If you’re going to build pools in the busiest city on Earth, you need your head on a swivel to say the least. Recently we had a chance to catch up with Manhattan pool builder, Bob Blanda of Mill Bergen Pools. He has been performing pool construction in the Big Apple for over three decades and is one of the premier pool builders in New York City today.
The Journey to Becoming a Manhattan Pool Builder
The journey to becoming a high-end Manhattan builder was a long one and success didn’t happen overnight for Blanda who started off like many doing pool service. He began his first forays into the industry as a teenager in Brooklyn. It was in 1986, after finishing with a bachelor’s degree in business management that Blanda would form his second company Manhattan-based Mill Bergen Pool Center. Today he holds the certifications of Certified Building Professional (CBP), Certified Service Professional (CSP), and Certified Pool Operator (CPO). Blanda also serves as president of the Northeast Spa and Pool Association (NESPA), where he now serves as President and sits on the board of directors for the Pool & Hot Tub Alliance.
It’s safe to say that Blanda has made a name for his firm during that time span as a trusted pool construction company of choice in New York City. An industry thought leader and seasoned veteran pool builder, Blanda knows what it takes to execute a pool project where most people in their right mind wouldn’t even attempt to park a car.
A Game of Traffic & Logistics
“Most streets do not allow parking and if they do there is a car in every spot,” said Blanda, “so staging a job probably means sending a truck in with at least one extra person who is going to sit there parked in front of a fire hydrant or be circling until a spot actually opens up.”
It’s a frustrating game of logistics that Blanda says is one of the necessary evils of doing business in Manhattan. “Once in a while, you get lucky. There’s a spot two or three blocks away where you can park the vehicle,” said Blanda, “but then whenever you need to get something, you’re walking back to the truck to bring it to the job site.”
Simply traveling around the city itself can be daunting, as the congestion in Manhattan is ranked #1 for worst traffic in the United States. With drivers experiencing an average of 102 hours delayed each year, Blanda confirmed this adds another dimension of complexity to building pools. “If there’s traffic, you can sit there for an hour and a half waiting just to go around the block,” said Blanda.
“Trying to get cement delivered to the city means you have to get 4-5 parking spots cleared,” he explained, “What we do is wait until they have alternate side parking for the street sweepers and that is the day we’ll schedule cement.”
This cat and mouse game of scheduling cement deliveries around the New York City Sanitation Department is how Blanda is able to ensure that he will have the spots necessary for delivery. “As soon as the street sweeper comes, we shove our trucks right in those spots,” said Blanda, “so we can only have really one day a week where we can pour cement. Otherwise, you go through the whole process of trying to get the street shut down.”
A Set of Unique Challenges Comes With Building Pools in New York City
The challenge of dealing with all this time spent waiting to get to the job site and find parking means an abbreviated amount of time laborers can actually work on pools. “We probably only get six hours out of the day (to work),” explained Blanda, “even though our men left at 6:30 in the morning and leave the job site at 4:30 or 5:00 o’clock in the afternoon. Depending on the type of job it is, a lot of these jobs shut early. “
A new level of complexity Blanda may soon be facing is the recent changes to legislation that allow for a new toll system designed to alleviate traffic and generate revenue for the city. “Now they’re adding congestion pricing,” said Blanda, “I think it’s pretty close to being put through where they charge like $30-$40 dollars per day per vehicle just to get into the city. This, on top of the gas, tolls, and all the other expenses.”
Aside from these new concerns, Blanda says the requirements for building pools in New York City are more stringent and regulated. “All of the rules that go on everywhere else are enhanced in Manhattan. Having your OSHA-30, hard hats, and the proper gear (are required).”
The security around some of these job sites is often higher than typically found in your normal residential pool construction project. “Walking into a job site means having to sign in, having to sit on safety meetings. Some of the jobs are so secure they’re using retina eye scans to get in and out. If it’s a high-end residential project, there is probably a security guard sitting at a desk in the hall of the house,” explained Blanda.
The challenges of building high-end swimming pools in the Big Apple don’t end there. “There is a lot of difficulty working with other trades,” said Blanda, “if you’re working on a job like that it’s often in the middle of the construction of the home or building. You’re contending for use of the elevator, other trades with materials in your way, so it’s not like you’re alone there and given the exclusivity to be the only person working there.”
