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Founders Continue to Refine & Support Genesis Program

Pool Magazine goes one on one with the Founders of Genesis

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Genesis Founders Brian Van Bower and Skip Phillips continue to support the program now under the stewardship of the PHTA

Many in the industry accredit their success and achievements to the education they received attending the Genesis program. Genesis is one of the leading instructional training systems dedicated to higher education in pool construction and design. The program, first started back in 1998 by Skip Phillips, Brian Van Bower and David Tisherman, quickly became an important resource for builders who were looking to further their education in pool engineering and design.

We had the opportunity to catch up with Skip Phillips & Brian Van Bower while they were recently attending a meeting at the Pool & Hot Tub Alliance headquarters in Alexandria, VA. They were there for a 2 day strategy session with PHTA, discussing new refinements to the Genesis program.

During the course of our conversation with the two founders, we learned how they first got their start in the pool industry. We also found out the origin of this seminal instruction program that has been responsible for producing some of the most talented minds in luxury pools today.

Brian Van Bower, Co-Founder of the Genesis System became synonymous with designs like this one over his career. – Pool Construction – Reef Tropical Pools – Photograph by Jimi Smith Photography

How The Founders of Genesis Got Their Start

Van Bower first got his start in the pool industry back in the 70’s. Like many other stars in the pool industry, Van Bower had humble origins that first began as a tech performing pool service for other companies. A quick study, he eventually decided to start his own pool service company. After building up the business to around 600 accounts, Van Bower decided to change direction.

To Van Bower, the evolution of his career meant building instead of servicing pools. Setting out to educate himself, Van Bower started off small at first. He began building spas before eventually moving on to pools.

The year 1989 would prove to be a pivotal one for Van Bower as he progressed further into designing pools. He would eventually sell his first company in 1991.

Van Bowers work in luxury pool design has been closely studied for a generation by some of the most well known builders and designers in the world. – Pool Tile Interior – Mosaicist – Ray Corral – Photo by Jimi Smith Photography

Today, Van Bower’s current company Aquatic Consultants works on high end luxury pool projects all over the world. Their clientele includes a who’s who list of celebrities from Sir Richard Branson, to a certain quarterback for Tampa Bay whom shall remain nameless. “I am a product of the Genesis system,” said Van Bower.

Van Bower & Phillips Share Similar Origins

Co-Founder, Skip Phillips also started in pool service back in 1975 and over the next few years built the company up to 3 retail outlets servicing roughly 1,100 pools a week. In 1979 he decided he wanted to start building pools so he began studying for his contractors license.

“My second pool won a design award which is frankly an indictment on the pool industry more so than it is an endorsement of me, ” said Phillips, who would eventually become an NSPI instructor along with Van Bower.

“Our process for starting the Genesis system was actually a knee jerk reaction to invalid certifications and invalid educational processes that kept the industry dumbed down,” said Phillips.

Skip Phillips has made a name throughout his career for incredible over the top luxury pools like this one.

The Origins of Genesis

“Back in early 1998, Skip and I had been teaching programs for what was then NSPI,” said Van Bower, “Skip had approached them, because we decided that even though we were teaching programs, they weren’t programs that interested us that much.”

“We wanted them to go outside of the industry instead of having thinly veiled product demonstrations as education and actually bring in instructors who were credible.” said Van Bower.

It was Phillips that first spoke up to program directors. He asked them to bring in architects and landscape architects. Phillips said he and others wanted credible experts from outside the pool industry who could provide instruction in design theory as well as cover topics outside the normal realm of curriculum being taught at the time.

Upon hearing his suggestions, Phillips said that NSPI program directors shut him down cold. “They told me there was no market for an advanced program.” said Phillips, “In fact, they said if we held a venue like that, they would give us $100 per person that attended.”

Phillips said that the incredulous nature of those remarks planted the seeds for starting the Genesis program in that very moment.

I found it so offensive, that I got up and said: ‘That’s alright I’ll do it myself’, and Brian was in the room and stood up and said ‘No, he isn’t going to do it himself, we’re going to do it together.’ David Tisherman was also a partner in the venture at that time.

Skip Phillips – Genesis Co-Founder
The view of Morro Bay, CA from the location at the original Genesis school.

“When we put on our first school, we actually hadn’t thought it out any further than that,” said Phillips. “One of the students came into the Morro Bay location we were at and asked ‘Are you the Genesis guys?’, and I was almost hesitant to say yes, because I didn’t know what would follow,” explained Phillips.

Genesis developed a reputation for organizing event based trips for students & instructors like this one to ASU’s College of Architecture and Environment Design.

“Twenty out of twenty two attendees called the following week and said, ‘What are we doing next?’, and I said, ‘What’s this we thing?'” said Phillips. “We hadn’t really thought it out that far, but it became obvious that there were like minded people that knew that this industry didn’t have any valid education, ” explained Phillips.

