Hall Of Shame Concrete Pool Construction
It is a rite of passage for contractors to eventually take contracts that they wish they had not taken. In my career as a concrete pool contractor in Vancouver BC I had such an experience taking over a project from a "pool builder" that completely botched the construction of a high end new concrete pool. I was negotiating a new pool installation for a general contractor that was planning a new home build project that included a 20x40' concrete pool with an attached concrete hot tub, in floor cleaning system, automatic pool cover and a 20' wide natural stone waterfall. I was very interested in this project as this was right in line with my ideal project profile at the time. When it came time to sign the contract there was one additional negotiation point that was introduced by the builder...in order to get the bid for this new construction project, which I wanted, I would need to also take over a mid-phase construction project that the builder was having problems with.
Apparently the pool I was bidding on was almost the exact same design as a pool that was being built on another project this contractor was working on. The pool contractor had made multiple (huge) mistakes and had ultimately been fired from the project. The general contractor had then decided to take over the build themselves. This has been the downfall of many general contractors...how hard can it be to build a pool? Yeah, as it turns out there is a pretty good reason why swimming pool specialists exist. I will explain more about what they did wrong in a minute, for now all you need to know is how the project was described:
GC: "We have another pool just like this one. The shell is in and the plumbing is done. It needs coping, tile, plaster and then the equipment. Can you take care of that also?"
This was a no-brainer for me. There is absolutely no mystery in coping, tile and plaster for myself and my crew, and the advanced plumbing system was the least of my concerns. I verified that I would charge straight time and materials for the work I did, to which they agreed. Taking on a profitable time and materials job in order to close the deal on a $150k new pool installation was something that required no thought on my end. We signed the deal and agreed to stop by the botched pool job the next day to develop a plan of action and timeline.
How Bad Could A New Concrete Pool Be?
The next day I arrived along with my partner to the botched pool installation. The property was in the countryside, fairly remote, and extremely private. The site was gated and the general contractor met us at the front gate to allow us entry into the property. We had a very short conversation where the demeanor of the contractor was very serious. He warned us to not say too much about what we saw:
GC: "Don't make a big deal about what you see. I know it's messed up. Just tell me what we need to do to finish it. I can't talk too much about it but we really need to get this pool finished."
My partner and I exchanged concerned glances as we followed the GC back out to the pool area. There was a 20x40' pool with a 20' wide natural stone waterfall along one of the short walls. That is about where this pool stopped looking like anything that I recognized as a conventional concrete pool. The first thing I noticed was there was something on the interior walls of the pool. I was staring at this as we approached the pool and my working assumption was that it was some sort of interior forms...they must have poured the concrete instead of shooting it, which would make sense since shotcrete is not one of those things that you just have-a-go at. My confusion was plainly evident on my face as I inspected the wall coverings before turning to look at the GC.
ME: "Is...this...vinyl siding?"
The contractor, now looking very sheepish, confirmed that I was looking at a tongue and groove vinyl siding that had been fit onto the interior forms and poured directly into the shell. This was an attempt at providing a finished interior surface / shell pour all in one shot. If this sounds extremely strange, unconventional, and highly unlikely to work at all, then you and I are operating on the same wavelength. I know there is more than one way to build a pool. I have built vinyl pools, concrete pools, fiberglass pools, hybrid pools with concrete floors and fiberglass walls, myrtha pools with stainless steel panels that are PVC welded...I have seen all sorts of pools, but to this day I have never seen anything like this again. Perhaps this is some common form of pool construction that is popular in other areas, but as far as I can tell the original builder invented this idea. It was a total disaster. The wall had buckled when it was poured and the tongue and groove joints had begun to fail. There were broken pieces everywhere, including some long sections floating casually in the breeze only held on by a foot or two where it was still connected to the wall. The best part is that they were tied on and actually embedded in the concrete so you could not readily pull them off. Removing them would end up requiring cutting with angle grinders of both the vinyl as well as the pool walls and floor.
As I am looking incredulously at this disaster of a swimming pool, some of the other finishing details start to set in. I can see that the steps in the shallow end are all different heights with the bottom step being a rise of only perhaps two inches. As I am inspecting this detail my partner calls me from the deep end on the pool.
PARTNER: "Ugh...Steve...Could you take a look at this?"
My partner was standing in the deep end hopper looking down into one of the main drains. I laugh and think to myself that I am sure whatever it is, it is not going to surprise me any more than seeing vinyl siding poured into the structure of a concrete pool. As I approached the main drains I was looking at 12" square suction grates. My partner had removed the lid from one. As I walked up and looked down into the main drain I am sure that I said some unsavory things. The 12" frame and grates were set into the concrete, but under them was a a cylindrical hole about 10" in diameter. The hole went as deep as I could see...10" around and disappearing straight down into the ground. I looked up at the general contractor again from my perch over the main drain. His response was so curt it was hilarious:
ME: "What...er...what...ah happened here?"