Adapting to the Pandemic & a Covid-19 World
New York City was one of the hardest-hit major metropolitan areas impacted by Covid-19. Blanda, like many throughout the pool industry, was relieved not to be under mandatory quarantine during the initial outset of the pandemic.
“Covid created a lot of difficulties, we were fortunate that the association worked very hard to get the swimming pool business to become essential,” said Blanda, who explained that distancing workers in trucks, and assigning more vehicles to job sites became necessary along with instituting face masks and other safety protocols.
Blanda had no qualms about telling us how scary those first initial months of the pandemic were. Still, and quite admirably, Mill Bergen Pools has managed to prevail through the pandemic and is busier than ever. “As we say in the pool business, you have to be a Marine and overcome and adapt. We made it work and now everyone is vaccinated.”
Building Pools For The 1% of Manhattan
In planning high-end projects for the 1% clientele in Manhattan that are building inground swimming pools, Blanda said that quite frequently it’s the architects themselves who are his clients. “They would call us up and ask about an inground pool and I would go out there to find that quite often I’m not going to the customer, I’m going to an architectural office.”
One interesting story he shared with us about building luxury pools in Manhattan involved a smaller pool project in a Brownstone that had been years in the making. It was a simple pool project in terms of size and shape, Blanda explained the initial challenge that came with coming up with a pool concept that would go in the basement of the building.
“This is a house that is adjoining another home that has a shared foundation between the two. (The general contractor) had to get permission to excavate in the basement. Even though we were only excavating six feet, they had to underpin the entire foundation to bring it down at least a couple of feet lower than our pool so that there is no movement or undermining of the foundation.”
A Case Study on Your Average New York City Pool Build
The structural engineering involved made it an interesting case study of just how difficult any city project can become. Simply coming to an agreement with the neighbor would involve multiple parties. “In order to do that, there were negotiations between the general contractor, a lawyer, and the neighbor,” said Blanda, “the neighbor ended up extracting a sizeable 5 digit amount from them to give them permission to build a pool in the house next door. On top of that, they had to install a special instrument to measure movement to ensure there was no movement in the foundation during the construction.”
Coming up with a design that would please the client didn’t come without its own challenges said Blanda, “The pool started out being above the ground, it was going to be a 5×6 plunge pool with a 5×8 spa next to it. However, there were going to be four steps. In a basement with a ten-foot ceiling that was not ideal. After some back and forth we determined that this was not the epitome of what they would like. Through some diligence on the general contractors’ part, he was able to convince the neighbor to allow them to dig. They did all this underpinning and built a concrete vault for us and we ended up building them a 12×20 so the client got a decent-sized pool.”
The project does have all the modern creature comforts that classify it as a custom luxury inground pool. Some of the amenities include an all-glass tile interior, an in-floor cleaning system, and a SwimStream so that the client can swim against the current to exercise. The project includes LED lighting, a motorized cover, and ozone UV pool sanitizing equipment.
Blanda, who has had a long career consulting with architectural firms on inground swimming pool projects explained that quite frequently he’s not dealing with the end-user, and he’s not selling the customer. In fact, it is the architectural firm that is planning the design space who is making the determination of which firm to hire. Blanda’s seniority and expertise in the pool industry ensure that Mill Bergen Pools receives the lion’s share of referrals for high-end work in Brooklyn and Manhattan.
When acting as a consultant Blanda will often manage the general planning and assist an architectural firm in quarterbacking the pool phase of a project. In other instances, his construction firm Mill Bergen is actively engaged in building the pool as well as the surrounding pool area. His work in both capacities has helped grow the pool service side of his business which is conveniently located a short drive away from Manhattan. “We’re 15 minutes away from the city, so we can get a service truck in. Most people if they have to travel 2 hours it’s not really desirable, so there aren’t so many companies that want to come into the city,” said Blanda.
Listen to the Interview
Our one-on-one discussion with Bob Blanda covered many different topics, listen to our entire interview on the Pool Magazine podcast.
Pool Design Trends With Kelly O’Leary
As we move well into the 2020’s era of outdoor living design, customers value a more modern design aesthetic in the backyard. Pool design trends are changing rapidly. Homeowners put a premium on a well-designed and contemporary outdoor living area. Moreover, they’re looking for ways to be able to utilize the backyard as a multi-purpose space for entertaining.
