Ryan Hughes has built a career out of working with some of the most discerning homeowners in Tampa, Florida. Having established a reputation for creating exceptional outdoor living spaces, Hughes continues to set the bar higher and higher in the industry. We had the opportunity to catch up with him at the International Pool & Spa Expo in Dallas recently. During the course of our conversation, we got to learn a little bit more about his process for conceptualizing resort-style backyards for high-end custom homes.
Transitioning To An Elite Design / Build Firm
Stepping into a thriving landscape design business, for Hughes, the pathway towards becoming an elite designer really began in earnest when he rebranded his family firm from The Hughes Group to Ryan Hughes Design / Build.
While widely known as an expert in the field of pool and landscape design, the award-winning designer is also a licensed pool builder holding a State of Florida Certified Pool Contractors License. Hughes explained that the rebranding process was an essential turning point that allowed him to reach the next level and connect with more affluent homeowners.
Designing Outdoor Living Environments For The 1%
“We create better lifestyles through innovative outdoor living,” said Hughes, when describing his firm’s mission statement. As the go-to designer for the elite 1% in Tampa, Hughes says creating a better experience for customers is paramount.
Hughes, who certainly didn’t start off building million-dollar backyards, says that it was a lengthy learning process to get to that point in his career. “In 2008, I got a chance to sit down and reflect on why I wasn’t connecting with the top 1%,” said Hughes, “I realized a few things, for one, I was focused on design and construction and I wasn’t focused on the client experience. I didn’t even know what that meant. I needed to educate myself on how the top 1% buy,” he explained.
“I also realized something even more important,” said Hughes, “and that is the (profit) margins. The margins I had prior to 2008 were from my father’s business or what I had learned from other folks in the industry. If you’re trying to do something exceptional you can’t mimic other people,” explained Hughes who said that it’s not enough to be able to sell to the 1%, you also have to be able to build these projects profitably. The second point is the more difficult aspect, which builders have a tendency to struggle with.
Scaling For Growth During The Pandemic
Like many in the industry, Ryan Hughes Design / Build has grown in the last two years in part due to the increased demand from consumers looking to enhance their backyard during the pandemic. With the virus curtailing travel and limiting the number of options on where to put those discretionary dollars, homeowners are reinvesting in their homes. Being confined to the home during this time put a renewed focus in the minds of consumers to create an outdoor living experience that the entire family could enjoy.
“The economy already started to heat up in 2017 so we were already preparing for some pretty big growth, we were ready for it, and then, of course, Covid hit and we got a little nervous,” said Hughes who recalled some hard discussions with his wife during the depths of the pandemic.
Covid-19 Creates A Deciding Moment
“We were discussing whether we wanted to expand or retract and we said ‘let’s keep going’ and started recruiting even faster than we were,” said Hughes, “Wow, did we time that right, because then all of a sudden things went the other direction with Covid and the demand has gone through the roof.”
Hughes, who is busier than ever says he currently has a two-year backlog to get through what he has already sold. “The leads are still coming in,” said Hughes, “we’re up to a six-month wait time so if someone signs a design contract, they’re waiting six months before we can even start the design.”
How Industry Price Increases Have Impacted Fixed Cost Pricing
Like many, Hughes was impacted by the recent surge in price increases. During the pandemic, a perfect storm of factory closures, workforce cutbacks, logistical delays, and a deep freeze in Texas which took a large percentage of equipment out of circulation, helped set the stage for increases across the board. An explosion at the BioLab plant which is responsible for a large percentage of dry chlorine products sold in the U.S. contributed to increases from the chemical side as well.
“In the early parts of 2021 we were victim to price increases,” said Hughes, “we do fixed cost contracts with our clients so we had to honor them, but because I keep the margins high, I was able to do that. I didn’t have to go back to a single client and say that we were over budget and needed more money,” he explained. “There was probably around 6 months and 8 or 9 projects that we did for practice because the margins crushed us.”
Every Challenge Creates Oppportunity
“We’re doing some creative things now,” said Hughes, as he described how he is dealing with any further anticipated increases. “With every challenge, there is always an opportunity. One of the things my father taught me as he went through the inflation in the ’70’s, he said if inflation hits, buy inventory,” explained Hughes, “We bought a very large warehouse and I just talked to Jandy; we’re buying as many pumps and heaters as we can fit.”
In explaining the strategy against hedging against inflating prices, Hughes said, “If things keep going up in price, we may actually make money because we’re buying it at today’s prices. I think doing fixed cost pricing in this environment is risky, but we’ve somewhat mitigated that with what we’re doing.”
