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Addressing ethics in the water shaping industry


Skip Phillips, owner/founder, Questar Pools and co-founder of Genesis
“The problem with giving proper credit in this industry has been pervasive. There was a time when design award programs specifically excluded proper designer identification to bolster the myth the builder was the source of the design intellect. The solution is simple: if you are the sole source of the design, say it; if you shared the design process with someone else, say that too; and if you are the low-bidder on someone’s intellectual property, tell the truth—it is not your work. This also includes lifting other firms’ images to beef up your portfolio. I was recently paid a settlement of US$10,000 by an unscrupulous landscaper that claimed my design was his because he put in the sprinklers and plants. It was an expensive lesson!”

All pool designers/builders are potentially guilty of referencing. Similar concepts come up in designs over the years, while trends come and go, classic design elements always work. However, this does not mean all pool designers/builders are stealing from the Greeks, Romans, and Turks, who built some of the first pools more than 5000 years ago.

Instead, this is where ethics come into play. Keeping a scrapbook of inspirational projects and designs is considered fair—portraying the design to potential clients as original work is not. There is no fine line here, as all industry professionals should know the difference. If this were the case, the industry would only see one vanishing-edge pool, one perimeter-overflow pool, and one shallow-lounging area.

Starting a pool design with a clean sheet and creating something out of nothing is the only way to go. In some cases, designers/builders can be restricted to specific client requests, other designs, setbacks, grade restrictions, lot coverage, environmental concerns, and soil conditions. Despite this, there are some truly innovative designers/builders who continue to lead the pack and continually break new ground.

Client theft

Brian Van Bower, president, Aquatic Consultants Inc., and co-founder of Genesis
“When it comes to project photos, it amazes me that people can steal something and not feel they are doing anything wrong. I recently
got an e-mail from a friend, who is familiar with our work, asking if
I had seen company XYZ’s website, or if I had a working relationship with them, as he thought the images looked like our projects. I did not know the company and we immediately went to their website. We were shocked to see all of the images on the site were ours. I immediately sent an e-mail asking them to cease and desist using any of our images. They called me back to say they had given us credit for designing these projects and that, to them, seemed to make it alright. The fact is, I didn’t know them and they had nothing to do with the projects—even though it would appear otherwise to a casual observer. They were not ashamed because they stated they wanted to work with our company on future project collaborations, the absurdity of which escaped them.
“Unlike some, they did remove the pictures from their website right away. I greatly value my personal integrity too much to try to entice clients on the back of someone else’s work. Starting a business relationship based on misrepresentation is wrong. We often work on collaborative projects and, since we only provide design services these days, I always try to give credit to the architect, landscape architect, or pool builder in print and online. It’s only fair.”

Some builders may have even had their designs and intellectual property taken by a client. Even if a design is sold, the designer still retains ownership.

A client who solicits a designer to discuss a particular project, but then uses the free design to start a bidding war is where this can potentially become unethical.

Another potential grey area in terms of ethics is reviewing another builder’s design and/or project pricing, as normally no two builders are bidding on the exact same design, materials, build technique, or equipment package.

One way to possibly prevent this is to ask the client to sign a non-disclosure agreement and/or charge them for time and the design; however, this is a personal choice that should be based on the company’s market, construction abilities, and relationship with the client.

Intellectual property theft is an age-old problem. The advent of the Internet and the ease of which digital media can be manipulated has made this issue much more pervasive and more public in nature.

While it may be impossible to control the spread of pirated photos and designs on the Internet, there are a number of tools mentioned in this article a designer/builder could potentially use to protect their intellectual property. These methods are particularly effective within the industry, where it really matters, when dealing with unethical competitors. The vast majority of contractors and designers are ethically sound, have a firm moral compass, and play by the industry’s undefined rules; unfortunately, there still seems to be a small minority who think they can get away with it.

Justus_HeadshotBarry Justus, SWD, is the owner of Poolscape Inc., and Justus International Consulting. He is an international lecturer and author of more than 40 articles on pool design and construction. Justus is also a fellow of the Society of Watershape Designers (SWD) and a member of Pool & Spa Marketing’s editorial advisory board (EAB). More than 90 per cent of his projects designed and built over the last decade have won a national or international award. He can be reached via e-mail at


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