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'Every Vessel Should Be a Water Feature'

Michael Popke
Vanishing edge pool at Jade Mountain resort: a classic blend of natural beauty and man-made art. (All photos courtesy Questar Pools)
Vanishing edge pool at Jade Mountain resort: a classic blend of natural beauty and man-made art. (All photos courtesy Questar Pools)

Skip Phillips didn't become one of the most renowned waterscapes designers overnight. In fact, he'll gladly share with you photos of some of his earlier projects from the late 1970s and point out the glaring mistakes he made. Today, however, the founder and owner of Questar Pools and Spas and instructor of the Genesis International Vanishing Edge Education Program relishes questioning the industry's status quo.

So when he proclaims that "every vessel should be a water feature" — as he did in a recent conversation with AQUA — that's a concept worth exploring.

"When we look at water features, there's the visual and there's the audible," says Phillips. "People spend a lot of money just to be able to have water cascading down a big ugly pile of rocks in one corner that is contrived to look like a mountain somehow sprung up from the pool. Most water features with running water are too loud and destroy the reflectivity of the water. Water's primary responsibility is to reflect, so if you don't have that at the forefront of your mind and understand what influences that, then you've done a disservice to the client and yourself. Part of the conversation with a client should always be, 'How can I make this vessel integral to the architecture and the landscape?'"

Reducing flow rates can lower audible levels, certainly. And designing waterfalls and fountains in such a way to not only cut back on loud splashing but also to complement the environment and increase the water's reflectivity (rather than disrupt it) are simple fixes that can make dramatic differences, Phillips says.

RELATED: 6 Water Features That Venture Into Poolside Fantasy

But that's just the beginning of how you can rethink everything you know about water features. The tenets Phillips espouses — from easy tricks to elaborate planning — are universal and can be applied to any fiberglass, concrete or vinyl liner pool.

%{[ data-embed-type="image" data-embed-id="615602a3da016482233148d0" data-embed-element="span" data-embed-align="right" data-embed-alt="This pool adorns a beautiful French country home. I wanted to carry the Beaumaniere limestone into the zero depth access to the pool, and that same color into the inside of the pool. But I moved the wall back and then put in front the short drop finishing edge, where the water would just simply overflow into the garden. So the amount of water that&apos;s going over that vanishing edge behind the girl in this image is the amount that&apos;s overflowing that little circular basin at the base of the sculpture. The water picks up that blue-green cast, which enables the green in the background to marry with the pool. &mdash; SP" data-embed-src="https://img.aquamagazine.com/files/base/abmedia/all/image/2021/06/aqua.EEE-621-AQ_FERRIER1_sm2.png?auto=format%2Ccompress&fit=max&w=1280" data-embed-caption="This pool adorns a beautiful French country home. <br>I wanted to carry the Beaumaniere limestone into the zero depth access to the pool, and that same color into the inside of the pool. But I moved the wall back and then put in front the short drop finishing edge, where the water would just simply overflow into the garden. So the amount of water that's going over that vanishing edge behind the girl in this image is the amount that's overflowing that little circular basin at the base of the sculpture. The water picks up that blue-green cast, which enables the green in the background to marry with the pool. — SP" ]}%

 

SAVVY PLACEMENT

Phillips is full of stories, and he especially likes to tell the one about an interview he gave poolside at his own home years ago to a writer for Better Homes & Gardens Magazine. She asked Phillips how often he uses the pool. "Every day," he said.

"You swim every day?" she asked, skeptical.

"You didn't ask me how often I go swimming," Phillips replied. "You asked me how often I use the pool."

He then went on to explain to the writer that if a swimming pool does not have enough impact beyond its most functional purpose — which is to provide a place to swim — then it's a waste of money, space and time.

"That's why we need to look at every vessel as a water feature, independent of its utilitarian responsibilities," Phillips says today. "That's why good design is important in all pools, regardless of what they're made of or how much they cost."

When it comes right down to it, Phillips explains in his Genesis course, every pool consists of only three elements: design, mechanicals and structure. "The only good vessel is one that's solid on all three," he says. "You can have an ugly pool that has great structure and great mechanical equipment, but it's still not a success, right? Or what about a pretty pool that dumps 1,000 gallons a day into the neighbor's yard because the vanishing edge system wasn't designed right. That's not a success, no matter what the picture looks like."