“Initially there were a lot of obstacles as we moved Genesis ahead just trying to find venues,” said Phillips. As it often does in the pool industry, word of mouth quickly began to spread about the Genesis program. Interest rapidly began to grow as more and more people who had heard good things about the program, wanted to experience what others had conveyed had been a life changing experience for them.

This enormous inflatable pig symbolizing the three pigs used to hang above the Genesis 3 Pavillion at trade shows. It was there that they first began to get the word out about the program.

Much of the initial buzz about Genesis 3 was generated by word of mouth from a variety of people who had taken the program. They were discovering that Genesis offered something fresh and original the industry hadn’t seen; expert instructors without a hidden agenda to disguise a product pitch as credible education. David Tisherman, who was closely connected to the Genesis 3 program and was one of the original founders, would eventually sell his shares and depart from the organization in 2012.

Program attendees watching David Tisherman teach a drawing class at an early Genesis school.

Over the next decade, Phillips and Van Bower continued to grow the Genesis program into what it is today. Their legacy on the pool industry has left an indelible mark on the face of modern luxury inground pools. Over 6,000 people have gone through the Genesis program since its inception.

“All you have to do is flip through the pages of a magazine to see our impact on the pool industry,” said Phillips. “If you look at the vessels now versus twenty two, twenty three years ago, they’re not built the same, they’re not designed the same, and that’s really because of the Genesis system,” explained Phillips.

Brian Van Bower giving a presentation on vanishing edge pools with Skip Phillips at one of the early Genesis events.

Without question, many builders credit the Genesis program with advancing standards in education. Dave Penton of Ask The Masters, said attending the program made him a better builder. As did Benjamin Lasseter as have many other well known designers, architects and landscape architects. Those who have attended the program credit Genesis with dramatically advancing the quality of higher education in swimming pool construction.

Van Bower explained that it has been a long evolution for the program that he and Phillips started over twenty three years ago. Both founders felt that if they wanted to continue to grow Genesis they would have to involve core attendees and sponsors which would eventually comprise a board of advisors. The close affiliation of this board of advisors with the National Swimming Pool Foundation led to an eventual partnership. Eventually the NSPF, wished to take control over the program, which later merged with the APSP to form the PHTA.

Today, the program is managed by the Pool & Hot Tub Alliance. Van Bower explained how this will be a game changer for Genesis. “Now we have great resources both financially and knowledge wise because instead of 2 pool guys and a couple of helpers putting together programs, we now have staff and training and people that are knowledgeable in marketing.”

There has been some reported turbulence, so we asked how things have changed since the PHTA took over the program. Van Bower remarked “We feel today we are stronger than we’ve ever been. We have better faculty and have been pleased with the outcome of our programs as of late”.

During our discussion with founders, Phillips and Van Bower, we asked about some of the major distinctions between Genesis and other emerging instructional programs to which Phillips replied, “Genesis is obviously the origin of really any of the advanced educational systems on the planet. We’ve been global for some time. We’ve had IACET approval, multiple schools in Europe and Australia. Genesis with its curriculum has really set the stage to launch careers. Frankly almost anyone you see or talk to who has reached some level of status in this industry came through our program. To our credit, the real value is in the success of the people that came through our program.”

Competition Emerges in wake of merger

We asked some pointed questions that have puzzled many in the pool industry. Point of fact, we wanted to know what the primary distinctions were between Genesis and other highly acclaimed programs like Watershape University.

Watershape U was recently started by Dave Peterson and Bill Drakeley. Other former notable supporters of the Genesis program including Dave Penton, Grant Smith, Ryan Oakes, Rick Chafey, Kevin Cobabe, and one of Pool Magazine’s own featured Op-Editorialists Paolo Benedetti, have also joined to support the new education program. All were closely connected to, had gone through or taught for Genesis in years previous before splintering off to start Watershape University.

Phillips replied, “Obviously the depth in Genesis is significant. We have a very deep staff on the design side working with Kate Wiseman who has her Masters in Landscape Architecture. Great designers… Feras Irikat, Kirk Bianchi are just a couple of names. On the engineering side, Terry Brannon is a great instructor – very knowledgeable. We now have 3 engineers to work with.”

When trying to characterize the distinctions between the two programs, Phillips said, “I really can’t speak to how these other programs are structured (Watershape University), but we do know that the basis for that and the basis for their credibility in their certifications is really based on what was learned in Genesis.”

Cause of the split

Shedding some light on why the founders of Watershape University may have felt a sudden compulsion to splinter off, Phillips said, “They were concerned (referring to Peterson and Drakeley), as we were that the merger (between APSP and NSPF) would result in some sort of challenge with our program. That turned out not to be the case,” he continued, “but they wanted their own program and wanted to do things their own way. There are some talented people there and I actually credit Genesis for that success.”

What it takes to graduate from Genesis

Van Bower outlined the specific requirements necessary in order to become a Genesis Associate. “You have to have taken our basic pool construction course, and engineering 211, and basic fluid engineering or hydraulic program and then you can use the title Genesis Associate.” said Van Bower.