Creating a World-Class Client Experience
As one of the foremost experts in his field, we asked him what the 1% want in their backyards. We wanted to know what features and design amenities are trending with high-end homeowners in the Tampa market. “It’s a tricky question,” said Hughes, “because we do things a little differently. We don’t go out to a client and interview them and ask them what they want. We try and find out who they are.”
The Secret To Satisfying Your Client: Over Deliver
“It’s about creating a world-class client experience and how do you do that? You over-deliver,” said Hughes. “If you don’t have the right margins, you can’t over-deliver. That is the number one lesson that I can share with builders who want to get into the multi-million dollar market.”
Hughes says that blowing away the client’s expectations is the secret sauce that has propelled him. He feels that this above all is the differentiating factor that has made him the designer of choice on so many high-end projects throughout his career.
Connecting With The Clients Lifestyle
In trying to create that profile for the design process, Hughes stresses the importance of connecting with the client’s lifestyle. “We interview them to find out what kinds of things they like. Where do they eat dinner? Where do they travel? What kind of car do they own? What kind of wine do they drink? I ask them to describe in detail the kind of party they would throw.” said Hughes.
Custom Tailored Versus Off The Rack
For that exclusive 1% clientele, bringing in a high-caliber design firm to connect with their lifestyle is the equivalent of going in for a finely tailored custom suit rather than buying off the rack. Hughes says he places enormous emphasis on building that profile when planning an outdoor living project.
Telling The Customer What They Want
“We’re asking them who they are and then tell them what they want,” he explained, “No one comes to us and says ‘I’d like a vanishing edge pool with a side of fire bowls. They just don’t know and maybe what they’re asking for doesn’t even fit their lifestyle. We’re very in touch with the trends, but it is our job to tell them what is applicable for their project.”
“We try to figure out which elements contribute to that lifestyle component,” said Hughes, “if someone is looking for that over-the-top party environment, there’s going to be more fire, more color-changing LED lights. The acrylic windows may come into play, but it all depends on the client.”
“To make the backyard an experience, you have to create a feel that connects with the client.”Ryan Hughes – Ryan Hughes Design / Build
Creating The Right Atmosphere
“A lot of people talk about architecture and art but what’s the end result, it’s about a feeling,” said Hughes, “When you go to a really cool restaurant, you don’t talk about the architecture. You say ‘wow, this atmosphere is amazing.’ The same thing holds true if you go to a boutique hotel and spend thousands of dollars a night on a room, it’s about the atmosphere and the vibe you get from the experience.” said Hughes. He indicated that those elements collected during the profiling stage often dictate what that vibe and feel will resemble in the overall design plan presented to the client.
Space Planning Around Functionality
Hitting all of the personalized notes that create a truly custom-tailored experience for the homeowner is a process Hughes is all too familiar with. He indicated that many builders approach the space planning around the pool which is the opposite approach he takes when planning an outdoor living space that caters to the customer’s lifestyle.
“We start with functionality,” said Hughes, “We don’t even really start with the swimming pool design. We start with the overall space planning and create the destinations. So we say we’re going to have a lounge area here, and a social firepit there. We’re going to add an outdoor kitchen and a dining scenario as well. We’re mapping that out before we even start to conceptualize what the pool is going to look like,” explained Hughes.
Expansion Into The Orlando Market
With a few new exciting projects coming out this year, Hughes is focused on expanding his footprint in Florida. “We recently expanded into the Orlando market and we have a couple of big lazy rivers over there. Our average lazy river is around 200 feet, this one we’re doing is 300 feet long. It has some really interesting water features and a cantilever pavilion that goes over the river. As you go through the river it’s got a water column that Crystal Fountains manufactured for us that’s going to put 500 gallons a minute of water down on you as you’re tubing through it. This one has amazing lighting, acrylic, and fire. It’s got everything that we’re known for but on steroids.”
That certainly isn’t the only high-end project Hughes has going in the Orlando market. “There is an indoor pool that we’re doing. It’s a 100-foot lap pool on the side of the house and adjacent to it is a Koi pond that runs the entire length separated by only by acrylic so you’re literally going to be swimming laps in the pool with the fish.”
The average price for one of Ryan Hughes’s builds has certainly gone up since he transitioned to focusing on the client experience. These days the size and scale of projects he works on have gone up in correlation with the prices he charges. “In ’08 we were at that 250-350k range, our average job cost now is around $1.5 million. Our projects in Orlando are $3-5 million residential projects. The size and scale have really gotten fun.”
