When you wind up renovating a pool you originally built, you've probably been in the business for a long time. Hank Thompson, the 67-year-old owner of Cascade Custom Pools in Bee Cave, Texas, has been in the business since 1981, and one of his most recent renovation projects was the pool at his own ranch in Dripping Springs.
"I don't think I've ever heard of somebody doing something like this," Thompson says about his two-yearlong, do-it-yourself project. "Pool builders are younger these days. I've outlasted most of my contemporaries."
From creating a duck pond at age 12 to building complicated, high-end pools that have landed his company countless awards, Thompson has lived the life he always dreamed about. Which is why, when the Coronavirus pandemic began in 2020, he decided to finally expand the 37-year-old pool on his own property that was among the first projects he ever completed.
The result? A freeform, lagoon-style, multi-tier oasis that resembles the original pool — only on steroids. The project required a wide variety of materials to create a rustic look with more than 150 tons of boulders imported from Oklahoma, spectacular waterfalls and a 300-square-foot deck built over the equipment room. The project also required supplemental support engineering for a grotto, which necessitated drilling nearly 20 feet into limestone.
Crews also needed to work around decades-old palm trees while adding new plumbing, electrical, automation and lighting equipment. And the boulders needed to be transported up a steep hillside to the jobsite, requiring dangerous treks in a skid-steer loader.
"I realized the old pool needed a facelift for the last several years, and I just kind of put it off because we were so busy," Thompson says. "Then when COVID hit, I thought, 'We're not going to have anything to do — which we all know went the opposite way — so I started tearing out the pool so I could keep my crews busy. The next thing I know, the phone's ringing, and everybody's wanting a swimming pool."
As things turned out, Thompson's crews were plenty busy without having to worry about renovating the boss's pool. So he hired subcontractors who'd worked on previous projects for Cascade Custom Pools. Unlike his other builds, this one didn't include an elaborate set of plans; rather, Thompson would share his vision with the workers and help them engineer the project as it evolved.
"I drew something out on a piece of sketch paper, but it wasn't a real plan. It was just something to kind of go off of," he says. "You have to remember, this was the first pool I have ever built. I didn't have a lot of money — and I didn't have the experience that I have now."
TWO BIG CHALLENGES
A renovation this massive was bound to bring complications, but none of them were quite as challenging as the ones Thompson and his crews faced at the project's outset and then again as it neared completion.
Given the number of buildings on the property — Thompson refers to the ranch as "more of a compound" — all construction materials needed to be staged approximately 150 feet below the pool site, at the bottom of a hill with a 45-degree incline. That's why Thompson decided to purchase "the most powerful skid-steer on tracks that I could find," he says. "I couldn't have built this without it, and I rented a big forklift crane that could extend 40 feet to move boulders. For anything outside of 40 feet, we had to use pallet jacks and set some of those rocks with block and tackle."
Thompson operated the skid-steer, transporting giant boulders up the hillside one at a time and smaller ones in groups of four or five. That led to some tense moments, he recalls. "The skid-steer had a warning device that let me know, 'Hey, you're fixing to tip over.' It went off about a dozen times. Most of the guys on the crew wouldn't drive it; it was just too steep of an incline."
That extreme effort to deliver materials to the site took a while and slowed down the project's timeline. Similarly, when the pool shell itself was complete, Thompson took one look at the equipment housed below the pool's grade and decided more work was necessary — thereby delaying the project's completion date even further.
"I didn't want to look down from my deck on equipment. So I said, 'Well, you know, I guess I'll turn it into an equipment room," he says, adding that he used concrete masonry units and poured concrete, rather than the usual gunite or shotcrete because his subcontractors for this project were masons. "One thing led to another, and I thought I would add some space on top of the room, too."
That space is now a cantilevered rooftop deck, set off from the pool but overlooking the expansive countryside that surrounds Thompson's 17-acre property. Building the room and deck added about four or five months to the project, he says, and its straight lines mimic those of the ranch's main home, guest house and cantina — presenting a dichotomy with the freeform bodies of water.
As a final touch to the pool — where some areas plunge as deep as 10 feet — Thompson used a product he applies to all of his projects: PebbleSheen textured finish from Pebble Technology. But his son, TJ (Cascade's vice president of sales and operations) had to convince him that the PebbleSheen color Desert Gold, a natural tone that mimics the color of beach sand and produces a greenish water color, would be perfect for this project.
"I thought about it, and that's what we eventually put in," Thompson says, adding he initially wasn't convinced the color would fit the surroundings. "It worked perfectly with the boulders. I wanted that natural look, and Desert Gold gives you that — rather than a deep blue or white like so many other pools have."
'THE MOST FUN'
All told, this renovation cost about $500,000. In fact, it is labeled "Showpool" on the company's website.
"If I can find somebody who wants a freeform pool these days, I have them come look at mine. And if they have the budget, they're going to get one," Thompson says. "It may not be as expensive as mine, because a lot of that half-a-million dollars is in boulders."
Regardless of cost, remodeling your own pool offers the kind of freedom many pool builders unfortunately rarely have the opportunity to experience.
"I wasn't in a big hurry," Thompson says. "I didn't have any boundaries, and I could do exactly what I wanted to do. This project was something that I was enjoying. I wasn't going to get stressed out. Every once in a while, my wife would ask me, 'When do you think you will be finished?' and I'd give her a target date. And three months later, she would ask me again. But she would notice that every day something was changing."
When you build pools for a living, each project takes on a life of its own. But for Thompson, this one stands out even more.
"I've built a lot of swimming pools for some pretty famous and wealthy people, and I had fun building all of them," he says. "But this was the most fun I've ever had."
And, if feasible, he recommends other builders find a way to renovate their own pools, too: "My advice is to do it — and have the time of your life."