Van Bower explained the process of matriculating to become SWD Registered. “When you move on to the registered level,” said Van Bower, “you step up to a requirement for over 150 hours in order to achieve the title SWD Registered. There are several principle courses required along with some electives.”

The next and highest level of the Genesis system, Van Bower explained, is that of SWD Master; which is currently only achievable through project submittal and an evaluation by the Genesis advisory board.

Recalibrating to Covid

In comparing Genesis to going to college for pool construction, Van Bower agreed with the analogy. He explained how Genesis was adapting to distance learning in a virtual environment as have many universities and vocational training programs since Covid-19 began.

Virtual courses have been widely used during the pandemic and have been something Genesis has focused on adopting.

Traditionally, tradeshows and expos have been the primary method in which Genesis disseminates and reaches much of the pool industry. The recent events of last years pandemic have caused them to focus on refining and recalibrating much of the content to be consumable via online learning courses. “We approached it with some trepidation about how well it was going to be received.” said Van Bower, “The exit surveys and comments of our attendees were of the highest level. We were shocked at how highly regarded the virtual program was. We have quotes from the builders that attended, where we feel really good about what we are doing.”

Program attendees watching the Color Theory & Application course online via Genesis 3’s distance learning program.

Phillips broke down the pool construction program at Genesis “Our construction program is something that every single builder, regardless of perceived experience should take. We get down to basics and cover issues that are so effective, that even 20 years ago – people would come out of our class during the first break and call their office and say ‘Don’t dig another pool, don’t shoot another shell, don’t put another stick of plumbing in til I get home. We’re doing this all different.'”

Distance learning will continue to be part of the Genesis program long after Covid-19. Seen here, Kirk Bianchi teaching participants via Zoom conference call.

One of the programs that has become incredibly popular with designers is the color theory and application course which Phillips elaborated on “What’s interesting is going back over a decade, we saw the value of incorporating color theory and learning some of the vocabulary and the influences of all these various design features.”

“Color influences everything we do,” continued Phillips, “from the clothes we wear, to the cars we purchase to how we decorate our houses. It also influences the materials and color palettes of the pools. Frankly, if you don’t understand and haven’t been to a class with Feras (Irikat) then it’s almost the equivalent of going into design blind.”

Tours to iconic world class destinations with a strong architectural tie in are a strong part of the program. Since its inception, tours to places like Hearst Castle have been a mainstay throughout the history of Genesis.

We have spoken with many designers and builders here at Pool Magazine, and one of the major aspects attendees seem to enjoy the most seems to be the events that Genesis puts on. Elaborating on what those are like; Phillips said, “In some cases these are events that are specifically structured around travel to a destination with architectural references. Our very first schools were in Morro Bay for a reason, and it was because of its proximity to Hearst Castle which has two of the most iconic pools in the world. We worked out an agreement with the state of California to have special focused tours.”

Since those very first tours, Genesis has taken the lead on creating destination events all over the world. Setting up architecture based events that are strategically tied in with teachable design references throughout Germany, Italy, France, and Australia.

These tours have as much to do about food and wine as they do about pool construction. This lifestyle destination trip combined with an educational tour that delivers a premium experience; has been closely interwoven into the events and tours participants attend.

Van Bower and Phillips were in Alexandria, VA at PHTA headquarters consulting with the team on the future on Genesis.

Van Bower said that the power of PHTA to help propel the program to an even wider audience means incredible things are on the horizon for Genesis. “Skip and I continue to work with Genesis because we believe it’s important. We are really thrilled to see what the merger of the two organizations (NSPF & APSP to form PHTA) will bring to the table.”

The outlook for the future of the program is something that Phillips and Van Bower are incredibly optimistic about. “We’re fortunate that the leadership of PHTA, particularly the head Sabeena Hickman recognizes Genesis for the benefit that it is,” said Van Bower, “doesn’t want to degrade it any way, and is strongly in favor of keeping it in the forefront.”

“Of course now we have the power of the PHTA behind Genesis, so we have chapters and members spread all over the country that will be interested and are interested in our programs.” said Van Bower “Right now the future is bright. Skip and I are in a meeting in Alexandria, VA at the headquarters of PHTA, in a room with 20 people sitting around a table doing nothing but working on Genesis programs and future events. It’s an amazing team that we have and we’re stronger than ever”.

Listen to our complete interview with Skip Phillips and Brian Van Bower on the Pool Magazine podcast.