GC: "We...uh...poured the pool too deep."
ME: "Too deep?"
ME: "How much too deep?"(laughing)
GC: "About 50 inches."
ME: "You built this pool over four feet too deep?"
GC: "Yeah, but we fixed it. We poured in new concrete."
ME: "You...poured...concrete? Is there...a main drain down there?" (motioning into the hole)
GC: "Yeah, two of them. With four inch suction ports. They are plugged right now. How do you get the plugs out?"
From the corner of my eye I can now see my partner starting to shake as he is attempting (poorly) to contain his laughter. As soon as I made eye contact with him all semblance of composure was cast aside and be broke down into giant, heaving, rolling sobs of laughter. I could not help myself any longer, and I also started laughing despite my best efforts. The GC, not all all enjoying the same moment that we were, closed the distance and grabbed me by my arm.
"Look, I know we F'D up...I don't care what it costs. I need this fixed, and I need this pool up and running and problem free like two months ago. The entire house is hanging up on this pool. The owner is pissed. We need this done. Just...look...can you fix it or not?
I built my entire career being the expert that other pool guys had to call in when they got in over their heads. I was confident in my ability to build, or fix, anything. Still, I hesitated as I looked around and let the enormity of the task at hand sink in. I began to explain that it was going to take a lot of time, and money, to fix this pool properly. We needed to do a lot of work, and I was not even immediately sure as to how exactly I was going to approach this disaster.
The GC was very dismissive of my strategic mention of money. This was a huge nightmare of a job, and I was not going to touch it with a ten foot pole if I thought for a second that money was going to be a problem. It did appear however that the GC seemed extremely keen on getting this pool going and assured me that money was not the issue. His main concern was whether we thought we could fix it or not as I suspect that many other people passed on the job. If it were not for the new build contract casually attached to this nightmare I would have done a brake stand in my truck in his driveway before crashing through the front gates Dukes-Of-Hazard style.
When A Problem Is No Longer A Problem
At this time I was operating a pool company that was bursting at the seams. Prior to the Olympics in Vancouver, the construction scene was basically a free-for-all and large construction and renovation contracts were not hard to find. Despite already being overly busy, myself and my crew managed to put in the time to remove the vinyl siding, re-pour the steps, install new main drains, redo all of the plumbing and get ready for coping, tile, plaster and equipment installation - the things that we were there for to begin with.
When I submitted the full invoice for the repairs to the GC I was expecting at least some blow back. I had simply charged time and materials as discussed, but the time of a highly skilled concrete pool builder is, well, expensive. I was pleasantly surprised when he looked at the invoice and slid it into his pocket without batting an eye. I figured that was a good sign. By memory I think the invoice was somewhere in the range of $17,000 and every dollar was accounted for. A pool this bad, and with this much risk to my company, was not getting any discounts. The GC, not mentioning the invoice at all, says that the home owner wants salt water. He also wants these tiles (and hands me a glass tile sample).
Now a salt system is not a big deal at all. Grab one and install it in an hour or less once the pool is basically done. More that I need to educate the customer about the potential risks of salt water pools. Glass tile on the other hand is a huge upgrade. Base tile is what was quoted, which is porcelain two inch tile, and upgrading to 1x1" glass mosaic tile is over ten times the price per square foot. I agreed to put a price together for these upgrades for the GC to pass along to the home owner. The GC then asked me to also include any other additional items that I thought would be good to have. I thought it was a strange request, given the scope of work that had been done wrong on this job, and the amount of money wasted, I found it strange to be discussing details like this at this stage. I explained that things like tile can take weeks to order in. The GC said the home owner would probably be fine with waiting so long as they get what they want. Apparently they were really looking forward to this amazing pool and the previous builder (and the GC) sort of spoiled the whole process for them. I now, for the first time, felt bad for the home owner. It is very clear that they spent a boatload of money trying to build an ultimate backyard pool paradise only to have this total disaster of an experience. This resonated with me and I wanted to make sure they ended up getting what they wanted.
The next day I got a call from the GC before 6:00 in the morning. He told me that he needs me to come to the site today. The home owner needs to talk to me. I figured this was about my invoice for the work I had done. I was worried in the sense that getting money from people can be difficult sometimes...but I was 100% justified in every dollar that I charged for and I could prove it.
The night before I had taken a few hours to prepare a detailed list of additional considerations for the pool owner. As requested I had included a quote for salt water, along with detailed information about what they needed to know about salt water. I also included the upgrade estimate to go with a mosaic glass tile, which was appreciable. In addition to these requested estimates, I also included a host of upgradable options that I would normally present to my clients. This list included adding an ozone system to the pool, a UV light, upgrading the sand filter to a cartridge filter, adding in an automation panel and motorized actuators and separating the equipment for independent pool and hot tub control. Currently the system was designed to share one pump, filter and heater. If isolated then you could use the spa in the winter as well instead of closing it when you close the pool. I also included upgrading the interior surface of the pool to a 3M color-quartz finish. I did not really expect the pool owner to add any of these items, but I did want to ability to say that I provided them with options.