To speak more on the subject of what today’s homeowners want, we reached out to up-and-coming custom pool builder Kelly O’Leary of OLeary Pools & Design in Houston, TX. In a very traditional market known for freeform lagoon-style pools, O’Leary says that today’s homeowners in Houston are looking for something else. Consequently, he’s noticed a trend emerging as a growing number of homeowners have begun looking for designs that complement the aesthetic of their modern home and lifestyle.
Pool Design Trends Shifting Away From Freeform Pools
“We’re shifting away from those traditional kidney bean-shaped pools with rock grotto waterfalls that have been more predominant in this area. Those are just done over and over again,” said O’Leary, who is working with clients willing to push the envelope.
“We started to really get clients that were more accepting of contemporary designs and things they haven’t seen before and it began to evolve,” said O’Leary, “you’ve seen it in a lot of the industry. Social media is helping propel that. We see things now at the speed of light. The design changes and trends shift really quick.”
Furthermore, he suggested that professionals monitor places like Instagram and Pinterest in order to stay in touch with modern design trends. “If we’re not always thinking about what’s next and what’s new we’ll get stuck in a rut repeating the same design and have various clients with the same exact pool.”
Some of the more modern and contemporary pool designs featuring infinity edges with weir walls simply aren’t found very often in Houston. The topography of the city itself is very flat so builders look for other creative ways to incorporate sophisticated elements into their designs.
Modern touches like perimeter overflows and raised infinity edges make the pool appear like a sheet of glass. It’s those types of contemporary aesthetics that are a 180-degree approach from the predominantly lagoon-style pools found in many high-end homes throughout Houston.
Many of the contemporary design aesthetics featuring modern shaped geometry can already be found throughout California and Florida. That these pool design trends have been slow to catch on in places like Houston is something that has begun to change says O’Leary.
“It’s been a learning curve to be able to push new things. Over the past few years, we still have clients that say ‘we love that but not for this market’ or ‘that’s beautiful but may not be right for Houston’.
Austin is a good example, there are some great landscape architectural firms and pool builders there doing really modern things. The architecture of the homes there is very modern and we’re beginning to see that start to bleed into our market here in Houston.”
“Introducing that to this market is a double-edged sword though,” said O’Leary. Much of the architecture in Houston leans toward more traditional Farmhouse, Ranch, Tudor, and Craftsman-style homes. Consequently, finding modern design trends that best suit those style homes and backyards can present a challenge. This is particularly true with homeowners looking to incorporate elements that don’t necessarily suit their outdoor living environment.
“We come across that in the design sometimes, all the details and materials are thought through. Then they begin to change and add things. Once all of their design changes are made it can begin to resemble the yard from ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding‘,” said O’Leary, who told us a story of run-away change orders during the materials selections phase of pool construction. This contributed to a customer submarining their own design with superfluous elements that detracted away from the intended design.
It is something O’Leary has learned how to avoid from happening. Preselecting and limiting the available options on the menu gives clients less to consider. Given too many design choices, customers can easily mix and match elements that don’t necessarily cohesively gel together.
Introducing modern and contemporary themes seems a question of striking the right balance. Still, O’Leary has become adept at designing backyards that are bringing in contemporary elements that still find a congruent harmony in Houston’s more traditional-style homes.
Drawing inspiration from other designers and well-known landscape architects has continuously helped O’Leary up the bar in terms of the backyards he is building. Collaborating with elites like Randy Angell seems to be the next evolution in the up-and-comers path.
“Being able to work with him is very exciting because he’s one of the best at what he does,” said O’Leary, “it’s quite a bit different because we don’t typically get large master plan projects on that scale.”
Although he envisions more collaborations such as that in the future, Kelly O’Leary is still making a name for himself in a market inundated with high-end pool builders. He has begun to distinguish himself by working with high-end materials and larger custom luxury pool projects.
Stepping outside his comfort zone and taking on more custom work is also helping distinguish him in the eyes of his peers in the industry. On a recent project that caught our eye, he brought in Mosaicist, Ray Corral to design and install a glass mosaic tile interior finish. Certainly, his work has begun to hit the stride most builders take decades to achieve. It’s making Kelly O’Leary one to watch.
