Today we’re discussing luxury pools with Scott Cummings and Benjamin Lasseter of Design Ecology in Austin, TX. This dynamic duo known throughout the pool industry has produced some incredible jaw dropping backyards over the years. We had the chance to catch up with them and got to talk shop, discussing luxury pools and the business aspect of being an elite design / build firm.
Cummings and Lasseter hit it off right away as it turns out. The partners both met back in 2006. Cummings had just relocated from Memphis and began working in Austin for the same company where Lasseter was a construction supervisor.
After collaborating on some incredibly creative and unique projects, they noticed early on how well they worked together. Lasseter developed a tremendous respect for Cummings’ design abilties. Conversely, Cummings realized that Lasseter was a seasoned and knowledgeable Construction Supervisor capable of executing sophisticated design concepts.
One of the early projects that they worked on together would include a French style estate pool and a modern lap pool hanging over Lake Austin with acryllic walls. In 2008 when the great recession hit, Cummings found himself laid off and back on the market. Lasseter remained with the company a short time before moving on as well. Lasseter would shortly work as a project manager for a landscape firm before eventually moving on to start his own landscape construction company.
Cummings had begun working for a firm that specialized entirely in pools. The firm he was working for had been contracted to build two swimming pools for a luxury hotel being built in downtown Austin. Cummings convinced his boss to bring in Lasseter as a Construction Supervisor on a challenging project for W Austin.
The pools were being built 80 feet above street level and both would be incredibly technically challenging. Cummings knew the enormous workload of successfully completing both and sought out his old friend Lasseter to assist with the two projects.
Cummings convinced his boss that Lasseter had the expertise and project management skills to flawlessly execute both projects. Ultimately, this successful collaboration with Cummings and Lasseter would plant the seeds for starting their own firm together.
A New Company is Born
It was shortly after the W Austin project that Cummings and Lasseter decided to start their own Design / Build firm – Design Ecology / Design Aquatics. The venture between the two business partners officially began in 2011.
Design Ecology functions as the landscaping architecture / master planning division. Design Aquatics is the other half of the company focusing on pool construction and design. Scott Cummings is the designer / landscape architect helping bring the clients vision to life. Ben Lasseter handles the day-to-day business operations and oversees construction.
The creative energy between the two of them has led Design Ecology to become one of the leading outdoor living design and build firms in Austin, TX. When trying to define the seamless and friendly working dynamic between the two, one only has to look at the synergy on the court between Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, for comparison. These two manage to consistently wow and amaze both their clientele and the discerning eye of critics in the pool industry.
Designing Luxury Pools & Understanding the Clients Vision
Cummings, a licensed landscape architect oversees all of the design for the firm. We asked him what it is like working on luxury pools and backyards with some of the most affluent homeowners in Austin.
“It’s very easy to walk onto a job site and design something that is going to be great for me and make something that I think is perfect and going to look great.” said Cummings, “The challenge with design, especially with high end clients is they have a specific vision. You have to understand that vision and bring that to life.” continued Cummings.
“I always feel it’s important to get to know them as people and get to know their taste and their family and lifestyle.” said Cummings, who frequently shepherds the firms high end clients throughout the entire design process.
Coming up with the budget for Design Ecology’s multi-million dollar projects, is Ben Lasseter’s domain. He explained how the entire budgeting process on high end luxury builds is vastly different than your typical residential pool build.
Get Used To Throwing Out Large Numbers
“With a lot of clients, their budget is irrational to a normal person. They see something and the average person is like ‘Oh, that’s $100,000 for that statue’… the clients aren’t making buying decisions based off budget, but what they want,” said Lasseter. “they want what they saw in the picture. Obviously budget is still a concern, but they want the design and implementation of what they want executed. You have to get used to throwing out really large numbers.” continued Lasseter.
The average luxury high end build Design Ecology performs for elite homeowners can range into the millions. “We’ve worked on projects where just the tile alone in the pool costs more than a half a million dollars and that doesn’t include the pool structure.” said Lasseter.
Lasseter’s role is no less important as he focuses on budgeting, buildability studies, and the actual construction process of bringing the homeowners vision and the firms designs to life. This ying and yang of one partner focusing on sales and design and the other focusing on the business end and construction works well for the two. Their business dynamic has created the foundation for a long lasting partnership. Lasseter’s ability to implement Cummings’ incredible designs is the perfect compliment to the firms cutting edge modern design capabilities.