Watch our entire interview with Ryan Hughes at the International Pool & Spa Expo
One on One With Pool Remodeling Expert Chris Bowen
A rising star in the industry and definitely one to watch is pool remodeling expert Chris Bowen, the President of Bowen Pools in Flower Mound, TX. While already gaining the respect of his peers within the pool industry, Bowen has also been rapidly becoming a favorite with homeowners in the local Dallas / Fort Worth area.
One of the Top Pool Remodeling Firms in DFW – Bowen Pools
Recently voted Best Pool Builder (Best of Denton County 2021) – and one of the Pool Pro Mag 30 under 40, the 31-year-old has come very far and has had an almost meteoric rise to become one of the top pool remodeling firms in the Dallas area. Developing an impressive portfolio of pool construction and high-end pool remodeling projects; Bowen Pools is fast on its way towards achieving the type of notoriety that usually comes with having been in the industry for decades.
We had the opportunity to catch up with Chris Bowen and wanted to hear about how he got his start and how he’s positioning for new growth. We also wanted to get a pulse on what he sees going on in his local market and his opinion on the status of the industry down in Dallas, Texas. As one of the top pool remodeling firms in town, Bowen has unique insight as to what is going on in the industry right now in his neck of the woods.
How Chris Bowen Got His Start in The Pool Industry
With a young family and limited resources, Bowen started his pool service company back in 2017. He began with a single service account working out of the back of his family’s Honda CRV. With just a $500 seed investment he sunk into equipment, Bowen set out to conquer the DFW market.
From Nothing to Something in 5 Years – An American Success Story
Inside of as many years, Bowen had built the service side of the business up to over 250 accounts. That’s a respectable feat giving the fact that he’d been working for someone else’s pool company only five years ago. In essence, Chris started Bowen Pools virtually from nothing and has come very far in a short amount of time. It’s the type of success story that resembles many others we’ve heard. Bowen came up through service and successfully made the leap to construction.
Focusing on Pool Remodeling & New Pool Construction
This year however has been a challenging one for many. Bowen Pools clearly is no exception to the rule in terms of those impacted by rising prices. This summer, Bowen elected to make a major change in his business. He stated he intends to focus more on pool remodeling and new pool construction. “We sold the service side of our business in August of this year,” said Bowen. He told us he had been struggling with rising chemical costs all year. This summer he decided to sell that division of his company.
Dealing With Rising Costs & Unpredictable Delays
“We were definitely getting killed on the pricing side of it,” said Bowen in response to why he was motivated to sell his service company. “We’ve had shortages and price increases on everything,” said Bowen, “Hopefully when that plant down in Louisiana comes back online prices will level out.”
However, the grass doesn’t seem to be much greener on the construction side of the pool industry. In terms of rising costs, materials are at an all-time high. We asked whether he had begun to push back on previous estimates he had given, to which he replied “That’s been the hardest part. We lost quite a bit of money earlier in the year.”
Setting Expectations With Customers
Being a family man himself, Bowen says that having to tell his customers that their swimming pool or their pool remodeling project is going to cost more is something that he dreads. “We’ve had to go back to clients to renegotiate, but at the end of the day I need to put food on my family’s plate too,” said Bowen.
Pool Remodeling Expert Chris Bowen Weighs in on What’s Going on in the Industry and in DFW
In his off-hours, Bowen networks online and is peers with many different builders in the industry. He often communicates about what is going on through a private group chat they’ve established. Bowen says that one constant topic of conversation this season has been the unpredictable price increases. He says both service and construction trades have seen huge price hikes from manufacturers and distributors.
“I don’t know how if you’re in the pool business you’re not affected by all of these price increases,” said Bowen, “We’ve seen prices for materials go up 60-80%.”
What Caused Such Dramatic Price Increases
“I don’t think the Texas freeze helped matters,” said Bowen, “I believe these price increases would have occurred either way.” Referencing a storm Texas experienced in February which caused pool equipment that would have typically gone towards new construction projects to be immediately requisitioned for repair work.
Experts agree that the rush for equipment in one of America’s biggest pool markets may have contributed to hoarding. This in itself would indirectly cause pricing to go up and availability to go down throughout the summer.
Texas Pool Freeze Could Have Been Way Worse Says Bowen
“We got lucky that it wasn’t cold enough to freeze anything underground or we really would have had some back luck,” said Bowen, “but a lot of people lost their equipment this year. There are ice storms like this every other year, but never something quite like this.”