Showdown With The Pool Owner
When I arrived at the jobsite I was met by the GC who was visibly uncomfortable. We walked back to the pool area where I met a very large and well dressed man who was standing over by the pool with his arms folded across his chest. As I approached and shook his hand, he pulled the invoice from his jacket pocket that I had given to the GC the day earlier. He produced the invoice, opened it, look at it, and then just stared at me. The stare lasted at least five solid seconds which felt a lot like an hour at the time. He leaned in very close, so close that I felt the heat from his breath hitting my face, and he said in a very calm tone:
OWNER: "You are stealing my money?"
I let the comment register and took a deep breath before responding:
ME: "No, I am not stealing your money. I charged you by the hour for every hour I spent repairing this disaster of a pool. Furthermore, do you have any idea how lucky you are that I agreed to fix this pool for you? Your pool is the most poorly built pool I have ever encountered and you should be thanking your lucky stars that I agreed to fix it."
His look revealed nothing about how much he understood, or took offense, to what I had to say. He simply slid the invoice back into his pocket. Realizing that I was not actually being accused, and that this man had clearly paid other contractors who were essentially stealing his money (as far as I am concerned), I did not take offense to his question. He did not press the issue any further and I was happy enough with that. I produced the print out of the upgrade items that he had requested, both the salt water as well as the glass tile. I explained that glass tile is expensive and will take a few weeks to arrive, but it certainly does look nice. I also mentioned that I was concerned to be talking about tile choice now as this is something that is normally agreed on much earlier in the process.
I handed him the additional upgrade paperwork, which was perhaps five or six written pages of information and prices relating to the upgrades and what each of them does for the pool. I mention the color plaster, to which his eyes light up, and he confirms that I can add color. Apparently white was the only option he was previously provided with. Despite his exuberance I point out that colored plaster is a lot more money than regular plaster. Many thousands of dollars more. He looks at me before looking back down at the paperwork in his hands. He shuffles through the papers, clearly skimming at best and not actually reading anything.
OWNER: "Ozone...what is this?"
ME: "It is like using oxygen to kill bacteria, less chlorine needed."
He looks back down at the paperwork and shuffles through a little further. He calls over his shoulder and his wife along with their two young children walk over. I introduce myself quickly as he begins to explain something to his wife, showing her the upgrade items paperwork that I had given him. They had a very brief exchange, which was not in english so I can not say exactly what was discussed, but she nodded her head a few times before he handed my paperwork all back to me.
OWNER: "Ok, do it."
ME: "The glass tile?"
OWNER: "Yes, all of it."
ME: "All of what? The colored plaster too?"
OWNER: "All of it!" (he says re-grabbing and now shaking the papers I gave him)
I stumble over my words. I look down at this list of upgrades that I had offered him. I had never intended for him to go with any of them, let alone all of them. Every last one. Ozone, UV, salt water, separate equipment, automation, colored plaster, glass tile...all in the total was well over $50,000. For a brief and fleeting moment it occurred to me that this guy is trying to rip me off. He is going to have me install everything under the sun and then he is going to stiff me on the bill. Before I could even finish this thought, he grabs the Hello Kitty backpack that his wife is holding and thrusts it at me. Confused, I reach out and grab it before I even understand why he is passing it to me. He motions to the bag again, so I slowly start to peel back the top zipper. Inside is, as was confirmed later, over $17,000 in five, ten and twenty dollar bills. As he walks away with his family, he tells me to come back tomorrow for the rest of the money. He ended up paying in advance, in full, for every possible upgrade option that I had presented to him. In cash. In a different Hello Kitty backpack.
Throughout my career I have worked for many affluent, rich and famous people. One thing that I know for sure is that I understand why the GC was so worried about fixing the pool and not at all worried about the money. The type of people that pay you in small, non-sequential and unmarked bills, are not the same people that you want to completely botch the project for. I can only assume that the previous builder is encased in vinyl siding buried beneath four feet of concrete in the bottom of that pool. I was very much relieved once this project was completed, and everything functioned as it should. As much as the money was nice, I try to avoid working for gangsters and mafia types as there is just more risk than reward to my conservative mindset. Though admittedly this was not the last time I would end up doing pool contracting for some scary people. At least in this instance a Russian gangster did not accuse me of sleeping with his wife...but that is a story for another time.
If you enjoyed this swimming pool horror story be sure to check out the rest of the swimming pool hall of shame section.
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