Difference in Commercial and Residential Swimming Pool Design Construction

Having been involved in the commercial swimming pool industry for over 20 years, I’ve been fortunate to be a part of the planning and design of hundreds of aquatic facilities across the globe.  During this time, I’ve seen my fair share of the good, the bad and yes even the ugly.  For years my head has been ingrained with industry best practices and design standards specific to the commercial pool world.  Therefore, it should have come as no surprise that when I recently made the decision to make my family happy by investing in our very first backyard pool, I was amazed where my involvement was very similar as well as completely divergent from my commercial pool experiences.

Home Pool Fun!

First, let’s start with the similarities that are common for both commercial and residential pool design and construction. The two most obvious being the basic principal of containing and treating water for that can be use humans for recreation, fitness, training and a host of other activities.   One of the most important principals of swimming pool design is having a structure that can contain water with little to no water loss.  Whether it be concrete, pre-engineered steel panels, fiberglass, vinyl lined or other materials for construction, the structure must contain water.  Once we have a structure that can accomplish this, there must be a method of continuous water treatment. As humans immerse themselves within this water containing structure, there is a need to continually treat the organic loading that will occur.  Sweat, skin, urea, lotions, etc. are continually be added to the water which create a prime breeding ground for potential recreational water illnesses.  And for most residential pools, there’s of course the occasional dip in the pool by the family dog!  Fortunately, science and technology provide the ability to control these pathogens through filtration and chemical treatment.  It’s also worth mentioning that the day to day operations of swimming pools can greatly impact the success of pool water treatment but I’ll save that conversation for another time.

Moving beyond the obvious principals of water containment and treatment, there becomes numerous best practices, or industry standards where differences can be found.  Before I get into these items, it’s worth noting that a majority of these difference are for good reason.  Obviously, the size, use and bather loading of a commercial pool is typically far greater than that of a residential pool.  For that reason alone, the size and complexity of pool equipment that is used in a residential pool system is often to a lesser degree from that of their commercial counterparts.  Regardless of the size of a pool, there were several aspects I observed when dealing with a residential pool project as compared to commercial.  And while I could spend hours discussing the technical aspects of swimming pool design ranging from hydraulics to finishes, I’ll leave the technical jargon for a future discussion.  

Having lead commercial pool design projects for over two decades, I found there to be a significant difference in the level of detail and information that is required on a residential pool set of drawings.  A residential pool project is almost always done under a design-build delivery method and this means the installing contractor is typically responsible for their own design.  As a result, there often becomes a far greater expectation that means and methods will take a much stronger role in determining the detail in plans and written specifications.  Additionally, the review process for plans and specifications in the commercial pool environment requires plans to be very comprehensive in their development.  Because of this reason alone, there is little room for questioning how things will come together in the field on a commercial pool project.  My recommendation for any person who is going to invest in a residential pool is to always review your pool plans and do not be afraid to ask questions.  If you observe gaps in the plans or the information provided appears to be incomplete and lack clarity, don’t be afraid to ask your contactor for more detail.  Any good residential pool contactor should be happy to oblige in answering your questions.  If your contractor has difficulty in answering your questions, or is responding with vague responses, there is reason to be concerned.

Let’s now turn our discussion to budget.  I’ve often found individuals who have invested in a residential pool may one day find themselves representing their community in a commercial pool project.  These individuals can initially experience shock when the discussion turns to budget, as they automatically assume the investment made for their backyard pool will be comparable to that of a commercial pool.  In most cases, commercial pool construction typically requires a higher cost per square foot (SF) of pool surface area as compared to the residential pool market.  In fact, it can be expected that cost per SF for a commercial pool may be 2 to even 3 times that of a residential installation.  Primary drivers of this cost discrepancy can be attributed to wide array of items.  These may include structural and hydraulic design materials and solutions, as well as the supporting mechanical, filtration and chemical treatment systems.  Additionally, most residential pools have maximum pool depth of 7 to 9 feet resulting in less overall all materials for construction when installing a commercial pool that may include areas where the pool depth is 12 to 13 feet deep to support springboard diving equipment.

A most intriguing part of my backyard pool experience was communication.  I’ve already mentioned that asking questions is important.  However, what I found to be interesting is the difference in the degree of communication.  Often a residential pool builder will rarely deal with a client that has a deep understanding of the design and construction of swimming pools.  While it may seem obvious that when questions aren’t asked, answers aren’t provided, often the residential pool owner does not even know where to begin.  As compared to a commercial pool project that will almost certainly involve design professionals in some capacity, these professionals are tasked to ensure the project is delivered on-time, on-budget and built to a strict set of guidelines.  Even under a commercial pool design-build delivery process, there will be professional architects and engineers that generally have some say in the project outcomes.  As a result my experiences in the commercial pool industry have been that the design process is very communicative and detailed.  This micro approach then carries into the construction where design professionals provide observations in the field which are carefully documented through written reports.  When the contractor experiences questions in the field these are documented by written Requests for Information (RFI) requiring a thorough and written response.  The cadence of this communication as well as construction in the commercial pool world is often more intense as well.  Experiencing my own backyard pool installation, I found that communication was sporadic at best.  This is not to say my contactor didn’t care, but when the Owner is not asking questions, the perception will be all is well.  Often when I requested to have a conversation or shared my observations, I found that my residential pool builder was more than happy to discuss things with me.

Overall, the experience of having a pool built at my personal residence was exciting but certainly not without a few ups and downs.  Upon completion I found my residential pool builder to be very knowledgeable and wanted to leave the project with a happy customer.   Never forget that the only bad question is the question not asked.

My Finished View!

A Few Technical Tips for Your Residential Pool Project

  • Request that a licensed professional engineer sign and seal the pool drawings.  This includes all structural design calculations.
  • Make sure the swimming pool design has taken into consideration all geotechnical conditions.
  • Ensure that all pool piping will be pressure tested to ensure water tightness.
  • Pool piping should be Schedule 40 or Schedule 80 PVC.
  • Install a VFD on your pool recirculation pump as an energy savings measure.
  • All metallic embeds should be bonded and grounded.
  • When located in a geographic location that will require closing your pool in the winter months, ensure that proper winterization of the pool and pool systems has been completed.

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