And it is pictures on which many would-be pool owners base the design of their own vessels. As Phillips notes, he has designed many projects that include traditional elements like waterfalls and similar elements. But he is extremely mindful of how they look and where they are installed. Water features that follow the natural terrain of the yard — "I have yet to see natural water climb to the top of an 8-foot-tall pile of rocks and spout out," he jokes — and that are designed with awareness of the audible and visual impact they will have are perfectly acceptable in Phillips' book.

RELATED: Water features can add interest and income to pool projects

Another story Phillips tells is about a homeowner in Del Mar, Calif., whose pool had a water feature with a splash effect so noisy that not only did it deter from poolside conversation, it also prompted establishment of a local ordinance designating acceptable noise levels on residential properties.

%{[ data-embed-type="image" data-embed-id="615602a3da016482233148d3" data-embed-element="span" data-embed-align="right" data-embed-alt="I borrowed the vase concept from the French. I had seen projects that were done in France, where they had the base overflowing, but the key is to do this in such a way that the small amount of water coming out (too much will disturb the surface reflection) actually hits the pool, because on a rounded base like that, the water drools back underneath the vase instead of sheeting out into the pool. It turns out it takes some work to get a little bit of water to sheet out of a vase. In this case, I took clear Mylar silicone to the lip, so when the water comes out it rides the clear silicone into the pool and doesn&apos;t drool back. And you don&apos;t even see the Mylar because it&apos;s clear. At the same time, I wanted to get the very high water level you see there. This is the first one that I ever did (this was 27 years ago) with what&apos;s called the floating coping detail. I modified the skimmer so that I could drive the water levels up to just below the grout joint between the coping and the tile. &mdash; SP" data-embed-src="https://img.aquamagazine.com/files/base/abmedia/all/image/2021/06/aqua.DDD-621-AQ_BAAK_sm2.png?auto=format%2Ccompress&fit=max&w=1280" data-embed-caption="I borrowed the vase concept from the French. I had seen projects that were done in France, where they had the base overflowing, but the key is to do this in such a way that the small amount of water coming out (too much will disturb the surface reflection) actually hits the pool, because on a rounded base like that, the water drools back underneath the vase instead of sheeting out into the pool.<br>It turns out it takes some work to get a little bit of water to sheet out of a vase. In this case, I took clear Mylar silicone to the lip, so when the water comes out it rides the clear silicone into the pool and doesn't drool back. And you don't even see the Mylar because it's clear. At the same time, I wanted to get the very high water level you see there. This is the first one that I ever did (this was 27 years ago) with what's called the floating coping detail. I modified the skimmer so that I could drive the water levels up to just below the grout joint between the coping and the tile. — SP" ]}%

 

From a visual perspective, even something as simple as raising a pool's water level can make a dramatic difference and result in a water feature-like effect. Many pools adhere to a water line that is 6 inches below the deck. Add coping on top, and the water appears even lower — especially from the perspective of a patio or some other location near or around the pool.

"From a distance, that pool edge can look like a trench," says Phillips. "In fact, it might look sort of scary, because there's a big gap between the deck and the water, and it might be hard to get out of the pool. So think of a way to start driving those two elevations together. That water-deck relationship is important."

Adding just an inch or two to the overall water level can make a dramatic difference in a pool's appearance, as well as give it more reflective qualities and enhance user enjoyment.

One of the most common design flaws Phillips sees is the raising of one pool wall simply to create a water feature — "even though there's no retention issues, no other justifiable reason to have the wall except to squirt water back into the pool," he says. "Now, think about when you get into that pool. Let's say it has the traditional waterline and coping relationship, which means the water line is approximately 6 inches lower than the deck. When you're in that vessel and you turn around to see an 18-inch-high wall, that vessel is going to end up feeling claustrophobic."

Phillips suggests using that wall in a different manner, so it doesn't sit directly on the top edge of the pool. Consider moving it back and leverage strategically positioned planters to reflect off the water and give the surface a visual impact that doesn't require a splash or a squirt. Another possibility: Think about incorporating a vanishing edge into a level-lot backyard. "We've done level-lot vanishing edges where the water simply migrates into the landscape," Phillips' says. "They're spectacular — some of the nicest ones we've ever done are on level lots."

In fact, vanishing edges rank among Phillips's favorite water features. "A vanishing edge pool hits all the high points when it comes to the three parts of a pool," he says. "It's more technical design-wise, it's more technical mechanically, and it's more technical structurally."

