone else arrived – and had a careful look around. I spent enough time in the kitchen to satisfy myself that what we were planning would be feasible, then started exploring what turned out to be a fairly substantial estate set on a promontory overlooking a small river. There was a huge yard with immense porches and deck areas as well as a big swimming pool, and I began wishing almost immediately that it was late spring or early fall so we could all take advantage of the opportunities for indoor/outdoor activities.

Unfortunately, the highs were in the 40s for us this past November, generally with penetrating breezes that made it seem far chillier. So beyond the occasional quick foray into the yard to get away from the hot kitchen, we all stayed put inside.

Beyond the culinary adventures, this was also my first up-close, day-to-day experience with a winterized swimming pool, and I have to say I was both curious about and let down by what I saw. In selecting the house, we’d seen photographs of the pool and thought it was quite nice. But that was no longer the case because of its dark plastic cover and sandbag anchors – not to mention a nasty-looking puddle of cover-top water choked by fallen leaves.

In my own yard, by contrast, winter is the time when our pool looks best: The blue solar cover we use from late-April through October to warm the water and reduce evaporation is in storage, the pool cleaner swings into action daily to keep up with falling leaves, and what we see at all times is a serene reflecting pool that picks up the surrounding palms and fruit trees on its surface. We’ve lived with this pool for nearly 30 years now, and I had always known how beautiful it is beyond swimming season; now I know how much less attractive it might be if it managed to migrate to a more northerly setting.

I was prepared for this sort of observation, basically because I’d noticed the same sort of waterless winter doldrums as I saw the sights in Philadelphia in the days leading up to our family feast:  Most fountains had been shut down for the winter by the time I arrived, and places I’ve known to be lively through warm-season visits couldn’t help seeming a bit bland – uninspired and uninspiring. Water in motion has a magic charm; a dry fountain is just sad, and you can never be quite sure whether it’s been winterized or has simply fallen into disrepair.

I appreciate the fact that my northern colleagues and friends don’t see things the way I do – and I’m glad of it, because watershapes beautify these places immeasurably, if only in season, and I would hate to think so much joy should suffer in reputation or renown because of a brief seasonal hiatus.

I also appreciate where I live a bit more now as a result of this trip, an appropriate thought given the season of the year and the reason we’d gone to Pennsylvania in the first place.  It’s all about giving thanks, in other words, and making the most of what we’re accustomed to in our lives.

I hadn’t expected the trip to be informative as well as fun. And who knows? We may all get together in Pennsylvania again sometime – although I think I’ll push for a more hospitable time of year!

 

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Breakout or Breakdown?

 

By Jim McCloskey

I’m freshly returned from the International Pool|Spa|Patio Expo, loaded with memories and impressions and ready to set my course for the year to come. I had the editorial conversations I needed to have, conferred with old friends and new acquaintances and met with multiple suppliers to discuss our working relationships.

All in all, it was highly encouraging and fun – but as usual, it was also a bit exhausting.

Through all of my conversations with designers, builders and suppliers, I came away with the thought that, if the economy holds its course, 2018 will be a turning point – and either a breakout year or a breakdown year, depending upon how you approach it.

Let me back up a bit to set the context: During the lean years of the Great Recession, lots of businesses cut way down on their internal resources, paring away support staff, trimming crews and generally doing more with less no matter what the original head count had been. This put a lot of talented people out on the street, with some of them starting businesses of their own.

The rising tide of the years since 2012 have lifted those new boats along with the old ones, and the result is that everyone has been busy lately – and sometimes too busy.

This is where the breakout/breakdown distinction emerges: Once times improved, the experience of the recession made lots of business owners hesitate when it came to expanding, innovating or staffing up, the not-unreasonable fear being that any additional downturn, correction or shakeout in the economy would punish them for lifting their heads above the weeds too soon.

Those who’ve slowly been re-inflating their operations since 2012 are likely feeling good about now, but those who’ve been conservative know how stressed their businesses have become in simply trying to keep pace with recent growth. This latter group of businesses now has a choice to make: Is it to stay tight and overly busy, or to expand sensibly and start thinking about staffing levels they haven’t been seen or considered since 2008 or 2009?

The way I’m currently looking at things, those who’ve already begun expanding their businesses and bringing in new talent and support are getting ready for 2018 as a breakout year; by contrast, those who are madly busy and still don’t want to risk getting overextended may find 2018 to be a breakdown year.