Bowen weighed in on whether winterizing pools in his part of the state would be the new norm. “There’s really not a great way to prepare. You can’t really prepare for them doing rolling blackouts when it’s freezing out. If it starts to happen you can winterize your equipment,” said Bowen, “As far as prepping everything ahead of time, unless you have everything on a generator there’s really not a lot you can do.”
Typically winter storms in that region of the country may disable power for a day or two, however, homeowners were without power for an extended period of time. This prevented people from running their pool equipment in order to keep water circulating during the freeze.
“I lost power at my house for 3 days,” said Bowen, who claims that he stayed with relatives while utilities were down. “We came back home to a busted pipe and some flooding,” said Bowen who indicated that thankfully events like last year’s aren’t a frequent occurrence.
Should Homeowners in Dallas Winterize Their Pools?
Bowen told us he doesn’t foresee a trend in the Dallas / Fort Worth area of folks winterizing their pools.
“Everybody uses their pool so much, “said Bowen, “Those pools get down to 60 degrees. A lot of people still heat them, especially early in the winter through November. People use their spas year-round down here. I don’t think it’ll be a trend to do that (winterize). Only in case of emergencies would it be necessary.”
Demand For Swimmings Pools Will Taper
While Bowen predicts that demand for swimming pools will go down over the next few years, he does not predict prices will stabilize right away. “With everything going on in the ports right now, they’re not going to have the figured out anytime soon.”
As far as pool remodeling projects go, Bowen has never been busier. “We get more calls than ever before for pool renovations, it was big last year but it’s definitely been bigger this year,” said Bowen, who indicated that he expecting the demand for pools may have crested as many predict.
“If everyone rushed out to get their backyard renovated, at some point that has to wind down. We’ll see if that happens next year or the following year, but it’s definitely going to taper off,” said Bowen.
Correlation Between New Home Construction And Pool Construction
We asked whether local real estate market conditions looked favorable in the Dallas / Fort Worth area and if Bowen noticed new homes still being built. Traditionally, there is an intrinsic correlation between new home construction and new pool construction.
“New homes are going up like crazy, it’s just that the prices are being driven very high. I don’t know how high those prices can go before people start getting priced out of them,” said Bowen. He suggested that while this may be common in other places of the country, Texans were unused to the prices homes are now selling for.
What A Cooling Housing Market Means For The Pool Industry
With a booming population, the housing market in Texas is becoming increasingly competitive. According to a Texas A&M University – housing report published September 23, 2021; despite decreasing mortgage rates and lumber prices plummeting 93.6 percent in July, instances of double-digit home-price appreciation chipped away at home affordability.
This information itself gives credence to what Bowen is forecasting about new homeowners being ‘priced out’. A recent Forbes report definitely indicates that housing market is slowing down and has begun to cool. While experts certainly don’t predict a housing market crash, first-time homebuyers could be the worst impacted by a market correction. Experts fear new home buyers could essentially see much of their equity wiped out. What this means for the pool industry is we could see demand go back down to pre-Covid levels quickly as the market recorrects. A lack of available inventory and many of the mortgage relief programs ending may contribute to this happening much faster than expected.
Bowen has eyes on the ground in the DFW market, which just so incidentally happens to be one of the strongest pool markets in the entire country. We’re definitely fortunate to have been able to spend some time chatting with him and get a pulse on what is going on in the Dallas / Fort Worth area.
A Challenging Season For Pool Builder – Lee Russell
Baton Rouge pool builder Lee Russell and his family have been building pools for three generations. As such, they’ve garnered a lot of respect in the industry as well as within their own community. In Baton Rouge, they have established themselves as one of the top pool construction firms in town.
That reputation assures that Russell is frequently one of, if not the first, pool builders that homeowners will contact for a swimming pool estimate. His family has managed to build a business that has been able to stand the test of time. In down economies, hurricanes, you name it – Russell and his family have remained a single constant in Baton Rouge for over 56 years.
Pool Builder Has Dominated The Baton Rouge Market For Generations
Russell who has picked up the family mantle for pool construction, first worked side by side with his father and grandfather for years. The company was originally founded by Roy and Betty Russell back in 1965. Today, Russell Pool Company is owned and operated by Keith and Lee Russell who are continuing to run the business by the same high standards set by the original founders.
Lee says that he first got his start in the pool industry by coincidence. After getting injured on the playground as a child, his father picked him up early from school. Instead of taking him to the doctor, however, he took him to work with him, and from that moment on he was hooked. After spending time working as an assistant and general gopher for his grandfather, Russell explored interests outside of the pool world. He gained a Bachelors’s and Masters’s Degree and was even pursuing his Ph.D. at one point.
