Space City

Lords of the Splash

Meet Houston’s high-end pool boys, who never met a Gunite grotto they didn’t like.

By Peter Holley Photography by Jill Hunter March 15, 2013 Published in the April 2013 issue of Houstonia Magazine

This Mediterranean-inspired aquatic sanctuary in the Woodlands (designed by Absolutely Outdoors) features a century-old vase imported from Italy and hand-crafted stone from California.

Gary Hoffman has a plan for you single men looking for ladies. It goes something like this: first, find a beautiful woman who will date you. Next, take her out on the town, show her a good time, splurge on an expensive meal, multi-course maybe. Play your cards right, and she’ll practically jump in your arms when you invite her back to your place. But if she hesitates, you clinch the deal with the promise of a dip in your Jacuzzi and a cold bottle of bubbly. At which point, Hoffman says, you whip it out. 

Wait, what?

“I consider myself a painter,” says Chris Smith, proprietor of Marquise Pools in Oak Ridge, “but instead of using a brush … my canvas is the ground.”

 “That’s when you whip out your iPhone,” says Hoffman, becoming almost giddy when describing how advances in the digital world are revolutionizing our experience of the Jacuzzi. Thanks to Silicon Valley ingenuity and yet another mobile app, prospective Lotharios like you can now ignite and adjust hot tubs remotely, even while you’re still getting the check at the restaurant, say, thus ensuring a smooth transition from car to Jacuzzi, and eliminating all the uncomfortable small talk one is typically forced to make while waiting for the water to heat up. “By the time you get home your Jacuzzi is already fired up and ready to go,” Hoffman says. “Pretty smooth, huh?”

Hoffman, a burly ex-football player who looks something like a humanoid teddy bear, is not the sort to leave things to chance. He can’t afford to in the high-stakes world of high-end pool design, one of the specialties of Absolutely Outdoors, the landscaping company in The Woodlands where he's vice president. Hoffman is already considered a master of the modern swimmin’ hole, but at age 53 he still can’t resist the urge to outdo himself, a trait he shares with a few other sky’s-the-limit pool builders. In consequence, there’s a great deal of aquatic one-upmanship going on, especially in The Woodlands, where residents are known to favor home entertaining on a grand scale. And yet Hoffman does not see himself as a producer of backyard blockbusters, some Hollywood hack of the pool-making set. He is, well, an artist, one who seeks to create both joyful experiences and the memories they inspire.

To you, it is a swimming pool. To Hoffman, it is a place for families to congregate in comfort, a modern-day living room. That fountain, which looks to all the world like a haphazard collection of boulders, is to him a sculpture made of equal parts solid and liquid, its stones hand-selected from a quarry halfway around the world, its internal pumps calibrated like a carburetor, its watery gushes tuned “like a piano.” 

“I consider myself a painter,” says Chris Smith, the proprietor of Marquise Pools in Oak Ridge and an associate of Hoffman’s, “but instead of using a brush … my canvas is the ground.”

If that sounds like hyperbole, wait until you see some of the works created by these masters of Gunite and concrete. Limited only by budget, time, and the boundaries of their clients’ imaginations, impresarios like Smith and Hoffman are forever increasing the production values of their pools. These days, that means the artful use of lighting, which is to say everything from precise, color-changing LEDs to unruly fire pits and torches that give an outdoor space a raw, almost prehistoric look. Prehistoric, that is, as seen by the wizards at Industrial Light and Magic.

“Imagine looking at water—and seeing fire!” Hoffman thrills. 

In an apparent effort to create evermore ersatz Edens, homeowners are demanding fountains, waterfalls, grottos, and more. A recent Absolutely Outdoors project in Tomball employed a combination of precision lighting, murky shadows, and artfully-sculpted Gunite to create the illusion of an underwater cave at the deep end of a pool.  

Pools can take months, even years, to design and build. This pool in Wharton boasts 1,400-pound sculpted stone artichokes at each corner.

“We’re seeing a lot of mosaic glass, a lot of travertine, and rock that is selected for its ability to age with grace and provide a landscape with character,” says Lew Akins of Ocean Quest Pools. Several years ago his Central Texas firm unveiled an award-winning, 400-square-foot pool with an underwater Jacuzzi area that emerged or disappeared according to the water level. “What’s new,” he says, “is that you can control everything—lights, pumps, desired flow, temperature—with a simple push of a button.”

Number of pool-operating permits issued by the city last year

Number of Houston days expected to top 100 degrees in 2013

Billions of dollars spent by Americans annually on sunscreen by 2016

Cost of a fully licensed 30-by-60-inch Houston Texans beach towel

Gallons of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool

In-ground pools in Texas

Number of working hot tubs in the U.S., in millions

What fin de siècle Paris was to art, The Woodlands is to modern day pool-making.  Artists depend on wealthy benefactors for their livelihoods, creating a somewhat cutthroat atmosphere that pushes designers to new levels of innovation and, at times, absurdity. 

It helps that pool-seekers are often willing to pay as much for a pool as most people spend on a home (or more). A company like Absolutely Outdoors will still build $50,000 pools, but its M.O. these days is the water extravaganza, its clients often willing to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, to create the ultimate backyard experience.

With the economy coming back, pool builders say their winter months were just as busy as last summer’s, although they weren’t exactly suffering anyway. During the recession, wealthy Houstonians, instead of spending $20,000 for a weekend in Las Vegas, put their travel money into their homes. What do you get when you combine the outdoor living movement with the value-added instincts of a wealthy Texas suburbanite? A staycation on steroids.

“A lot of people want their backyards to feel like a Disney experience,” says Carvin DiGiovanni, senior director for the Association of Pool and Spa Professionals. “People are trying to create an environment that goes beyond swimming, they want illusion.”  

If illusion is the goal then Chris Smith is the David Copperfield of the pool world. A few years ago, in The Woodlands, he placed a 2,000-gallon saltwater aquarium inside a Playboy Mansion–style grotto alongside the pool, and filled the cave with exotic artificial plants, a swim-up bar, a flat-screen television, and a two-person “therapy shower.” The two-year construction process required designers to install a temporary nursery to accommodate all the palm trees shipped in from Arizona and California. 

Smith’s latest and greatest trick involved turning a featureless backyard, also in The Woodlands, into a resort-style water world with nearly 3,000 square feet of pool space, elaborate fountains, a spa, and a fire pit. His creation contains three saltwater pools lined with 9,400 square feet of onyx, glass tile, and travertine imported from Italy and Peru. But the pièce de résistance is a 10-foot-tall proscenium arch that frames the lap pool and forms a gateway to the golf course beyond—and from which, at the touch of a button, a retractable projection screen descends. Designers hid a 16-speaker sound system in nearby trees and buried a subwoofer five feet underground. 

When you watch Jurassic Park out there—I’m not kidding—the water on the pool ripples,” Smith says. “It’s sick!”

And that’s the other trend in Xanadu: TV. Thanks to the ever-diminishing cost of flat-screen televisions, Houstonians are now building outdoor theaters next to the bar that’s next to the pool. For $350,000 to $400,000 a new backyard-sized pool lined with multiple 50-inch TVs (set a safe distance away, of course), a hibachi, and a full bar can be yours, Smith says.

“You can be sitting poolside watching three or four games at once,” he notes. “It’s pretty nifty.”

Not to be outdone, Hoffman’s design team plans to unveil a pool with an underwater aquarium embedded into the walls. Pressed for details, Hoffman’s signature smile suddenly disappears. He shakes his head. No go. We press again. There is an uncomfortable pause. 

“It’s going to blow your mind,” he finally admits. 

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