Editor in Chief of Pool Magazine - Joe Trusty is also CEO of PoolMarketing.com, the leading digital agency for the pool industry. An internet entrepreneur, software developer, author, and marketing professional with a long history in the pool industry. Joe oversees the writing and creative staff at Pool Magazine. To contact Joe Trusty email info@poolmagazine.com or call (916) 467-9118 during normal business hours. For submissions, please send your message to submissions@poolmagazine.com

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Jonathan Broga

    May 25, 2021 at 9:25 am

    I missed the boat. I went to one session hosted by Tisherman in Orlando many years back and came back and told our guys over dinner, “Wow they are really on top of it – but holy cow what a jerk that guy was to people. Unbearable. I have never seen someone so full of himself.” That painted my perception of Genesis as undesirable to pursue. We built an average pool, the crash hit in 08, and we stuck with service. Here we still are today. Rinse repeat every year :/

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Custom Luxury Pools With Rising Star Lance Irby

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Lance Irby Pool Designer - Custom Luxury Pools

The world of luxury pools is a rigid dichotomy between design and function. For average homeowners it’s often difficult to achieve a balance between what’s appealing to the eye and what our wallets can afford. Quite often luxury homeowners tend to fall in love with what they’ve seen on Pinterest. During the dream building phase, money is no object. For some that holds true well into the building phase of turning that dream into a reality. No one is more familiar with helping homeowners capture their grand vision for a high-end custom luxury pool than Lance Irby, one of the lead designers for Premier Pools & Spas of Sacramento. Recently we had the chance to catch up with this rising star in the pool industry.

Luxury Pool Designer Lance Irby

Irby first got his start in the pool industry ironically enough when he bumped into Keith Harbeck, the owner of the Sacramento branch of Premier Pools & Spas. Harbeck was a member of the gym that Irby was a Sales Manager at the time. “He’d always whisper in my ear to come sell pools for him, I never took it too seriously.” said Irby.

Luxury Pool Designer Lance Irby takes us back to how he first got his start in the pool industry.

Irby had a background growing up around construction and doing landscaping in the summers. His focus in school was in design and architecture. After completing a four year internship with a local architecture firm working as a draftsman, Irby began to have a change of heart. As he embarked on establishing a family, he decided to take a leap of faith and reached back out to Harbeck to see what the pool industry had to offer.

“I had some design background, drafting background, construction background. I had skills that would translate well, but I had no idea that they would translate well to the pool industry.” said Irby, “If Keith hadn’t offered me the position and if my life circumstances hadn’t changed, I don’t know that I would have took the chance.”

In reflection Irby says the gamble to shift career paths towards the pool industry has paid off tremendously. “I can’t think of anything that fits me better.” said Irby, “I really enjoy what I do. It’s fulfilling and satisfying to feel like you’ve found something you’re going to do forever.”

Pool Industry Is The Perfect Fit

Irby who is entering his 9th year in the pool industry says that he’s found his niche. “Whatever life throws at me, I just feel like the pool industry is a great fit for my personality. It’s dynamic, it’s always different, it’s always changing. It’s creative and I love it.” said Irby.

Irby seems to have developed an affinity for desiging luxurious outdoor living environments and custom pools.

Irby certainly seems to have discovered a dormant and hidden talent for creating luxurious over the top backyard resorts. Like many other professionals in the pool industry looking to further and expand on their education, Irby has begun pursuing a path towards becoming SWD Registered with Genesis.

Seeking a Higher Path With Education

“It’s given me the ability to get outside of my comfort zone and become a better designer, a better builder.” explained Irby, “and focus on the aspects and core principles that Genesis teaches, to try and be better and raise my level of competence in the pool industry.”

Many builders, designers, and landscape architects credit programs like Genesis with helping them expand their accumen in the realm of high end luxury pools. Irby says that his entire team is now attending the course, crediting owner Keith Harbeck with investing in the educational pursuits of his sales team. Of course, if it helps them become better builders and leads to more luxury pool projects it’s obviously money well spent.

When discussing luxury pools, the definition for homeowners is as different and unique as the individual.

When discussing what constitutes a luxury pool the definition always varies. Irby said that as a top design consultant for high end custom pools, the vision for a luxury pool is very personal and unique to the homeowner.

What Constitutes a Luxury Pool?

“That’s not a black and white answer. I think what’s luxurious to one person, may not be to another. I think it has to be something that is very fulfilling to a client, that brings a level of satisfaction of elegance. It’s something they desired or are proud of, it’s a combination of probably all those things” said Irby.

Creating a luxury pool for a client does not have a minimum or maximum budget. There is no guidelines that say a pool needs to have certain features or amenities or cost a certain price in order to qualify as a custom luxury pool.

With custom luxury pools the sky is the limit in terms of customization options. Nothing is cookie cutter on these projects.

“Sometimes you would associate a luxury pool with something very high end or very expensive, but that doesn’t necessarily make it luxurious by my definitions or standards.” said Irby, explaining how the definition differs for the individual consumer. “Everybody has different tastes and styles,” said Irby, “and if you can hit the nail on the head perfectly for that client and can provide them exactly what they wanted and something they are proud of and in love with then I think you have created a luxury pool for a client.”

Unprecedented Demand for Luxury Pools

The push to create a luxury custom outdoor living environment has led to a tremendous increase in homeowners looking to build a swimming pool. Across the globe a trend has developed since 2020, but nowhere in the United States has this been more true than in states like Texas, Florida, and California. In Irby’s stomping grounds of Sacramento, a mass influx of new residents from the Bay Area have caused local home prices to sky rocket. The migration has also seen many well heeled homeowners with cash to invest in their backyards.

