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Talking Luxury Pools With Design Ecology

Chatting with one of the leading luxury pool builders

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Luxury Pools - Design Ecology - Design Aquatics

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 and Lasseter collaborated on projects like this 79' long lap pool cantilevered directly over Lake Austin.
Cummings and Lasseter collaborated on projects like this 79′ long lap pool cantilevered directly over Lake Austin.

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.

Design Ecology has become one of the leading design firms in Austin with over the top pool concepts like this one.
Design Ecology has become one of the leading design firms in Austin with over the top pool concepts like this one. – Photograph by Jimi Smith Photography

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.

Cummings and Lasseter provide design and master planning services for complete custom backyards and luxury pools.
Cummings and Lasseter provide design and master planning services for complete custom backyards and luxury pools.

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.

Design Ecology builds million dollar backyards. Incredible luxury pools like this one are a staple the firm is known for.
Design Ecology builds million dollar backyards. Incredible luxury pools like this one are a staple the firm is known for.

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.

The flawless execution of a sophisticated modern luxury pool design requires planning and coordination.
The flawless execution of a sophisticated modern luxury pool design requires planning and coordination.

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.”

Certain luxury outdoor living projects require an inordinate amount of planning and coordination with high end contractors.
Certain luxury outdoor living projects require an inordinate amount of planning and coordination with high end contractors.

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.

During the pandemic, more homeowners than ever have begun investing in improving their outdoor living environment.
During the pandemic, more homeowners than ever have begun investing in improving their outdoor living environment.

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.”

Even elite luxury pool builders like Design Ecology have had to manage client expectations during this climate.

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.”

As a registered landscape architect, Cummings is an expert at unique and creative pool and landscape designs like this one.

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.”

SWD Registered - Genesis & Watershape University Instructor - Lasseter has developed a reputation as a top builder.
SWD Registered – Genesis & Watershape University Instructor – Lasseter has developed a reputation as a top builder.

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 any builder interested in delving into luxury pools - 'know your numbers', says Scott Cummings of Design Ecology.
Advice for any builder interested in delving into luxury pools – ‘know your numbers’, says Scott Cummings of Design Ecology.

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.”

Luxury pools are time consuming to design and plan. High end homeowners who appreciate good design are willing to pay for it.
Luxury pools are time consuming to design and plan. High end homeowners who appreciate good design are willing to pay for it.

“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

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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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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