Brian Van Bower, one of Florida's leading pool designers, is out to bring art to a business he thinks is still much too conventional.
Why, he asked himself, would someone spend millions designing and building a home only to put in a ho-hum pool?
"I thought about it and thought about it," says Van Bower, who at the time owned a Miami pool company with construction, renovation, retail and service divisions. "And I figured out the answer was that no one was offering anything else."
So Van Bower dove into upscale pool design, launching a firm called Aquatic Consultants Inc. in 1989. By 1991, he'd sold off his other businesses. Today, he is one of the most-sought-after pool consultants in Florida, designing jaw-dropping "water shapes," as he calls them, that can carry $1 million price tags.
Van Bower, whose first pool job was as a cabana boy slathering suntan lotion on tourists' backs at the Suez Motel on Miami Beach, also has become a guru preaching pool design as art in an industry with a reputation for uniformity.
Fire and water
Emblematic of Van Bower's work is the spectacular back yard of the Peterson family in Miami Beach. Van Bower started with a 3,200-sq.-ft. yard comprised of a "dilapidated, cracked patio, a barbecue and a basketball hoop," says Jim Peterson, a senior vice president at Northern Trust.
Today, the space is a paradise of blue water, green jungle and marble decking, with benches and planters styled in art deco to match the home. From atop an elevated corner fireplace, water cascades in front of the flames into a bubbling spa. The spa, in turn, sends gentle sheets of water over a round glass porthole into the 1,000-sq.-ft. pool. The "deep end" is in the middle.
Along one side, the Petersons can lounge on a shallow tanning ledge. Other features include stands for volleyball games and beach umbrellas and fountain jets that eliminate background noise. The dark gray finish creates the look of a deep-blue lagoon.
At the opposite end of the pool from the fireplace, a majestic, night-lit Medjool date tree rises from a water-side planter, part of the lush tropical landscaping that buffers the back yard from neighbors.
The whole package: $180,000. The design was one of Van Bower's more modest jobs. A recent pricier one: To a pool in Wellington, Van Bower added a 15-foot-tall Mayan-like temple with water cascading down steps into a catch basin that in turn flows into an elevated black-granite spa featuring 25 therapy jets along two angled-back side benches. A fire -- controlled by electronic ignition -- appears to float on the surface of the basin. The complete project cost $265,000.
Peterson, for one, says his pool was worth every penny. He calls Van Bower a meticulous designer who had long conversations with everyone in the family -- including the three teenagers -- as he planned their pool. "He was always coming by to eyeball the work and always bringing over a great bottle of wine for us to enjoy," says Peterson.
Along the way, Van Bower became a friend. When the job was over, he picked the Petersons up in a limo, took them to dinner at Norman's in Coral Gables and then clubbing at South Beach, something the couple hadn't done since before their kids were born.
The fine wines and limousines are part of Van Bower's philosophy that "lifestyle is important to doing business" with an upscale clientele that likes to live well.
And la vie en rose isn't something Van Bower has to fake as he tools around Miami in his sapphire blue Jaguar XJ8. The son of Miami restaurateurs, he is encyclopedic in his knowledge of fine food and wines and has a "small" humidity-controlled wine cellar of about 600 labels. He was a founder of the south Florida chapter of the American Institute of Wine & Food and the longtime host of the popular south Florida radio show "The Good Life."
Against the tide
Six years ago, Van Bower and two like-minded West Coast pool designers launched an educational company called Genesis 3. They teach drawing, design and construction techniques to pool professionals who pay $3,400 for four days of instruction that includes wine-tasting and lifestyle programs to "better enable you to relate to like-minded clients."
Genesis 3 makes up only about 10% of Van Bower's mid-six-figure annual revenue, the majority of which is generated by his design fees.
Still, Genesis 3 has put Van Bower and his partners on the wrong side of some colleagues at the National Spa & Pool Institute, who are irked that the company is siphoning off NSPI's professional training business. In the late 1990s, some institute members tagged Van Bower and his partners as "the three pigs" for criticizing NSPI's annual design awards, which they complained were rewarding low-bid pool contractors for following someone else's design rather than using their own creativity and talent.