“People are looking for a nicer more complete product, with the total environment and a higher end look. They’re coming from equity strong positions and they’re able to put nicer backyards together or build luxury pools almost instantaneously – it’s not a big financing conversation or ‘I need to save up money for this type of project’.”

The design of a luxury pool must visually captivate and inspire – that is one prerequisite of defining a luxury custom pool.

In discussing what constitutes a high end luxury pool, one thing is clear. The design of the pool itself needs to be visually compelling. Irby explained how he works with homeowners to help them articulate their vision for the ultimate backyard.

“If it’s a design that’s high end, it needs to be exciting.” said Irby, “It can’t be something that’s redundant or cut and paste. You need to really take into account their needs. Listen to them alot, talk with them. Get to know them as a client. Find out why they want a pool, how that pool is going to change their life.” explained Irby; who goes above and beyond with his designs to help paint a complete portrait of what the overall end result of the backyard design will look like.

Hot New Design Trends For Custom Pools in 2021

We discussed some of the hot new design trends that homeowners are looking for in a luxury pool in 2021. Irby who is on the cutting edge of design gave us a list of some of the features homeowners are looking for in a luxury pool this summer.

“Definitely unique textures, wooden decks around pools. Large format tiles. Color and texture is something that is very popular. People are looking for alternatives for the decking solutions around pools.” explained Irby, “Fire and water always have a nice play off of each other. Those are very popular on high end projects. Water in motion and working with different elevations are also popular with customers these days.” continued Irby.

Fire features like sunken firepits and fire woks are incredibly popular pool trends in 2021 says Lance Irby.

Irby has established himself locally as an expert design consultant in custom luxury inground pools and frequently works with some of the leading home builders in the area. Recently boutique custom home builder Zak Mougharbel of Sheba Development LLC brought in Irby and Premier Pools & Spas to help them provide an incredible resort style luxury pool for a homeowner in Granite Bay, CA.

Showcased here this unique water shape comprises an incredible luxury pool with 180 degree panoramic views of the Sacramento skyline. A truly breathtaking and unique one of a kind pool concept that expertly combines elements of fire and water into the perfect marriage of both.

Fire features give a luxury pool style and sophistication that differentiate it from other residential inground pools.

A nod to Grand Effects for the incredible fire features that help accentuate the dramatic overall canvas of this masterpiece. The sunken firepit and fire woks are some truly high end amenities to incorporate into a luxury pool concept that make great use of different elevations.

This pool is a prime example of why Lance Irby is fast on his way towards establishing himself as a respected design consultant and one of the top pool designers to watch in the next few upcoming years.

If you’d like to learn even more about this pool project, listen to our complete interview with Lance Irby on the Pool Magazine podcast.

Video Credit: Jovan Valdez / Sarah Ramalho
Home Builder: Sheba Development LLC.
Pool Builder: Premier Pools & Spas Sacramento
Pool Designer: Lance Irby

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Pool Magazine adds Carol Anne Gigliotti as Director of Marketing / Sales

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Pool Magazine adds Carol Anne Gigliotti as it's Director of Sales / Marketing

Pool Magazine recently added pool industry veteran Carol Anne Gigliotti, previously of Luxury Pool + Outdoor Living as it’s Director of Marketing & Sales. We are happy to announce that Carol will be joining our growing team. Her incredible experience and expertise in the pool industry will be an invaluable asset to our organization.

Pool Magazine’s reach in the pool industry is substantial and is part of the Pool Marketing network of B2C and B2B web properties that are rapidly gaining traction. This strategic move to bring Carol into the fold, will capitalize on the expertise of a widely recognized industry veteran. Her previous experience in publishing will help guide the future endeavors of this publication.

We’ve been looking for a person of Carol’s caliber for quite some time. Her presence in this organization will be a game changer.

Pool MaGAZINE EDITOR – Joe Trusty

As we move forward with pushing PoolMagazine.com from a digital publication to a printed one, Carol will be at the helm driving much of the initial strategy, direction, and overall look and feel of our new publication. We look forward to her contributions in helping make this a world class magazine.

We plan to unveil and distribute the first issue of Pool Magazine at the International Pool & Spa Expo in Dallas – November 16-18, 2021. Our new Director of Marketing & Sales – Carol Anne Gigliotti will also be in attendance.

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Plus Pool Designer Discusses Floating Pool for East River

One on one with the Dong Ping Wong, designer of the Plus Pool. An in depth look at the project.

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Plus Pool - Interview With Dong Ping Wong - Designer of the Plus Pool Concept in the East River in New York City

We report on our fair share of unique pool concepts at Pool Magazine. None so far this year, with the exception of possibly the Sky Pool in London, has managed to capture people’s imagination the way this project has. Plus Pool is a unique floating pool concept design that is shaped like a plus sign (+). The project has been discussed for a long time. For the past few months photos have of the pool concept have begun circulating on social media once again. After years and years of pushback from the city, the Plus Pool project finally got the green light. The 285,000 gallon floating pool will have a permanent address in the East River.

