It's Time to Charge for Design

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If there has ever been a time for pool builders to start charging for design services, it’s now!

That’s really the only sentence here you need to read because unless you’ve been living in the proverbial cave for the past year and a half, you already know that demand for pools and spas has been unprecedented, with no signs of slowing in the foreseeable future.

Builders are reporting backlogs that reach well into next year, and according to many, customers are willing to wait. In many ways, this extraordinary period has been something of an affirmation about the value of recreational water. For consumers, the need to upgrade their at-home environment has elevated swimming pools from a luxury to a near necessity.

There’s never been a time quite like this, and with the heat of summer upon us, there’s little doubt the surge of interest will only continue.


The scorching demand raises an interesting question: Why on Earth would anyone in the construction sector of the industry continue to give away designs for free? For many decades, generations even, pool builders have used designs purely as a sales tool, providing mostly template-based renderings of some kind to enable prospective buyers to visualize what their pool will look like as a way to motivate them to sign on the bottom line.

The idea of charging for design, the way that an architect or interior designer might, has been anathema to builders who are focused on competing purely on price. Making their money entirely on materials and labor, design work has been seen as something to be given away for free as a way of generating trust and establishing a relationship with potential buyers. While that may have made a modicum of sense back when pools were either kidneys, lazy-Ls or rectangles, in today’s world of infinite customization, the old way of doing things simply does not make sense — especially now.

For more than 20 years, I’ve been one of the growing chorus of voices who believe there’s a better way. The main reason being, it seems almost self-evident that by giving away designs, we are in effect demeaning the industry and the product. The issue really comes down to the simple question that if we don’t value our products enough to charge for design, what message does that send about our collective level of professionalism? Or, put more simply, if we don’t value our work, how can we expect others to do so?

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There are all sorts of basic advantages to charging for design that really just come down to common sense, starting with the fact that designers should be compensated for their time, even if the homeowners decide to have someone else build their pool. Charging for design means you will be able to attract design talent from outside the industry, perhaps a landscape architect who wants to move into aquatic designs. It means you can build strategic alliances with designers who already insist on being paid for what they do and what they know.

But more than anything, charging for design delivers an important message about professionalism, and I dare say, pride. It speaks of self-respect. And many builders report that homeowners who pay design fees tend to become more invested in the process from the start.


The problem for the industry has been how do you go from a no-charge mode of operation to design-for-pay? How do you justify the sale when you once gave it away?

Let’s face it, in comparison with other design disciplines, the pool and spa industry lacks formal education. There is trade-based design education available from groups like Genesis, PHTA and now Watershape University, but a four-year university program aimed at training aquatic designers does not currently exist.

With no formal education — and thus, no professional bar — an accepted standard of legitimacy is a problem. Certainly experience, confidence, investment in learning, creativity and familiarity with hand-drawing or CAD programs are all part of the formula, but exactly who qualifies as a legitimate designer?

At this moment that’s a difficult question, but we need to start feeling our way toward an answer. Of this we can be certain, when you don’t charge for design, you are unequivocally telling your customers that you are not qualifi ed as a professional designer. Even if that’s not exactly true, imagine the distinction that forms in the mind of the consumer when comparing companies that ask for design fees to those that don’t.


Right now, there exists a unique window of opportunity to establish a new practice. With so much demand, it seems self-defeating to leave design fees out of the equation. Look at it this way, if homeowners are willing to wait more than a year to obtain their version of a backyard paradise, those same people will certainly pony up to know what it will eventually look like. They certainly don’t need to be sold by way of a free set of renderings. They’re pre-loaded interests and needs are already bringing them to the table.

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And when you consider the demand in context with the pain of working with the homeowners that are looking to squeeze every penny out of you, design fees do become a sort of de facto vetting tool. You will shed those leads for whom professionalism is not the top priority.

While it is true that the current demand shows no sign of abating, it’s also logical to assume it won’t last forever, because all markets are cyclical. So now’s the time!

Eric Herman is editor of WaterShapes Magazine and vice president of communications for Watershape University. He is a former senior editor with AQUA Magazine, a position he held for nine years, and a long-time member of the pool, spa and aquatics industry dating back to 1989, when he started as an associate editor with Pool & Spa News.

This article first appeared in the July 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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