Planning & Preparing for a Custom Luxury Pool
“The modern design appears simple. There’s a bunch of straight and perpendicular lines and it appears simple but it’s actually quite complex.” said Lasseter, “It requires a lot of coordination between contractors and subcontractors.”
Lasseter works closely with builders, engineers and construction crews on all of the firms projects. This is no small task considering the size and scope of projects Design Ecology undertakes. Lasseter explained that during one particular project he was coordinating with the builders and homeowners 4 years prior to an actual pool being built on the site.
The nature of the project required a seamless transition of tile from the interior of the home into the pool area so Lasseter began coordinating with the general contractor years before ever beginning the project. It is this type of high end planning and design work that has helped differentiate Design Ecology from many other local firms in Austin, TX.
The amount of preparation and planning that goes into building the luxury pools Design Ecology is known for is considerable. “We do a lot of work on hill sides and cliff sides. You don’t just go and dig a hole back there. You’re working with soils engineers and structural engineers.” said Lasseter.
“It’s not like your typical pool where you have your excavator come in one day and then your forms and your rebar and your plumbing going in, we may have have six months of structurals going in before we can even get to a water holding vessel.” continued Lasseter. “If you forget one pipe, you can’t just fix it because you’re dangling off the side of a cliff or your access is no longer there because you took the scaffolding down.”
The Demand Has Never Been Higher for Custom Luxury Pools
The enormous complexity and forethought that goes into these projects can take years. The average lead time for luxury pool projects can vary dramatically depending on many factors explained Cummings. “The amount of design time can vary wildly. We’ve had some projects go from design to construction document prep in a matter of days while others can take years to plan.” said Cummings. “Right now demand is so high that we just can’t keep up so our backlog is unfortunately longer than we’d like but there’s worse problems to have than that I suppose.”
Cummings said that the Covid-19 pandemic produced an unexpected surge in demand for high end custom luxury pools.
“Covid has been an interesting phenomenon for us. There was so much uncertainty at the beginning of 2020.” said Cummings, “The city of Austin shut everybody down. They actually tried to shut us down while we were working on a high dollar project in a high end residential home. We gently reminded them that if we left the area an open construction zone for the duration of the shutdown that they’d be liable for any damages.” continued Cummings.
“After that, they insisted we continue with what we were doing. Around the time that had happened, Governor Abbot had come out and declared us to be an essential service, so we were able to continue working through most of the shutdowns.” said Cummings.
The pandemic has seen an increase in demand over the last year and a half. Cummings echoed the sentiments of many other builders when he said “We’ve seen a huge boom in the number of people who are looking to build their own oasis and essentially create a refuge at home.”
We asked if customers have struggled coming to grips with longer than average build times considering that virtually every homeowner in America wants a pool right now. “Yes and no,” said Cummings, “there are definitely people who call in and they just don’t understand. Right now we are sold out into well into the fall but we can have them swimming by 2022. They’re like ‘Well we’re not going to wait, we’re just going to go ahead and go with somebody else’ and that’s fine, they’re not the right client for us and we’re not the right designer / contractor for them.”
Educating Homeowners on the Realities
For the most part however, Cummings said that homeowners are becoming increasingly aware of the shortages effecting the pool industry and have been sympathetic and understanding that construction time can be much longer than average. Lasseter explained some of the struggles that Texas pool contractors in particular have faced this year.
“Not only did we have the Covid-19 challenge,” said Lasseter, “we experienced a catastrophic freeze in Texas that set everybody back. It took precedent over new construction. That, combined with the city offices being shut down for two weeks, we really had significant delays.” Lasseter explained that other underlying issues like supply chain delays such as the recent blockage of the Suez canal were contributing to longer than average waiting times.
Part of being an elite builder means being up front and honest with your clients explained Lasseter, “We’re up front with our clients and we don’t keep any secrets. We let them know there are shortages and delays and we’re going to do our best to keep everything running as smoothly as possible.”
Lasseter said that it’s important to manage expectations with homeowners from the outset. This is true in both luxury high end builds as well as typical residential pool construction. “Even though it may not be our original construction timeline, we try to contain those expectations with the homeowner so that we’re not constantly moving the ball and always giving them another story. We manage expectations from the construction end and everybody seems to be in a really good place.” said Lasseter.
We reminded Lasseter that his story is unique in the respect that many other builders are getting absolutely hammered with negative reviews. Ongoing shortages of equipment, essential materials and skilled labor have contributed to tremendous fallout in the media as homeowners continually complain of pools going unfinished in some cases for many months past their original deadlines. Lasseter sympathized when he said “We would love to be able to hire more people right now but it’s hard finding skilled labor. It’s incredibly busy and it’s a real challenge.”