The Plus Pool Design Team

The minimalist pool design is the brainchild of four designers. Dong-Ping Wong and Oana Stanescu of the architecture firm Family and Archie Lee Coates IV and Jeff Franklin of the design firm PlayLab. The group originally conceived of the idea for Plus Pool back in 2010.

The Plus Pool designers started a Kickstarter campaign to first generate interest.
The Plus Pool designers started a Kickstarter campaign to first generate interest. Photo Credit – CLAD

Wong, a New York state licensed architect with a Masters Degree in Architecture from Columbia University, first conceived of the project with his friends one hot summer night roughly ten years ago.

There has been a grass roots effort to get the Plus Pool approved for years.
There has been a grass roots effort to get the Plus Pool approved for years. Photo Credit – InHabitat

Pool Magazine had the chance to catch up with Dong Ping Wong, founder of the architectural firm FOOD New York and one of the lead designers behind the Plus Pool. We had a laundry list of questions for him from folks in the pool industry that wanted to know more about this project. Particularly, folks like Dave Penton of Ask The Masters, expressed interest in the filtration technology and how pool designers intend to safely filter a million gallons of water from the East River each day.

The four friends have been working on the Plus Pool concept for the better part of a decade.
The four friends have been working on the Plus Pool concept for the better part of a decade – Photo Credit: Bonobos

The floating pool concept is an Olympic sized pool at least in length explained Wong. The design is shaped like a plus which gave it the moniker “Plus Pool”.

Let’s Dive In: Plus Pool Fast Facts

  • Total Length & Width: 217 feet
  • Total Depth: 11′ to 6″
  • Total Area: 29,700 sqf
  • Pool Volume: 285,500 gallons
  • Pool Length: 164′ – 1 (Olympic)
  • Pool Width: 32′ – 8 (4 Lanes)
  • Pool Depth: 5′ to 0″
  • Max Capacity: 300 people
Wong and his team envision a natural body of water in the East River that will be clean enough to swim in.
Wong and his team envision a natural body of water in the East River that will be clean enough to swim in.

“Basically the whole idea is to find a way to swim in natural water around New York City,” said Wong, “In this case East River water, which as you would imagine is not what you would think of as the cleanest water. So how could we swim in that safely?” asked Wong, a question we wanted to know the answer to as well.

The space planned along New York City's East River will provide an instantly iconic backdrop for bathers.
The space planned along New York City’s East River will provide an instantly iconic backdrop for bathers.

The question itself has many skeptics wondering how designers plan to pull it off. Wong explained the basic premise behind what he plans to do. “In concept, the filtration system is a big strainer. Filtration is built into the walls of the pools. Water literally flows through the walls of the pool itself into the basin.” said Wong.

The Plus Pool's filtration system will act as a giant strainer filtering over a million gallons of East River water each day.
The Plus Pool’s filtration system will act as a giant strainer filtering over a million gallons of East River water each day.

“In normal operation we expect to filter over a million gallons of water a day, but in comparison to the entire volume of the East River it’s really a drop in the bucket.” continued Wong.

Plus Pool's use of natural water from the East River will require a world class filtration system.
Plus Pool’s use of natural water from the East River will require a world class filtration system.

Plus Pool Filtration

“The filtration is a combination of technologies we’ve already found in place for other uses,” said Wong, “Industrial water waste treatment, municipal uses. We’re not really cleaning it to drinking water standards. We don’t really need to. It’s a combination of textiles, ultra-filtration membranes, some very rudimentary filtration as well.” explained Wong.

“The basic idea of a Brita filter is that it filters water in stages from the largest materials down to the smallest and what you’re left with is a pretty clean piece of water you can swim in.” said Wong.

“Our biggest concern is bacteria.” explained Wong “There’s I forget how many numbers of different parameters we’re looking at. There’s bacteria counts, pH, oxygen levels, color… but bacteria is the main one. Obviously the reason being that the coliform count is what the Department of Health and the state looked at as the main measure of cleanliness of any body of water that you’re swimming in.” explained Wong.

“In New York state there’s something known as a ‘Bathing Beach’ which is a man made pool. There’s a coliform count that we try to get under. I believe it’s 35 cfu’s per hundred million for bathing beaches.” said Wong, as he explained the requirements his filtration system needs to meet in order to adhere to state health guidelines.

A Concept in Good Company

Wong’s concept for a floating barge style pool is unique in design but has been executed to some degree before. There are similar style concept floating pools such as the Badeschiff in Berlin, La Piscine Josephine Baker in Paris, and Islands Brygge Harbour Bath in Coppenhagen. It’s the ultrafiltration membrane system Wong plans to use that may be unique for a project of this scope and magnitude.

