Candidly Learning from Pool Building Mistakes

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Eric HermanIt might be a cliché, but no matter how many times I’ve heard the message, there’s always something empowering in the notion that we can learn from our mistakes. When I think back over my years covering the pool and spa industry, learning from mistakes has been a major recurring theme, one often attended by the realization that in most cases, preventing missteps is a matter of basic commonsense. 

Case in point, last year my friend Scott Cohen, owner of the Green Scene (Northridge, Calif.) related a story to me about a project that had gone terribly wrong and was suffering from a sequence of problems. Scott had been serving as an expert witness in a lawsuit stemming from the star-crossed project, something he’s done for years. For all his experience in such matters he was amazed how, in this case especially, the lack of commonsense at the outset of the project had resulted in a snowball effect of mistakes and expensive consequences. 

In essence, the problems started with the lack of a soils report. The homeowner was acting as his own general contractor and decided to sub out construction of his backyard pool. (A scenario that in and of itself often leads to problems.) Without proper soils information, the homeowner acquired an engineering design that didn’t take into account the expansive soils conditions. The homeowner also failed to see to it that the soils were properly compacted after excavation. The skimmer was installed without a proper expansion joint separating it from the deck, there was no non-expansive material beneath the decks and the pool had no hydrostatic relief valve.

Long story short, the structure cracked at the skimmer, causing a leak, which saturated the surrounding expansive soil, which in turn caused the decks to heave, among other problems. The homeowner sued the homebuilder on the premise that the pool had sunk due to bad soils. 

Suffice to say, the whole thing was a mess and the sequence of problems started because no one in the loop stopped to think that when you build a concrete structure in the ground, you ought to have accurate information about the characteristics of the soils underneath it. Talk about an ounce of prevention and a pound of cure!

I bring this up because this scenario and 25 others found their way into what I believe is a useful book, The Candid Contractor, authored by Scott Cohen and yours truly, available at and 

The stories contained in the book are all based on Scott’s files chronicling his work as an expert witness for the California’s Contractor State License Board, as well as a number of missteps he and members of his own company have made over the years. Many of the scenarios appeared in an online series in WaterShapes’ online newsletter called “Lessons Learned.” 

(For the record, I’m not personally receiving any proceeds from the sale of the book, so this plug is offered strictly because I believe in the concept.) 

The big idea driving the 112-page text is encapsulated in a Latin proverb Scott cites in the introduction, “A smart man learns from his own mistakes, a wise man learns from the mistakes of others.” Many of the accounts are truly jaw-dropping because of the level of, well, stupidity they reveal. In most cases, rectifying the gaffs was extremely costly and sometimes resulted in extensive legal action. 

Not only are these 25 blunders interesting to read about from a professional point of view, but they help us steer clear of making similar mistakes ourselves. Scott keeps files of these scenarios and shares them with his staff in weekly meetings as a way of showing that everyone is imperfect and that we all have the ability to improve so long as we pay attention. It’s not a bad idea.

As simple an idea as all that may be, I can’t help thinking that if more people learned from their mistakes as well as those of others, there’d be a lot less litigation in this industry, fewer angry calls from clients and a lot more time to enjoy the fruits of our labor.

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