Although the lure to try new things has been strong, Russell says that he’s always gravitated back to building pools. “I get to do something I enjoy every day, I get to create. I’m very fortunate, not everyone gets to do something that they love,” said Russell.
Exploring the creative side of his nature is something that Lee Russell is very good at. In fact, he’s developed a following, both among homeowners that are looking for traditional Louisiana style and flair in their backyard, as well as with folks looking for a touch of the more contemporary aesthetic in their backyard to complement their modern home.
“I’ve always loved to work with my hands. When I was a teenager I would take computers apart and rebuild them. I took my car apart and rebuilt it. I always enjoyed the mechanical side of things and being able to see how they work.” said Russell, “I love creating and trying new things.” he said, explaining what motivates him to distinguish this generation of the Russell Pool Company from prior ones. “I could always do things like my grandfather did for fifty-plus years, but I want to try new things.”
Understanding What The High-End Luxury Outdoor Living Market Wants
“Being a pool builder in Louisiana, you have to understand our architecture is different than a lot of other areas of the country. We have these huge Live Oak trees and a lot of brick and stonework. Traditional just fits in a lot of these backyards that we come across” said Russell. “Every so often there is someone who is from somewhere else in the country that comes in and wants modern and we will absolutely jump on that. I love doing modern designs and modern pools, I wish I could do that all the time but that’s just not my market,” explained Russell.
Baton Rouge is definitely a market that is better well known for its charming French-colonial homes. As a high-end pool builder, Russell is often looking to push the envelope on his designs. The luxury custom homes in his local area necessitate a different style of pool that leans to more traditional aesthetics. The topography of Baton Rouge is very flat and creating the dramatic elevation changes that are the hallmarks of most award-winning pools simply doesn’t exist in his area of Louisiana.
Short of manufacturing those elevation changes, many designs are tasteful, elegant, and flat. That certainly hasn’t stopped Russell from exploring more contemporary designs. Russell’s collaborations with Baton Rouge, Landscape Architect – Ryan McKnight, have allowed him to incorporate more modern design aesthetics that complement traditional homes.
Citing landscape architects like A. Hays Town, whose work in traditional influences of Spanish, French, and Creole-style architecture that can still be seen today; Russell stated that many of the high-end custom homes lean towards that more quintessential Louisiana style architecture.
Russell Pools isn’t a production, volume builder and doesn’t profess to be one. Truth be told, they may build 70 pools a year at most. However, the pools they do build are exquisite though. Being one of the top pool companies in Louisiana, Russell has his fingers on the pulse of what the outdoor living trends are in his neck of the woods. We asked him, what’s hot right now with homeowners and what kind of features they are looking for in an inground pool.
Although Russell’s expertise in pool construction is in higher demand than ever before, the last two years certainly haven’t been without its challenges. Simply finishing the pools while waiting for essential materials has been a series of hurdles for the Baton Rouge builder who explained to us that just about every single material that he orders is taking weeks longer than it normally would to arrive.
Pool Builders in High Demand But Manufacturing Delays Continue To Hamper Growth
Last year’s Texas Pool Freeze caused damage and pool repairs for thousands of homeowners. Consequently, this did much to complicate things for builders all over the country by taking many vital components and materials out of circulation early in the pool season. It would appear that Russell Pool Company is one of a long list of pool builders still feeling the effects of those related shortages.
“As far as materials go, I think it’s worse today than it was a year ago,” said Russell, “I’ve got Poolcorp lagging behind getting their orders in from manufacturers for equipment. Materials are tough too. I’ve got a container of white quartzite that is sitting at the port in China that cannot be put into a container because there is no one to get it done. I have had that order in since February and I’m just waiting.”
“I’ve got one pool where I’ve got the coping on but the deck is not finished, but they’re swimming,” said Russell. “We get a lot of pressure from our clients. Something that used to take me 6-8 weeks to finish now I’m looking at 10-12 and that makes it tough. You don’t want to lie to your clients.”
Russell explained that setting expectations at the outset and explaining to customers the ongoing logistical issues that builders are facing with materials is paramount. He indicated that he’s been doing his best to front-load those expectations. His process has been to let clients know that their pool is going to take longer to complete, that some materials may be unavailable and that what items are available may cost more. Undoubtedly, this has produced some hard conversations, not just for Russell but for thousands of builders placed in a similar predicament.