Listen to our entire conversation about Pool Design Trends with Kelly O’Leary on the Pool Magazine Podcast.
Photo Credit: Jimi Smith Photography
Pool Builder: OLeary Pools & Design
The Next Generation of Rising Stars in San Antonio
There are a few rising stars in the pool industry that are definitely setting a name for themselves. One powerhouse couple that stands out and is establishing themselves as the next generation of elite pool builders in San Antonio, is JC and Daniella Rodriguez.
The couple recently appeared together in Pool Pro Magazine’s 30 Under Forty issue with JC Rodriguez being featured on the cover. Their new pool construction firm Element Pool Company has been creating a reputation in their local market for designing beautiful outdoor living environments and exquisitely crafted inground swimming pools.
“It was a surprise to be chosen for the 30 Under Forty, we both made it and in fact, Dani was recognized as ‘Rookie of the Year’,” said JC Rodriguez. “I laughed out loud when I heard I won and said ‘no way you’re kidding me’,” said Daniella Rodriguez, who said she couldn’t believe it when she heard the news. “Sure enough, I opened up the magazine, and there I was. It was a real honor,” said Rodriguez.
This type of acclaim is helping establish a footprint for the new firm in a crowded market inundated with pool construction companies. The recognition that Daniella Rodriguez received is an equally encouraging sign that signifies women have begun to claim their rightful place in a largely predominantly male industry. Alluding to this, she agreed, “We have to make elbow room in the industry in order to make a name for ourselves, so I was really happy to step up to the plate for all of us,” said Rodriguez.
Rising Stars Make a Dynamic Husband & Wife Team
It’s exceptionally rare to find a couple working together in the field of pool construction. In this regard, Element Pool Company is something of a rarity. The pairing of their skillsets appears to provide a well-nuanced balance that customers in their market seem to greatly appreciate.
At the first point of contact, Daniella often leads off the conversation with customers. “Dani navigates them and helps provide some of the introductory information. We let them know that we’re a little more custom than your drop-in fiberglass pools or cookie cutter concrete swimming pools,” said JC Rodriguez.
Approaching Things Differently
“It’s such a large market in San Antonio and there is so much competition,” said Rodriguez. “A lot of the top builders in the United States are in this area. Huge companies that build hundreds of pools a year. We wanted to make a name for ourselves and realized that a lot of that came from the relationships we’re building with the customer. We saw that we could distinguish ourselves in this regard versus making it a one-off project. Establishing that long-term relationship with the client is what our company is based on.”
Turning Customers Into Brand Ambassadors
It’s this novel approach toward client acquisition that sets Element Pool Company apart in some regard. Establishing that type of strong referral-based business is a strategy that appears to be working for the couple.
For many consumers, a swimming pool may be the single most expensive thing they purchase for their home. For some, it’s the culmination of a dream they may have had for decades. Pool ownership is the realization of a goal for many and a life-affirming purchase. This is why the experience holds as much importance as the end result itself, in terms of converting customers into brand ambassadors.
“We’re definitely cognizant of the fact that this is a major purchase for homeowners,” said JC Rodriguez, “one of the things I tell our customers is that we’re not going to do just one design and say ‘hey that’s the pool we want to build you, take it or leave it.'”
Changing The ‘Order-Taking’ Mentality
In this high-volume environment, many pool companies have resorted to an ‘order taking’ mentality as they try to keep up with demand. This is a practice that Rodriguez says he is desperately trying not to adopt. “During the height of the pandemic there were a lot of companies out here that were just giving over the phone quotes and virtual estimates. To us it never made sense because you don’t understand the necessities of that backyard,” explained Rodriguez.
“Even through the pandemic we were always interested in getting into the backyard,” said Rodriguez, “If the client stayed in the home, we were on the phone with them the entire time while we were back there.
“Our goal is to always understand what the house and backyard are calling for, as well as what the customers are looking for,” Rodriguez explained that it’s much easier to get a true sense of that customers lifestyle and accurately bid a project rather than trying to supply a virtual estimate.
“A lot of customers have been dreaming about building a pool for a long time,” said Rodriguez, “We want to make sure we get it right. Ultimately, they will be living with it long after we’re gone from the backyard. We’ll make a hundred different design changes if we need to. This way, we’re getting the right design at the right budget. The goal is that when they walk outside they’re ecstatic about their backyard.”