Doing Great Work Means Hiring The Best
Design Ecology who is a member of Tributary Revelation frequently consults with the best of the best in the industry on their projects. The high end custom nature of their work entails bringing in contractors from other states such as one project with a particularly challenging pool interior. “We brought in Danilo from Art & Mosaics who is a phenomenal Italian Mosaic Artist and he has just done a spectacular job of transforming this pool into an absolute work of art. I’m really excited to show that one off real soon.”
Want to be a Luxury Pool Builder? Education is Key.
Cummings who is a RLA (Registered Landscape Architect) graduate of Mississippi State University’s Landscape Architecture program, got his education in pools working for several firms. Cummings says that he and Lasseters involvement in Tributary Revelation and Watershape University has been particularly stimulating for him in terms of helping him develop his pool accumen. Lasseter who has a BS in Horticulture from Texas A&M, has also completed the Genesis 3 program to become SWD Registered.
Lasseter said that Genesis 3 was instrumental in helping him develop his higher education pursuits. He first became aware of the program when he stumbled on an ad for the program in a trade publication. Upon attending the Genesis School in Scottsdale, AZ Lasseter said that he was exposed to real experts for the first time.
Lasseter credits his interaction with people like Brian Van Bower, Skip Phillips and Dave Penton with cementing the notion that he could have a real future in the pool industry. “That one 3 day class was eye opening to me. There was so much I learned that I didn’t know. I didn’t realize how high the ceiling really was. I thought I was doing real high end work at the time, in reality there were guys there that were just mountains and miles and ahead of me.” said Lasseter.
“It was encouraging, inspirational and enlighting.” explained Lasster, “I spent 3 days with Dave Peterson learning how water moves and I came back with this new enthusiam for pools and water and how it works and what I’m doing wrong and how I could make it better.”
Eventually Lasseter become SWD Registered and is now a faculty member for Genesis teaching classes on how to master plan and how to tie in design & construction. Lasseter also teaches for Watershape University where he offers an Advanced Applied Theory course on Construction Defect Removal and Replacement.
Design Ecology is frequently touted as a favorite among designers and builders, with notable elites of the pool industry citing their work as both inspirational and cutting edge. Cummings whose focus is primarily on landscape design, says that aside from the obvious choices like Paolo Benededtti, Brian Van Bower and Skip Phillips he particularly appreciates the work of Lee Rusell, Kurt Kraisinger, Lawrence Halprin, and E. Fay Jones, among others.
Lasseter who is more focused on the engineering and nuts and bolts of how the pool is built says that Dave Penton has been a tremendous inspiration and mentor to him. “When I look at an equipment room that is located 3 stories below the pool and how all the plumbing is done and how the pipes are labeled and how the space is planned, Dave Penton is at the top of that mountain.” Lasseter said that others like Dave Peterson, Kraisinger, and Brownlee are also some others whose incredibly detailed plans are something he admires a great deal.
Advice for Builders Looking to Get Into Luxury Pools
We asked the partners if they had any advice for aspiring builders looking to delve into the arena of Luxury Pools. “Understand the product you are selling before you sell it. My biggest issue I see with people is that I see dangerous mistakes, code violations. I wish more people would take the time to read the codes and understand the reasons for them.” said Cummings.
“Understand the need for properly sized plumbing,” continued Cummings, “spacial standards, the slopes and breaks of a pool. Lengths and protections for even basic stuff like diving are often misunderstood. If you really want to step into the real high end luxury pools you need to understand what it takes to build them safely.”
The “Business” of Luxury Pools
Cummings also mentioned the need to price things accurately, a fact which Lasseter went into greater detail on when he expressed the importance of focusing on the business side as much as the construction side. He suggested that aspiring luxury pool builders take a lesson from their own companies struggle. Lasseter explained that as more money begins to come in, it’s increasingly important to focus more and more energy managing the business side.
Lasseter expressed the importance of having oversight over financials. “Know your business. We went from watching every check that went through the bank to having millions of dollars moving through our account. We grew so fast, we didn’t know what we were. We couldn’t look at our books and say ‘Oh, we showed a profit last month.’ The forensic accounting that went into getting us on track was… IS… a three year process. Now I can look a report and it’s a click away. It’s not a guess or intuition.”