We asked Russell about one issue he brought up while on the Pool Chasers podcast. He discussed the ongoing labor shortages many pool companies had faced last year. We wanted to know if this was still an issue for his company this year.
“When you can stay at home and not have to work and still pull a check, man there’s a lot of folks that don’t want to work. I’m not sure I want those people working for me. Skilled labor is tough.” said Russsell, sighing. “You used to be able to find guys that were willing to work. Now you’re lucky to get a crew of 3 or 4 guys together that are doing all the work. I don’t know if that’s going to get better.”
Russell indicated that one of the most frequently requested pool features that homeowners request is glass tile. While he loves the look, achieving it with a limited skilled labor force is tough; especially when most of the contractors in his local area are reluctant to learn the trade.
While Russell is a registered member of the Society of Watershape Designers, disseminating education on the job site has been a challenge for him and others. This has been especially true for pool builders with a limited workforce at their disposal. “I think the guys that are running the company, the top guys, and management are getting better. There are a lot of guys that are doing Genesis classes and Watershape University and they’re learning and getting better,” said Russell.
“The problem is none of that education trickles down to the sub-contractors and laborers that are actually doing the work. I know how to build a perfect pool to all the codes and specs. The reality is when you come down to it, I don’t have my hands on everything. ” said Russell, who indicated that without skilled laborers to help fill in those gaps, often has him running from one job site to the next in order to ensure things are up to his standards.
Russell was actually late for our interview. The pool builder had been inspecting a job site where glass tile was being installed. “I had to swing by there to make sure there weren’t any issues with what they were doing. When I do it, I want to make sure that they have the substrate right, and the waterproofing right, and that they’re putting their thin sets down properly. It’s just so much oversight that it’s a little hard to do on these high-end jobs right now.” explained Russell.
The weather has also been a monumental challenge for the builder this season. With already unpredictable yearly weather conditions, Louisiana was recently hit by Hurricane Ida causing catastrophic damage to many of the pools under construction for hundreds of builders throughout the region.
We asked Russell how he’s able to prevail in such daunting conditions where builders typically may spend half of the day mucking a pool out before they can even get their day started.
“It’s tough but we manage to do it. We’ve been doing this so long in Baton Rouge that I know how to combat some of those issues before they even happen,” said Russell who indicated that this year has been especially challenging because of the weather. “For us, schedules are everything. That’s what throws us in a tizzy. If I can’t get materials or I’ve got 5 straight days of rain and I can’t shoot a pool – things like that drive my stress levels through the roof because I can’t stay on schedule.”
They’re Building Beautiful Things In The Mud Down in Baton Rouge
It would appear that if you plan on building pools in Louisana, that you’d better be prepared to put your game on expert mode. Russell gave us the ultimate soundbite of all time when he described the conditions for being a pool builder in Louisiana.
“If you want to build something in the mud, you’ve got to get creative sometimes.”Pool Builder, Lee Russell – Russell Pool Company
“I’ve got one eye on my crews and the other eye on the weather channel. If I were to pull a job crew every time the weatherman said 60% chance of rain; that’s half the days in the calendar and I’d never get anything done,” said Russell.
“I had one this year that wasn’t shot yet where it rained overnight. I had water all the way up to my forms,” said Russell, “We had to pump it out and get in there with the shovels. Then we had to get in there and wash it off and get all the mud off of it. Man, it’s tough. I’ve got to give my guys a lot of credit. A lot of days it’s been just shovel work and hot days. That’s what’s uncomfortable and what makes it tough.” he explained.
Taking Time to Reflect on What’s Important
With all of the challenges aside, Russell says that building pools still is an incredibly rewarding experience for him. Helping homeowners bring their backyard vision to life is something he enjoys and finds fulfilling. “We get to see some phenomenal houses and projects that are just amazing. We’ve built lazy rivers and waterparks. We’ve built a pool with an island in it.” said Russell, reflecting on some of his past projects.
Russell tries to make sure that his job crews have a full appreciation for the work that they are doing for homeowners. He indicated that quite often it’s difficult for laborers to appreciate the end results of all their hard work. Russell exemplifies just how to do that with one story he shared with us.
One of the Best Pool Builder Stories You’ll Hear All Year
“We did a pool a little over a year ago that was 2,000 square feet and 13 feet deep. The homeowner wanted it so that he would have a balcony over his kitchen bar area and would be able to jump off that 10-foot balcony into the pool. He decided he wanted to put a waterslide running off that same balcony. We finished up that pool about two weeks before Christmas. Of course, every one of my guys had to take turns going down that slide and jumping off the balcony.”
