The Digital Design Evolution

photo showing digital pool design

Aquatic designer/builder Doug Johnston of StoneCrest Pools (Dallas/Fort Worth) is passionate about modern design technology. For the past 10 years he has immersed himself in the use of a range of computer-aided design tools and now sees the day coming when all design and engineering work will take place using integrated digital platforms. Here he uses his own experience to make the case that design/build professionals in the pool industry must either evolve in order to remain viable or risk becoming a casualty of progress.

It’s no secret that many people in the pool and spa industry resist change; it’s one of our unfortunate defining characteristics. That’s certainly not unusual or limited to our industry. After all, it’s part of human nature to resist being forced to learn how to do things differently.

The hard reality is the broader world of architectural design, engineering and project management is rapidly changing. As a result, the day is coming fast when companies involved in creating aquatic environments will be forced to either step into the modern world, or fall by the wayside.

photo of Stonecrest Pools projects
According to designer/builder Doug Johnston, whether it’s designing a complex equipment room, hydraulic layout, or eye-catching aesthetic elements, working at the highest level of design and construction will soon require a host of advanced digital design capabilities.(Photos courtesy of Doug Johnston, Stonecrest Pools)

photo of photo of Stonecrest Pools projects

photo of photo of Stonecrest Pools projects

photo of photo of Stonecrest Pools projects

photo of photo of Stonecrest Pools projects

photo of photo of Stonecrest Pools projects

photo of photo of Stonecrest Pools projects

My own journey into modern design technology started back in 2004. I came to the pool and spa industry from a hardscape and landscape construction background, working mostly on large commercial projects. Because I love working with water and especially admire how pools, spas and other aquatic features provide a wide range of lifestyle and health benefits, transitioning into aquatic environments was a natural step.

I started out with residential projects and at first farmed out design tasks, working with a number of different designers. Right from the start I ran into big-time trouble finding designers we could count on to deliver work on schedule. On one project in particular I was completely left hanging and found myself in a needlessly sticky situation with the client.

Although I was furious with the designer who let me down, I realized the problem was really mine because I didn’t know much when it came to the design process. I hated the prospect of always being so dependent on others and ultimately vulnerable because of it. As a result, I decided to make a major change in my business model, and that meant developing my own set of design skills.


Taking matters into my own hands, I went to night school to learn AutoCad, started taking on design work and it all just blossomed for me.

That was during the time when industry-specific design tools, such as Pool Studio, were gaining acceptance and I rapidly embraced 3-D modeling and presentation. I started taking Genesis 3 courses, which introduced me to a range of design-oriented ideas and disciplines, as well as a cast of like-minded professionals who were also dedicated to growing their own skill sets.

Fast forward to 2010. By that time, I was proficient with AutoCad and was rapidly growing in my overall design acumen. All of that effort came to fruition when I landed the project of a lifetime in a small town here in Texas.


The clients were a wealthy couple with a huge extended family. They live on 1,000 acres with a massive estate home that is drop-dead gorgeous. The overall concept was to create an elaborate outdoor aquatic environment — essentially a private waterpark with features that serve the needs of people of all ages.

The project included a large traditional pool with choreographed fountains along with multiple fountains throughout the property, a spray park and a lazy river for the homeowners’ 18 grandkids. The couple regularly hosts events for their church during the summer, with as many as 150 in the water at once, so we decided to design the whole affair based on the most stringent commercial standards.

It was a top-shelf project to say the least, with a full palette of expensive features, including 14,000 square feet of Lightstreams glass tile, fully automated saltwater chlorination and pH control, extensive outdoor cooking and dining amenities, elaborate pool and outdoor lighting, outdoor heating, fire features, distributed outdoor sound and video and a detailed landscape and planting plan with fully automated irrigation.

Looking back, our participation in this amazing installation could not have been remotely possible without the use of AutoCad. Because the site was a couple hundred miles from my home and office, I lived on site in a trailer for most of the project’s 10 months. I lived and breathed the work, all of which flowed through the digital-design medium. The installation included all sorts of extreme measures, including an 1,800-square-foot heated circus tent built over the pool so we could precisely control the conditions for installing the tile — this included the use of laser thermal measuring devices to be sure we had the exact temperatures needed per manufacturer recommendations. I didn’t want to leave anything to chance.


Throughout the project, which was all done on a cost-plus basis, we were faced with a situation where the homeowners were thinking entirely out of the box in their desire to build truly iconic structures, which inevitably meant there were constant additions and changes. At the same time, they wanted to know what they were looking at in terms of cost as they weighed going forward with each addition and change.

Digital design technology not only enabled us to efficiently accommodate the growing complexity, but also to generate accurate estimates, numbers that reflected the cost ramifications as a change in one area impacted the work in others.

As an aside, I challenge anyone in the pool industry who holds onto the old notion that you can estimate and manage this type of complex process based purely on experience. I’ve never really bought into that idea anyway, but seeing how an extremely ambitious and complex design plays out, I became more convinced than ever that if you aspire to work on this level, either you evolve or set your sights elsewhere.

As an example, at the project’s completion we conducted a private CPO-style course for all of the property’s maintenance staff. I set up an HD camcorder and went through everything they needed to know, from chemical maintenance to control system programming, a process that took three days.