“A quarter of our time now goes on working on the business, not for the business. Constantly improving out systems.” said Lasseter. “It’s easy to get sidetracked by projects and ‘let the business run itself’ but it’s not really running itself.” Scott Cummings said that in addition, pool companies should move away from doing free designs for companies.
Say No To Free Design
There has been a ground swell in the pool industry to do away with doing free design comps as part of selling a pool. A practice that Cummings and Lasseter are definitely not fans of. “Great clients do value good design and they’re going to be willing to compensate you for that service that you’re providing. Absolutely ‘SAY NO’ to free design. That’s just devaluing yourself and the industry.”
Lasseter explained that there are recurring costs associated with running the softwares necessary to render out 3D designs and plans for homeowners. “You’re giving your time away for free and the cost for operating those software. No matter how much you make on the back end of the pool, it’s a losing proposition that drags the industry down.”
Listen to the entire interview with Scott Cummings & Benjamin Lasseter on the Pool Magazine Podcast.
Featured Photo Credit: Jimi Smith Photography
Pool Scouts Franchise President Michael Wagner Discusses Growth
Pool Scouts, a pool cleaning and maintenance franchise with 101 locations around the country, is riding the post-pandemic wave of pool construction, smashing revenue and franchise sales records in the process.
We had the opportunity to go one on one with Pool Scouts President Michael Wagner recently. During our conversation, we discussed their meteoric growth this year.
“A lot of this is attributed to existing franchisees just having spectacular growth years,” said Wagner. “Amidst challenging labor markets, some of our franchisees have not been able to expand as quickly,” continued Wagner. He indicated that hiring still remains a challenge in some markets but has slowly been improving.
A Look at The Numbers
Reporting big leaps in sales, numbers were up 76.3 percent year-to-date. The pool service franchise had a year-over-year revenue increase of 77.8% in Q3 2021 vs Q3 2020. In the process they have grown considerably, recruiting 20 new franchisees and 42 purchased territories. Most recently, they announced the signing of franchisee Clarence Herry in Annapolis, Maryland. Pool Scouts reached that coveted 100-unit milestone (now 101) as they begin operating in their 15th state on the map.
Defining Pool Scouts Recipe for Success
A big reason why the brand has so successfully resonated with consumers has been its effective digital marketing strategy. Wagner emphasized this has been fundamental in helping them achieve growth.
“Part of our unique special sauce as a franchise is doing a lot to get the phone to ring.”Pool Scouts – President, Michael Wagner
“We provide search engine optimization, websites, digital marketing, and PR which really affords us the opportunity to scale that for all of our franchisees.”
Taking The Guess Work Out of Marketing
Wagner says back-of-the-house operations are the driving engine. The franchise has in-house staff handling marketing for franchisees. A team of graphic designers, videographers, and marketing professionals helps drive lead generation for all of the offices.
Wagner says offering best-in-class marketing at the corporate level leaves his franchisees with more bandwidth to run their business. In a data-driven world, Wagner says using strong analytics tools like Tableau is essential in proving ROI. Consequently, he touts the Pool Scouts system with removing the guesswork from marketing and providing franchise owners better optics.
Increased brand recognition in the market has also what has been essential in propelling growth, states Wagner. “We’re really adept at getting the brand out there in the marketplace for the franchisees. We have a PR agency that we work with to tell our franchisees stories in their local market.”
Building The Right Culture
Above all, Wagner credits the culture and camaraderie of the Pool Scouts organization with being their differentiating factor. Elaborating, he explained how this has helped distinguish them from other pool franchises. “We have varied backgrounds, and we really try to assess the skillset of potential candidates to make sure that they are not only a fit from a business perspective but also from a cultural perspective,” said Wagner.
Expanding Into New Territories
Eager to expand the Pool Scouts footprint, Wagner has his sights on the horizon. While proud of the growth his team has managed to accomplish, he says they will continue to absorb market share. “We’ve added 9 new states to our franchise system this year. We’re going to be opening up in Salt Lake City, Utah, and just opened up in Boise, Idaho. We’re super excited to be in Kansas City and had a great first year in Columbus, Ohio. I see us continuing to expand robustly across multiple states.”
It’s been a big year for Pool Scouts. Due to the thousands of new pools erected during the pandemic, pool sales skyrocketed this year. With limited choices due to lockdowns, families made a concerted effort to reinvest in their backyards. Suddenly, an entire market of new pool owners needs assistance with pool service and maintenance. Wagner finds his organization well-positioned to meet increased demand for these essential services.