Educating The Customer
As the prices for swimming pools continue to rise, one of the biggest challenges Rodriguez says he faces is educating consumers on what swimming pools really cost these days. “I wish we could still build pools for the same price we were building them a few years ago. Your average pool in the San Antonio market is going to be around 15 feet wide by 30 feet long. These days, for a basic swimming pool without any extra bells or whistles, you’re going to be starting at around the $60,000 range and going up from there.”
One of the pools they built that caught our eye certainly isn’t in the bottom of that price range. This pool features an expansive travertine deck, a spa, premium pebble tec interior, ledge loungers (Signature Collection), and exciting fire bowls with sheer descents by USA Fire Bowls.
A separate conversation area at a lower elevation with it’s own smartly appointed fire table was another great feature. These are all subtle nuances that add to the overall experience. Aside from the basic cost of pool construction, all these factors add to the total price of the project and that’s before ever getting to what’s actually in the pool itself.
When discussing some of the higher echelon features that homeowners are looking for in their pool such as LED lighting, pool automation, and dramatic fire features, “homeowners can easily price themselves into the $400,000 range and up”, said Rodriguez.
Quality pool builders can definitely justify the asking price. During the pandemic, homeowners made it clear they were willing to pay top-dollar for a backyard that truly delivers the experience they are dreaming of.
Providing a premium product combined with a great customer experience is what consumers want. With projects like this one, Element Pool Company appears to be delivering just that. This young but talented pool firm is definitely on our radar now and one to watch in the upcoming years.
Listen to our discussion with Element Pool Company on the Pool Magazine podcast.
Additional Photo Credit: PoolPro
Financing a Pool & Outdoor Home Improvement Projects
Pool builders often wonder what the best way to originate and answer questions when a buyer is interested in financing their swimming pool and other outdoor home improvement projects. The answer to this question is always a little more complicated than it seems.
You Should Pitch Financing, To A Point
On one hand, you as the builder want to be as knowledgeable and helpful as possible. Also, it can be advantageous to quote a low monthly payment rather than a high project cost. On the other hand, you don’t want to give out incorrect information or be perceived as giving a “bait and switch” offer. It’s a very similar situation to what companies who offer swimming pool financing deal with daily from borrowers with questions about pools.
The Financing Conversation – Dos and Don’ts
It’s common for people seeking financing to ask about average prices or whether the project seems too expensive, etc. Greg Powell, President of Viking Capital, has worked with pool builders for over 25 years and explained why the only answer to questions along that line is “you should discuss that with your builder”.
“The reason we take this position is to make sure we don’t muddy the waters or give out incorrect information that makes the builder’s job selling the project more difficult. The same applies on the builder’s end when buyers want to know rates, terms, and payments. These questions are truly impossible to answer correctly without having their credit report in your hands and full knowledge of underwriting.”
Estimating Loan Terms & Payments Can Backfire
We live in a world today where everyone believes that they know “my credit score”. They see it on apps, on credit card statements and more. The problem is, that individuals have A LOT of credit scores. There are three major reports, but each has several versions. The scores can vary by 100 points or more depending on which report the lender is using. Also, some loan programs allow for co-borrowers and co-signers which may enable borrowers to have more and better loan options.
This conversation about financing can be very awkward for a builder and it could make matters worse. The worst thing is to assume their score is what they say, guess at a rate and term, and take a stab at a payment. When that borrower then applies for financing, they have a pre-set idea of what rate and payment they are looking at. When credit comes back and it’s not a 780, but rather a 724, that borrower is in for a shock. It would be just like us telling borrowers that an average pool is 50-75k. It’s such a wild guess that it’s better not being mentioned.
Leverage Your Financing Partner
Viking Capital offers builders a quick and reliable alternative to offer their customers. When customers apply with us they are contacted by a loan consultant within a few hours for a free loan consultation. It won’t hurt their credit and there is no obligation to move forward. During this consultation, they are given pool loan options specific to their needs and qualifications. Yes, they’ve waited a day or so, but the loan options they got are accurate and exact. The guesswork has been removed from the equation and the customer will be ready to meet with their builder with a confirmed budget.
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