The videos generated by those training sessions were edited into MP4 clips and put on a server on-site, so all the information can forever be easily accessed for staff reference and training. After that, I remained involved under a separate consultancy contract and spent the next four months continuing to train the staff.

Delivering that level of technical support was only possible because of the tools used to design and spec the project in the first place. The investment I made in technology and training paid off many fold on just that one project.


Saying all this, I do realize that a great many designers and builders are using AutoCad and related technologies to execute complicated tasks. To my mind, that entire genre represents one of the greatest innovations the industry has ever seen.

So where do we go from here?

Shortly after the West Texas project, I decided to once again expand my knowledge and involvement with state-of-the-art design technology, and that meant spending a great deal of time learning about BIM and figuring out how I could apply it.

If you’re unfamiliar with BIM, the name itself — “Building Information Modeling” — goes along way in explaining what the concept is all about. You design in a digital realm and then share and modify those models across the design team. Everyone working on the design of a given property is always working with up-to-the-minute information that exists in a virtual design format.

In other words, you essentially build the project down to the smallest detail in a virtual environment before the project starts. Using BIM, I can meet with a client and transfer their vision into the modeling program that enables me to break down everything to the finest detail. It eliminates all of the guesswork. And everyone else in the project, assuming they’re also using BIM, knows exactly what everyone else is doing at any given moment. You know exactly what the costs are because the model does not lie.


BIM integrates the work of all the various design consultants — architects, structural engineers, mechanical engineers, interior designers, landscape architects, aquatic designers and lighting designers – anyone who is doing design work participates in generating a shared model of the project in real time.

From a budgeting/estimating standpoint, you select a particular design element, click one button and you have an itemized spreadsheet that changes as the model is altered during the design process. That way, everyone knows how changes impact their portion of the work.

BIM also offers huge advantages in terms of project management because there are no surprises. As an example, let’s say you’re building a pool above grade in a high rise and you have to run plumbing from point A to point B. In the past where every discipline’s design and engineering take place independent of each other, it’s entirely possible that the contractor might show up and find the plumbing run blocked by a beam or a wall because at some point along the way, the structural engineer altered the design, not considering how that would impact the pool’s plumbing.

In that scenario everyone is forced to scramble to come up with a fix, which sets back the project schedule, is likely to be extremely expensive and frustrating and, in a worst-case scenario, potentially opens the door to litigation. With the BIM process, that’s not going to happen because you always have the most recent design iteration, and a problem of that nature is going to reveal itself in the model.

The time and resources you save by avoiding those sorts of disconnects is almost incalculable. Schedules are more readily maintained while the cost of change orders and their ramifications can be accommodated well ahead of time.

The challenge with BIM, however, is that everyone involved in the project has to be using it in order for it to work.

This design process first took hold in Europe several years ago and became the standard. In Germany, for example, BIM is now mandatory. At the same time, however, it ran into initial resistance in the U.S. due to the investment required to adopt the technology. That started to change when U.S. firms discovered that if they wanted to work on the big projects overseas, they had to invest in the technology and learn how to use it.

Now, having experienced how well it works, many of those companies, especially the large architectural firms, are implementing BIM in projects closer to home. That, in turn, meant that consulting engineers and designers also had to adopt BIM so they could secure work on BIM-driven projects. As the process becomes more and more commonly used, more companies are forced to evolve or find themselves left out of the biggest and most complex projects.


From the pool industry perspective, BIM is still not widely used on residential work, although that’s changing as well. For the time being at least, companies can go along with business as usual. For large commercial projects, however, we’re approaching the point where if you’re not using BIM, you won’t be able to take part.

Just how long that will take is anyone’s guess. But there’s no question this technology is gaining wider and wider acceptance throughout the architectural design and engineering world and becoming mandatory in a growing number of settings. Common wisdom these days is that in the commercial sector, if you don’t move into the BIM platform, you’ll be out of business in five years. It’s a situation that is very similar to what we’ve seen happen with AutoCad, where the companies that were married to traditional design and drafting methods were forced to change or perish.

Where we’ll likely see this proliferate to the residential market will be in large property developments. If a homebuilder is building 500 homes with, say, four standard floor plans, BIM can be used to identify ways to shave costs and increase profits. It can, for example, determine with tremendous precision and speed how much lumber they’ll need, how many light fixtures, etc., and determine savings they might realize by making changes to the design. Armed with rock-solid estimates, they will eliminate waste and drive bargains with material vendors based on accurate numbers.

Now, if you’re a pool builder installing models A, B and C in a development using the BIM process, you’ll be required to use the same technology in order to estimate and control costs. Ultimately that will be advantageous to the pool contractor because they too will be able to work with precise estimates. Even if the savings are relatively modest on a single pool, they will become far more significant when multiplied over multiple installations.


Ultimately, BIM is going to take over design work across a range of project types because it benefits everyone, from the owners to the architects, engineers, general contractors and subs. There will be less waste, fewer surprises and tighter project management.

To my eyes, the choice couldn’t be clearer: either you change with the times or find yourself left behind. Yes, adapting to the BIM process requires an investment in software and training, and for now at least, you can get by without it. However, by staying on the sidelines, you’re not just risking becoming irrelevant, you’re guaranteeing it – it’s really just a matter of time.

Comments or thoughts on this article? Please e-mail [email protected].

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