It was Russell’s way of rewarding his crew for their work on a project they had worked on together for months. Creating the opportunity for them to share that moment and appreciate the end results of their labor is something he still holds near and dear to his heart. A poignant moment that perhaps sheds some light on the culture of the firm and why this company continues to prevail despite all the obstacles thrown at them this season.
Establishing a Legacy in Luxury Pools – Chuck Baumann
Chuck Baumann is the president of Creative Environments, one of the leading Bay Area Design/ Build firms for luxury inground swimming pools and high-end custom backyards. He’s a pioneer in the world of luxury pools and has been at the forefront of modern pool design for the better part of four decades.
We had the opportunity to catch up with Baumann on the Pool Magazine podcast and Q&A’d him about his role in the pool industry. We also talked about how he got his start building pools, and what trajectory he sees our industry headed towards over the next few years.
Learning the trade at a young age, Baumann had been working alongside his father since the age of 5. During his high school years, he took the initiative to learn the business in earnest. It was a natural step for the enterprising teen to look to start his own company.
Starting Off At A Young Age In the Pool Industry
When Baumann began his tenure in the pool world; like many in the industry, he first got his start cleaning and maintaining swimming pools. Having come from a family entrenched in the pool industry (three of his family members owned a pool business), Baumann started his very first pool company when he was just 16 years old while at the same time working in his father’s pool retail store. While some kids his age were busy tending to their paper routes delivering newspapers to homeowners, Baumann was tending to their swimming pools.
Continuing to learn the trade and expand his skill set, he partnered with his uncle’s pool company until 1979, when he would ultimately decide to start a second pool company called Creative Environments. “At the time of creating that pool company; there really wasn’t any other pool contractor thinking about anything in the backyard other than the swimming pool, that was their dog in the fight,” explained Baumann.
Creative Environments Path To Becoming a Leading Pool Builder In Their Market
“I realized it was all about the entertainment and the lifestyle that having a swimming pool in the backyard created for folks,” said Baumann, explaining where the name ‘Creative Environments’ came from. His intention with giving his firm that company name was to resonate that they handled every aspect of creating a completely custom pool and outdoor living environment.
Ushering In A New Era of Pool Building
“From day one, I went out and found landscape architects to team up with and remember this is 42 years ago so this was pretty revolutionary at the time,” said Baumann, “Instead of taking out a template, we started thinking about how the patio interacted with the pool and how other elements such as sun decks, fire pits, and pavilions incorporated the lifestyle of the client.”
During the span of four decades, Creative Environments has been responsible for building over 1,500 custom pools and backyards for homeowners in the California San Francisco Bay Area. Baumann explained how each project is a unique undertaking.
Each Outdoor Living Project is Unique
“You have uniquely different clients and settings and topography to work around,” said Baumann. For him, the opportunity to change homeowners’ perception of what a swimming pool could be put him on par with other pioneers who were revolutionizing and changing the way pools and patio areas functioned together.
“The pools of my father’s era were all one-dimensional. They were all flat and there were no raised-up portions. There were no water features that incorporated sound, texture, and lighting into the pool. Along comes my era of pool builders and we started really pushing the envelope and raising the bar in terms of design and construction techniques.” said Baumann.
Baumann recalls that all through the 1950s and 60’s production pool builders had put a stamp on what an inground swimming pool should look like. It wouldn’t be until the 1970s, that more uniquely shaped pools with completed custom backyards really began to take hold.
Swimming Pools Became a Status Symbol
Homeowners recognized the convenience of having their own private oasis. The ability to purchase that type of luxury brought validation. It demonstrated to others that they could provide that type of convenience for their family. Having a swimming pool suddenly became a status symbol on par with driving a Mercedes or owning a boat. To many Americans, building your own swimming pool meant that you had “made it”.
It was firms like Creative Environments who were able to capitalize on that interest when the culture of swimming pools truly began to ignite. It was during this era Baumann explained that swimming pools began their transformation to resemble the more modern pools of today.
The backyard amenities and features going into these pools began to correlate to a much higher price tag than those sold in the ’50s and ’60s. “In my father’s era when he ran his pool company, his average pool sold for around $2,000. The pools I sell today go for upwards north of $200,000,” said Baumann.
Pioneers in Planning Outdoor Living Environments
Creative Environments was one of the first pool construction firms in Northern California to take the entire outdoor space into account. Consequently, they helped to set the paradigm in terms of how they approached planning a complete backyard with a pool and patio. They were also one of the first pioneers to incorporate many of the pool and outdoor living features we see in the backyards of high-end homes today.