Consider this: People currently at work on job sites can see the growth that’s happening and will inevitably begin to get ambitious, particularly when they’re killing themselves and the boss lets that sense of being overworked continue. So they start thinking about their own opportunities and maybe start looking for ways to strike out on their own.

If that happens in a small, tight company – one of the conservative entities described above – and, say, an experienced construction manager heads for the exit, the company’s leader can generally step in and oversee the work. That’s fine for this project, but what about the next and the next? Where is there any time to pursue new projects or deal with the need to bring in new people to fill open slots?

No matter the size or scope of a business, that’s a perilous predicament – and food for thought.

So what’ll it be? If the economy holds, there’s every possibility that 2018 will be even busier and more demanding than a 2017 that pushed many businesses to new heights of work and stress and fragility. In those circumstances, you have to choose: Are you poised for a breakout? Or are you heading for a breakdown?

Please let me know what you’re seeing in your own operation by commenting below!

 

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Genesis Evolution

By Jim McCloskey

When I was a student, it generally upset me when a class came nowhere close to completing its agenda.  This was especially true in college, but it even reached back into high school, when I’d feel almost cheated that the last five chapters of a 25-chapter textbook fell into some crack at the end of the year, never to be seen or heard from again.

I could rationalize it in humanities-type classes, where I perceived that the goal was learning to think critically about a period of literature or history or philosophy:  In those cases, I knew that I could always double back to whatever it was we’d skipped and, without guidance, figure out why it would’ve been cool to discuss this or that novel or era or concept with my fellow students in a classroom setting.

But that was never true in science- or technically oriented courses, where falling 25 percent short of completing a text meant I was 25 percent short of being truly ready to move onto the next level.  And the trouble with these subjects – and in that group I’d include technical education related to watershaping – is that they’re harder to pursue without expert, knowledgeable guidance.

All of this was running through my mind as we came to the end of the first day of “Construction 281:  Major Renovations,” a Genesis University class I sat in on a couple weeks back.  I wasn’t able to stick around for Day Two of the 16-hour course, but the pattern had been set in such a positive way that I have every confidence my impression would only have been reinforced had my schedule enabled me to stay.

I have been a careful, conscientious and all-too-frequent observer of water-related professional education for more than 30 years, and writing as someone who probably should have been an academic, I have to say I was impressed by Construction 281.   To be sure, I have always been pleased by the level of education offered by Genesis:  From the start nearly 20 years ago, its instructors offered something different, informative and interesting – a true change of pace and level from anything I’d observed before.

But as a renegade academic, I was often less than sold on what could best be described as a certain improvisational quality to the Genesis system.  The instructors have always been top flight, no doubt about it, but there was a looseness to the approach, an inconsistency from class session to class session that made me want to crack a whip every once in a while.

This is part of the reason why I hadn’t sat in on a Genesis course for any extended period for many years now:  I’ve stopped in to see what’s going on from time to time – and, as mentioned above, have invariably been impressed by the qualifications of the instructors and their capacity to impart valuable information.  But sit through a whole day?  Not something that appealed to me.

With Construction 281, however, it was about 3 pm on the first day that I truly regretted the fact I couldn’t hang around for the second.  I was learning, and I wanted to know more.  I also have the hopeful sense that the entire Genesis University system now operates with this same lofty set of organizational and structural principles.

It’s funny:  When I sat down at my desk first thing in the morning, I leafed through the thick course text and idly considered how much would be left off toward the back of the sheaf to make the class end on time.  By the time we wrapped up Day One, however, I had every confidence that the whole book would be covered – with time to spare for a healthy exchange of ideas, questions and answers.

I hadn’t intended to write anything at all about this class when I sat down that fine Tuesday morning, but as you can tell, I’m fired up.  As I mentioned above, I’ve always thought Genesis offered something different, something valuable.  Now I think they also offer something structured, something disciplined.

It makes me proud and happy that WaterShapes has been associated with Genesis for so long.  It makes me even prouder and happier that a field to which I’ve devoted 30-plus years of my life now has access to education at this level.

If you’re a designer or builder who hasn’t gotten involved with Genesis yet, do give it a try.  If a hard-bitten lug like me can rise to this level of endorsement, there’s something very good indeed about what’s happening here.

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