%{[ data-embed-type="image" data-embed-id="615602a3da016482233148d5" data-embed-element="span" data-embed-align="right" data-embed-alt="You can see this is in the desert. It&apos;s actually out by Palm Springs, and when we showed up, there was a free form pool on the site with a waterfall that was 5 feet high. So when you looked out from the house, you looked into this 5 foot high waterfall, and you didn&apos;t see much else. The client hired me to come out and give him some ideas on how to remodel this pool. And during the meeting, I was sketching, and he looks down and he goes, &apos;What are you drawing?&apos; And I said, &apos;It&apos;s just an idea, but I don&apos;t think that I can, uhm, propose it to you.&apos; &apos;Why not?&apos; &apos;Because I don&apos;t think there&apos;s anybody out here in the desert that can build it.&apos; And he goes, &apos;Will you let me worry about that?&apos; So I said, &apos;I don&apos;t think we tear the pool out. I think we should build one inside of it. We cut the top half of it off, take out the waterfall, and then we do a more contemporary geometric vessel inside but elevate it slightly, and let it overflow both towards and away from the house simultaneously. &apos;And we do the pool in black tile. I know you&apos;re really fond of sculptures &mdash; you collect those, right?&apos; And he goes, &apos;Yeah. Is there any way we can use one of my sculptures?&apos; And I said, &apos;Sure.&apos; For the sculpture, I didn&apos;t want anything static, I wanted to show movement. And he had this one you see here of a running girl about to take flight. &mdash; SP" data-embed-src="https://img.aquamagazine.com/files/base/abmedia/all/image/2021/06/aqua.CCC-621-AQ_67NONAME_sm2.png?auto=format%2Ccompress&fit=max&w=1280" data-embed-caption="You can see this is in the desert. It's actually out by Palm Springs, and when we showed up, there was a free form pool on the site with a waterfall that was 5 feet high. So when you looked out from the house, you looked into this 5 foot high waterfall, and you didn't see much else. <br>The client hired me to come out and give him some ideas on how to remodel this pool. And during the meeting, I was sketching, and he looks down and he goes, "What are you drawing?" And I said, "It's just an idea, but I don't think that I can, uhm, propose it to you." "Why not?" "Because I don't think there's anybody out here in the desert that can build it." And he goes, "Will you let me worry about that?" So I said, "I don't think we tear the pool out. I think we should build one inside of it. We cut the top half of it off, take out the waterfall, and then we do a more contemporary geometric vessel inside but elevate it slightly, and let it overflow both towards and away from the house simultaneously. "And we do the pool in black tile. I know you're really fond of sculptures — you collect those, right?" And he goes, "Yeah. Is there any way we can use one of my sculptures?" And I said, "Sure." For the sculpture, I didn't want anything static, I wanted to show movement. And he had this one you see here of a running girl about to take flight. — SP" ]}%

 

DETAILS AND DECONSTRUCTION

All of this begs the question: How do you change people's minds — and perhaps, more importantly, your own — when it comes to defining and redefining a water feature? Two words, according to Phillips: "details" and "deconstruction."

When he shows his portfolio to prospective clients, he asks them to pick out projects that catch their eye. Then Phillips helps them deconstruct those projects by discussing what worked and what could have made them even better.

"I tell them this is going to be all about the details, and then we go through the reasoning behind things: The reason we used these materials, the reason we have this coping detail, the reason this site is an arc and that site is geometric. The point is, none of [the design and features were] done randomly. It was intentional design."

RELATED: Incorporating water features and fountains into the backyard

Phillips relies on the "less is more" theory when talking about pool design in general and water features specifically, an aphorism credited to the Germanborn American modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. By the time a conversation like the one above is finished, would-be clients typically prefer the less-is-more option, too. In other words, they now see beyond the traditional water features that have characterized pools for decades and understand the more subtle yet impactful ways the overall pool experience can be enhanced.

"Ninety-nine percent of the time, the conversation is completely different from there on out," Phillips says, admitting that a homeowner may not even choose him to design their pool. "The good news is that, because we've had this conversation, the vessel is going to work better and be more attractive," he says. "The world doesn't need any more ugly pools that don't work well. So, in my view, the time that I'm spending with that person is worthwhile."

It's all about changing perspectives, concludes Phillips, who believes accomplishing that with the pool-buying public is a major win for the industry. "It doesn't have anything to do with whether or not you hire me," he says.

 


This article first appeared in the June 2021 issue of AQUA Magazine — the top resource for retailers, builders and service pros in the pool and spa industry. Subscriptions to the print magazine are free to all industry professionals. Click here to subscribe.


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