Baumann also credits visionaries like Vance Gillette for not only inspiring him but opening the pool industry’s eyes to the fact that homeowners were looking for a more cohesive outdoor living environment. The incredible changes that have been made over the last few decades have helped to incorporate the swimming pool area in a completely new way which has helped propel the entire industry as a whole.
The Demographics of Pool Buyers Today
While that validation story may still be true today, there has been another force at play over the past two years. Covid-19 has certainly amplified the demand and been a force multiplier in terms of the number of leads that pool companies are getting today.
“That dynamic has changed our business model,” said Baumann. “The interest has always been there when I study the demographics of who buys a swimming pool in our industry; there’s a particular age group. The standard demographics of pool buyers are an active couple in their late 30’s to early ’50s with a family of children 5-15 years old.”
“That has always been the standard. Those are active people and travel is part of their experience. How did Covid affect that? Well they’re not going to get on a plane and take a vacation so they’re saying ‘let’s work on our backyard’.” said Baumann.
There is no denying that Covid-19 has correlated in a spike in swimming pool and hot tub sales throughout the world. One contributing factor has been a lack of competition for funds that typically may have been spent on a vacation. “I think we’ve been very fortunate to be the recipient of those discretionary dollars. The majority of it is being invested in the home. As an industry, we’ve been very fortunate,” said Baumann.
Capitalizing On Momentum
One thing that has blocked the industry from being able to capitalize on the white-hot interest in pools has been the ongoing shortages. There has also been a mass influx of new freshmen pool companies looking to grab a piece of all this new consumer interest. “I think it behooves all of us to make sure that we keep the momentum going.” said Baumann, “We do that by being professionals at our craft. It’s easy to go out and say ‘I’m a pool builder’ because the market is hot right now. What we really need to do is be as professional as we can be and that professionalism is going to perpetuate through our industry. “
One major resource that has enabled Baumann to stay ahead of the many shortages and delays affecting the industry has been his close personal relationships with vendors and suppliers established through the Carecraft group (one of the industry’s leading organizations for pool professionals). It’s been Creative Environment’s long-standing relationships and strong network that have enabled them to maintain the status quo throughout the last two years; even when so many have struggled to do so.
Even still, Baumann told Business Insider that paying top dollar doesn’t guarantee your pool will be ready by summer, as many pool construction firms are booked through the rest of the year. Many of those projects aren’t anticipated to be completed until 2023.
We asked Baumann, what trends he has noticed during the last two years that have emerged in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. As one of the top pool builders in the San Francisco area, he has his fingers on the pulse of not only what is going on in the world of pool construction, but also what high-end homeowners want in their backyard.
Outdoor Living Trends in 2021 – Chuck Baumann
One outdoor living feature that Baumann said has become enormously popular during the pandemic has been the inclusion of pavilions in the backyard design plan. “The pavilion has shade, a fireplace, a TV, an outdoor kitchen, a wet bar. People are building whatever they want right now to satisfy their outdoor dream because they’re stuck at home.” Baumann indicated that projects of that nature can go for upwards of a million dollars or more.
Another outlying cause for increased demand; Baumann first mentioned during a PACE conference a few years ago. That wildcard factor has been the number of homeowners looking for pool renovations and remodeling work. A good number of the pool projects Creative Environments has undertaken during the past couple of years have been homeowners looking to remove an old pool that was built decades ago and replace it with a new one. “We will build twenty pools this season and half of them already have a pool in the backyard,” said Baumann. “We’re jackhammering out those old pools and creating a multimillion-dollar experience for people in their backyards.”
Baumann has certainly left an indelible mark on luxury pools in the Bay Area over the years. His firm was one of the first in the area to begin incorporating features like pool cabanas, outdoor kitchens, and raised patios incorporating different elevations. For him, it’s been immensely satisfying to see his work has helped to usher in new standards in pool design and construction. He’s also equally gratified to see his son Nicco Baumann has progressed to the point in his own career where he is now eager to make his own mark on the pool world.
Passing the Torch to the Next Generation of Pool Builders
“I’m watching what he’s doing now. He’s handling all of our construction and is one of the finest builders I’ve come across in a long time. It’s wonderful to see the legacy being passed down to him.” said Baumann.
A long-time member of Carecraft, Baumann has enjoyed watching his son become more involved and immersed in the organizations he has been a part of for so long. “He’s being embraced by pool contractors of my age that are looking to guys like him as the new generation who are going to take our industry to the next level,” said Baumann.
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