Badeschiff Pool - Floating Pool in Berlin Germany is a tourist destination
Floating pool concepts like the Badeschiff have the potential to become revenue generating tourist destinations year round and can be converted to other uses in the off-season. Plus Pool hopes to do something similar.

Studies have been conducted on whether ultrafiltration techniques are a viable means of containing coliform counts in pools with higher than average bather loads. Wong along with his team conducted a trial on a smaller scale prototype to see if they could achieve the desired results in terms of maintaining required water sanitization standards.

Wong envision the floating Plus Pool will mimic the flow rate of the river to constantly refresh the water supply.
Wong envisions the floating Plus Pool will mimic the flow rate of the river to constantly refresh the water supply.

This pool’s water source and guestimated bather count make the project a unique challenge in terms of keeping the swimming pool within the mandated requirements. Wong elaborated on how he plans to accomplish the daunting task of using water from the East River and making it safe enough to swim in.

“We’re moving water through a series of geotextiles.” said Wong, “It’s really just smaller and smaller pore sizes that you’re passively passing water through and essentially all that’s doing is capturing particles.”

How Ultrafiltration Membranes Work
How Ultrafiltration Membranes Work – Photo Credit: Synder Filtration

“The good thing is that bacteria tends to ride on larger particles so it’s actually fairly easy to capture in terms of water filtration. The other aspect is we’re doing this completely without chemicals and one of the reasons is to maintain the natural quality of the water. It’s also for the effect of not swimming in a chemically chlorinated environment.” explained Wong.

“We’re maintaining a flow rate within the pool that mimics any natural body of water. So that the body of water is constantly refreshed.” said Wong.

Typically, ultrafiltration captures fine solids, colloids, bacteria, and viruses through a sieve-like structure which does not allow solids larger than the pore diameter to pass through. The technology of microfiltration and ultrafiltration has been used in numerous industrial applications; a science Wong and his team are confident will work in terms of making the water quality suitable for bathers.

Initially, Wong and his associates were able to raise $41,000 through a Kickstarter campaign to test drive the filtration system they plan to use for the real life Plus Pool. The feasibility tests were conducted in conjunction with the help of fellow researchers from Columbia University.

Arup, an engineering firm, approached the team and offered to give resources. They studied water quality, structure configurations, energy utilization, site potentials, and the filtration system throughout the winter. By May 2011, they had determined that the idea was feasible.

“We’ve been doing a lot of health modeling to show that flow rate combined with our filtration system can keep the cleanliness of the water compared to chemically treated bodies of water.”

The Plus Pool team conducting water quality tests at Brooklyn Bridge Park.
The Plus Pool team conducting water quality tests at Brooklyn Bridge Park.

The Stigma of The East River

Wong’s plan seems solid given the current technology available. Perhaps it’s the reputation of the East River itself that has a bad rap. For decades in recent memory the East River was known as a polluted waterway that was unsuitable to swim in. However, in recent years, not only has the river become swimmable again, it’s actually the cleanest it’s ever been since the days of the Civil War.

Still, many New Yorkers themselves have trouble getting their mind past the stigma of swimming in the East River. Although it’s been twenty four years since the episode of Seinfeld first aired, folks still laugh at the notion of Kramer finding a new zest for life swimming in what was at the time still a very polluted East River.

There is still a lot of conflicting information pertaining to whether the East River is safe to swim in. In the days of a bygone era, the East River was once a very popular swimming hole for New York City locals.

A glance at the topic on Wikipedia flat out tells readers that the East River may be dangerous to swim in. Not particularly because a large percentage of the city’s sewage runoff winds up in the East River, but because strong tidal currents of up to 5 knots that can make swimming unadvisable for most recreational swimmers.

It’s impossible for many folks to ignore raw sewage and gloss over the ‘yuck’ factor associated with the idea of swimming amidst the city’s flotsam and jetsam. Although the biodiversity has come back incredibly, and you can fish and boat in the river – many still struggle with the notion of eating fish from the East River. In years past odds were good one could fish an old boot out of the river just as frequently as they would a bass.

Can you swim in the East River? Yes. Should you? Well, let's just say that the jury is still out.
Can you swim in the East River? Yes. Should you? Well, let’s just say that the jury is still out.
Photo Credit – Brooklyn Paper

The CSO (combined sewage overflow) annually accounts for roughly 26 billion gallons of raw sewage and polluted storm water discharging into New York Harbor via 460 combined sewage overflows throughout the city. Experts say that as little as a twentieth of an inch of rain can overflood the city’s antiquated sewage system and cause the CSO’s to kick in and begin dumping sewage into the river.

Those issues and the structural engineering challenges of stabilizing the pool are ones that we addressed with Wong. He and his team envision a safe space in the East River dedicated for recreational swimming. “During non-rainy times the water seems to be ‘cleanish’.” said Wong, however he agreed that during rainy times, the Enterococci levels of the water made it unsuitable for swimming.

Plus Pool Designer Dong Ping Wong conducted two small scale prototype tests thus far.
Plus Pool Designer Dong Ping Wong conducted two small scale prototype tests thus far.

