Rescuing a pool in distress

In the mid-’70s, when John Crystal began building pools, he encountered a greater demand for remodeling than new installations. After more than 40 years in the business, he still follows the principle, “Why destroy something if you can build on existing components?” Now he does it as president and owner of Northridge, Calif.-based John Crystal Pools.

Recently, his motto was put to the test by a Beverly Hills homeowner with a serious problem. Jordan Cahn called on a team of experts, including Crystal, to fix a pool that not only clashed aesthetically with its surroundings, but threatened to flood her home.

The modified overflow pool was poorly designed and not hydraulically engineered, and its plastered finish had developed an unsightly, mottled look. More critically, the pool’s overflow channel design was flawed, so water seeped out over the pool deck and under the lower deck to the home’s foundation.

Due to the scope of problems, Cahn wanted to start over with a clean slate. She hired Skip Phillips, owner of Questar Pools and Spas in Escondido, Calif., as the project’s design consultant and Jimmy Reed of Los Angeles-based Rock Solid Tile to install the tile.

Diving in

The team got to work building a new wet edge, or “perimeter overflow” pool; each member focused on his area of expertise. “We kicked around ideas together, and didn’t have to worry about bruised egos,” says Crystal. “We all just wanted to make the project as successful as possible.”

Crystal consulted with a structural engineer to redesign the pool’s structural elements. Although the pool’s footprint borders several columns on the home’s back terrace, the elements had to be separated. “The structure of the pool couldn’t actually touch the columns because any differential movement could damage the pool’s trough,” Crystal says.

The trough can handle an ample volume of water, much like a municipal water collection system designed for a 100-year rain. The new perimeter flow channel system includes an adjacent, concealed surge tank with enough capacity to contain water from the pool, as well as rainwater runoff from the surrounding deck.

Phillips’ vision for the pool was a crisp, modern look that he says was “carefully selected to match the personality and dimensions of the setting.” To match the home’s contemporary architecture, the designer imagined a 17- by 41-ft. rectangular pool finished with 2- by 4-in. subway-style glass tiles in a brick-stack pattern. Crystal and Reed helped fine-tune the pool’s exact dimensions to minimize the amount of cuts required and maximize its polished appearance.

To achieve this, the pool’s bowl shape had to be converted to right angles. After re-excavating an exterior perimeter trough and adding the new surge tank, Crystal installed a base layer of steel, taking care to provide extra coverage in areas where the original steel reinforcement could be exposed to water and lead to future damage. Crystal then built a steel frame to create “walls within a box,” according to Phillips’ specifications and installed a new shotcrete structure.

Crystal installed the new hydraulics and plumbing for the wet edge design, all of which were concealed by the inset frame. “Every element of the pool — the sun shelf, a swim-out bench and the entry steps — has aesthetic and structural value,” says Crystal. Instead of installing conventional water suction and return fittings in the pool floor, Phillips designed custom inlet floor fittings that are virtually hidden by the inlaid tile to disguise any plumbing fixtures beneath them.

Reed installed nearly 5,000 sq. ft. of glass tile in the pool, as well as 3,000 sq. ft. of 12- by 24-in. porcelain tile for the coping and adjacent deck for a stunning effect. “The homeowner was very concerned about aesthetics and wanted her surroundings to represent the ultimate,” Reed says. “She’s very pleased with the outcome this time around.”

The value of experience

Even with the extensive changes, Crystal took a less invasive approach than other contractors may have chosen. By remodeling rather than doing a complete tear-out, he avoided potential issues with new building code requirements. Due to the property’s space constraints, the craftsmen completed every aspect by hand using jackhammers and wheelbarrows instead of tractors and bulldozers.

Although Crystal had encountered similar elements on previous projects, he says they came together as a unique conglomerate for the Cahn pool. “Each piece of the puzzle had to fit together perfectly so it would work correctly.”

From installing the proper hydraulics to measuring each right angle exactly to accommodate small, uncut tiles, “the sophisticated system had to work together as an effective design.” He credits the team’s level of expertise for the project’s success.

Crystal also recognizes the advantage of working with a homeowner who values this expertise and is willing to invest in high-quality materials. “When you pull together people with decades of experience who strive for the best quality, you end up with a product of this caliber,” he says. QR


Shelby O. Mitchell writes about remodeling and design from Berwyn, Ill.