The stars may very well align for the type of growth Wagner is anticipating. Consumer interest in swimming pools and outdoor living continues to be white-hot. If 2022 is a repeat of last year, Pool Scouts could be looking at another year of unprecedented growth.
Listen to our entire interview with Pool Scouts – President, Michael Wagner on the Pool Magazine podcast.
Cantilevered Pool an Alpine Dream – Hotel Hubertus Pool
Hotel Hubertus -massive cantilevered Sky Pool is a jewel of the Alps
Today we’re looking at the incredible cantilevered pool located at the Alpin Panorama Hotel Hubertus – a magnificent resort nestled in the Puster valley in the Alps. The picturesque locale is known as a world destination for hiking, skiing, biking and mountain climbing. Located in Valdaora, at the base of the Kronplatz at an altitude of about 4,400 feet, the hotel offers sweeping views of the Dolomites and the Vedrette di Ries Mountains.
At Pool Magazine we look to highlight inspiring projects that are pushing the boundaries of design and engineering. The cantilevered infinity pool at the Hotel Hubertus is one shining example that has been captivating the imagination of people around the globe.
The designers behind this breathtaking luxury pool design is none other than noa* network of architecture. The award-winning firm with offices in Germany and Italy has been drawing mass attention with its glass-bottom floating pool design.
Approximately 82 feet long and 16 feet wide, the pool was designed to look like a floating rock coming to rest and was built from anthracite-colored stone. Its cleverly concealed edges create the visual impression the pool is floating in space.
The architects took on the challenge of designing the pool as part of an overall renovation project. The pool connects the hotel’s new and existing areas, which include 16 enlarged new suites, a new kitchen and restaurant, an alternative entrance lobby, a wine cellar, and a brand new fitness and leisure room with panoramic terraces.
From inside the hotel looking out at the pool area, the water appears to float into space. With a glazed window on the bottom of the pool, swimmers can This sophisticated effect gives one the impression they are floating in an alpine lake suspended somewhere between Heaven and Earth.
The key challenge in the project was to create a link between the existing building and the new design, in order to keep a uniformal and consistent appearance.ANDREAS PROFANTER – *noa – network of architecture
Rising 40 feet from the ground sits the jewel in the crown of the Hubertus, the massive cantilevered pool. Supported by massive native larch tree trunk facades, the aesthetics create a homogeneous appearance following the natural topography of the area.
Suspended pools such as the Hubertus Pools have been capturing the public’s imagination as of late. Photos of this incredible cantilevered pool structure began circulating on social media as far back as 2017. Over five years later, the interest in this uniquely engineered pool still has builders talking.
Alpin Panorama Hotel Hubertus
Address: Via Furcia, 5, 39030 Sorafurcia BZ, Italy
Phone: +39 0474 592104
The Swimming Pool From It’s a Wonderful Life
Recently while watching It’s a Wonderful Life, I noticed the swimming pool scene where George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) and Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) are at the school dance. It’s a defining scene where a retractable basketball court opens up to reveal a hidden swimming pool beneath it. As George & Mary are dancing they don’t notice the floor begin to open. The cheering crowds spur them on even further, as they think everyone is cheering their dancing they fail to see they are dancing right over the edge and plunge into the pool.
The Pool Scene from It’s a Wonderful Life
Many of the other people at the dance dive right on in and an impromptu pool party ensues. It’s a touching scene in a must see movie that should be at the top of everyones holiday movie list. Many people believe that the swimming pool wasn’t real. Frank Capra the director of the film had the entire set of the town of Bedford Falls created on an 89 acre back lot at RKO Pictures in Culver City.
The set was actually inspired from the real life town of Seneca Falls in New York. Film buffs suggested that the pool itself was also a prop. As it turns out, according to Snopes.com who did the fact checking for us, the pool has been identified and is real. It’s known as the Swim Gym and is a Beverly Hills landmark. The pool was built by the WPA historical pool contractors in their own right, and designed by Stiles O. Clements in 1939.
Historical Land Mark Swimming Pool Has Been in Many Movies
The retractable pool belongs to Beverly Hills High School and was actually used in the filming of the movie. What’s even more interesting is that the pool is still around today! The pool itself is 25 yards long and is still used in swimming competitions. With the turn of a key the inground swimming pool the retractable pool cover converts back to a basketball court / dance floor.
It’s a wonderful life (east coast feed) about to show the pool under the basketball court that still is there at my high school. #Beverly— Adam Wohl (@adamwohl) December 25, 2012
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