Now, others in the industry seem to be coming around to the philosophy that well-designed pools aren't just for the rich, says Genesis 3 partner Skip Phillips of California-based Questar Pools. "It turns out there are a lot of people who share our vision," he says.
Hundreds of pool builders have been through the Genesis 3 program. And the company has done educational seminars for the likes of Lakeland-based San Juan Pools, which manufactures fiberglass pools. "Why can't you float fire on water and do the other sorts of things we do in a manufactured pool?" Phillips asks. "We intend to have an impact on the middle class."
Indeed, while pools designed by Van Bower can run from $100,000 to more than $1 million, he takes pride in smaller projects and in designing upscale pools for middle-class families.
"You could have a simple pool and add little tiny details, like two spray jets, that will cost only $1,000 but give you the sound and visual water that you might find in an upscale product," Van Bower says. "My philosophy is that everyone deserves something a little special."
The Deep End
Second-generation pool builder Doug Hackl has steered his family business toward the deep-pocketed set.
When Doug Hackl started digging holes and lugging concrete block for his dad's pool business in the early 1960s, he never imagined one day he'd be building fountains for the rich, hunting Mexico for just the blue tile to match the Atlantic Ocean and winning awards for a pool design called a vanishing edge.
His father, Frank, founded Hackl Pool Construction of Lake Worth in 1957 and over the years built thousands of pools for families throughout Palm Beach and neighboring counties. When Doug Hackl took over the business in 1980, he steered the company in a different direction: East. Hackl figured the luxury market in Palm Beach and nearby affluent enclaves could help him grow the company and allow him more creativity. "It's done all that and a lot more," he says. "It's much more of a challenge."
The challenges come from the upscale customers as often as their complex pool and fountain designs. Consider Aldo Gucci. In the early 1980s, the penny-pinching millionaire hired Hackl to tear out the 16-by-32-foot pool between his Palm Beach mansion and the Atlantic and replace it with a 40-by-60-foot saltwater swimming lagoon. Unlike most of Hackl's wealthy clients, Gucci wrote his own checks. Hackl says Gucci dickered and argued over every one. "I had to fight him for every single dollar," Hackl says, "but then he recommended me until the day he died."
Then there was the powerful magazine editor who asked Hackl to install her pool in one week. Hackl dug the hole Monday and laid the sod Saturday.
Hackl doesn't live like his wealthy clients. He tools around Palm Beach estates in a huge Ford F-350 pickup truck with a four-wheeler in the back splattered with mud from a weekend hunting trip. Hackl, 56, earned a bachelor's degree in ocean engineering and worked outside the pool industry before he joined his dad. Courses such as acoustics, fluid mechanics and structural, mechanical and electrical engineering turned out to be highly relevant.
Hackl made his sons, too, work outside Hackl Pool Construction before they joined. David, 36, and Stephen, 33, now are part-owners and officers, as is Hackl's younger brother, Paul. His middle brother runs a competing pool company in the county.
Many of their jobs are second-generation: Customers who remember Hackl or his dad building pools for their parents when they were kids. Hackl also has ripped out pools built years ago by his father. Heartbreaking? "Not if they're writing the checks," he says. "Some people want to change pools as often as you and I change couches."
Lately, Hackl has been building more and more fountains. He won best of show in the Florida Swimming Pool Association's design awards this year for a breathtaking residential fountain made of black glass mosaic tile with a "vanishing" black granite edge. The 8-by-24-foot rectangle with a row of palm trees on either side features 76 dots of fiber-optic light patterned after the sky over Palm Beach the night of the clients' wedding. The fountain was designed by Gregory Lombardi of Cambridge, Mass., who says Hackl's engineering expertise, connections with local suppliers and eye for aesthetics were invaluable to the project.
Indeed, in southeast Florida, Hackl has a highly professional reputation too often lacking among pool builders, says Maurie Schappell, a restoration and preservation consultant who renovates estates and other historic places. "I wouldn't work with anyone else," Schappell says. "Basically you give him any task and he will make it work."