Wong’s team has performed 2 in water tests to confirm the notion of whether they could use the filtration technology to keep the water clean. “The first one in 2013, we were just testing all these different textiles.” said Wong, “We built a tank and put it onto a pier in Brooklyn Bridge Park and pumped raw water though it just to see the effects of the filtration. It showed some promise but certainly at that point it wasn’t hitting the mark yet.”

“In 2015, we built ‘Float Lab’ a very small, very DIY version of Plus Pool. It allowed us to swap materials in and out and we sat it in the river and just kind of let it passively filter, and had an additional sort of mechanical system to pump through much more dense filtration material to see what the effects were.” said Wong. “That was the one where we said ‘We can actually clean this, we can actually hit consistent clean water quality levels we need to hit.'”

Dong Ping Wong conducting his water quality experiments in the East River.
Dong Ping Wong conducting his water quality experiments in the East River.

The East River may not be ready to swim in… yet. Backers like Heineken have sponsored the project and have faith that Wong and his associates can pull it off. During our conversation with Wong, we mentioned some other force factors such as strong tidal currents that could make this a particularly challenging endeavor from an engineering standpoint.

Heineken has sponsored the Plus Pool project with $100,000 towards getting the project off the ground.
Heineken has sponsored the Plus Pool project with $100,000 towards getting the project off the ground. Photo Credit – Seamus.co

Dong Ping Wong responded to questions regarding his plans to stabilize the structure for the choppy conditions. “One of the site constraints as we’re looking for sites was trying to find pockets along the East River where those currents were a little bit more mitigated. The location we’re looking at now is shielded by a pier structure to the north a little bit of the footing of the Manhattan bridge to the south.” explained Wong.

Wong explained some ways the team plans to stabilize the pool. “There is still a lot of current let alone wave action from boat traffic that passes up and down the river.” said Wong, “There’s 3 things we’re doing. One is just the size of the thing itself. It’s quite large and wide. That alone gives us some stability you find in larger barges. The second thing is how we anchor it. We’re using pre-tension anchors that can ride the currents and tides and weather those hundred year storms we anticipate. The third is and we’re still determining if we need this or not, but adding a layer of wave attenuation to the outside of the pool towards the center.” explained Wong.

Why The Plus Pool?

“We wanted a way so that people who are there for athletic reasons can swim. People who there just to hangout can get a suntan. People who are there swimming for the first time feel comfortable. So basically like 4 pools kind of stuck together in one, that’s the idea,” said Wong “There’s a lap pool, and a sports pool, a lounge pool and a kids pool.” explained Wong as he broke down the various quadrants of the intended design concept.

The Plus Pool concept has 4 separate unique quadrants planned for various types of bathers and swimmers.
The Plus Pool concept has 4 separate unique quadrants planned for various types of bathers and swimmers.

The second reason for the Plus Pool said Wong “I knew that we needed something that looked different. That looked iconic. That looked striking when you saw it in an image, saw it overhead and for the first time. I think it’s very exciting to do a pool in the East River that filters water but we also knew it needed to look incredible, like something you’ve never seen before. The plus gave us that, the shape gave us that.” continued Wong.

The Plus Pool project design concept has captured the imaginations of the general public and the pool industry.
The Plus Pool project design concept has captured the imaginations of the general public and the pool industry.

Wong and his associates have been trying to get this project approved for over a decade. The concept has been written about and discussed practically since it’s inception. There has never been a fizzling off point in interest. To be clear, New Yorkers want this pool, and it is evident by the number of independent backers and supporters the project has drawn.

This latest surge on social media and the news comes on the tail end of the project finally getting the green light for approval from the city. It’s a great sign that the project will go ahead as planned, but we asked Wong why this project has taken so long to get off the ground.

Plus Pool Lighting Up At Night in East River
Plus Pool Lighting Up At Night in East River

“It’s just something that’s never been done before,” said Wong, “Here or elsewhere. You know there’s obviously floating pools. There’s natural pools, but I don’t think there’s ever been one at this scale and one that’s filtering the water the way that we are for public use.”

“Additionally, I think as amazing as New York City is, it’s not the easiest place in the world to do innovative public work because it’s a very large city and legally very complicated.” continued Wong, “There’s definitions for good reason, on what a pool is and what a beach is. There is not a definition for what our thing is, which is sort of a combination of the two.”

Wong and his team definitely hit the nail on the head in that regard. The Plus Pool design concept has been shared all over the world and has been written about everywhere from CNN to Architectural Digest. People everywhere are eagerly anticipating the project.

Dong Ping Wong said that he’s open to a Q&A from the pool industry. If you’d like to learn more about how the actual nuts and bolts work, feel free to ask your questions in the comments.

Want to make an impact and contribute to the project? Buy a Pool Tile and donate to the Plus Pool concept.

Listen to the entire interview with Dong Ping Wong on the Pool Magazine Podcast

Featured Photo Credit, Interior Photos / Design Renderings: Plus Pool

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