By Christy Krueger
Anything with water, anywhere in the world.
That’s the saying at Aqua Design International. And they do mean anywhere.
The Tucson company is known for award-winning designs – from flagship resort destinations to competition pools and outrageous water features.
The company’s reach goes far beyond Tucson. From Douglas, Ariz., to Kuwait, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Haiti, Mexico, Korea, Vietnam and British Columbia, Aqua Design International is recognized around the world.
Due in part to the company’s efforts, properties they have done design work for are pulling in major awards. Four of their projects – The Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain in Tucson; Viceroy Anguilla in Anguilla; Amangiri Resort in Canyon Point, Utah and Four Seasons Resort in Manele Bay, Lanai – have been named to the Condé Nast Traveler Magazine’s 2013 Gold List.
Tucson’s Casino del Sol Resort and Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain – with its tanning
islands, in-pool lounge chairs and water dining tables – have been selected as 2013 Forbes Travel Guide Star Award winners, earning Four Star ratings. Water features at both were designed by Aqua Design.
Recently, the company designed the Oro Valley Aquatic Center, which opened to rave reviews.
Aqua Design was established in 1996 by David Acklin and Ken Paulson. The pair focused on detailed design aspects of commercial pool building – something they felt was lacking in their field.
Their path to forming Aqua Design was not exactly planned, but evolved naturally as they gained experience in the commercial pool business. Paulson graduated from the University of Arizona in 1985 with a landscape architecture degree from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
After attending school in Kansas, Acklin stayed in Wichita and began working for United Industries, a manufacturer of components for large pools. The company had customers around the world, exposing Acklin to contacts that later became invaluable. Next, he worked in Hawaii for a contractor that built resort pools, followed by his final move – to Tucson. Here, he and Paulson met in the commercial pool division of Patio Pools.
“We got plans from other pool consultants and they weren’t complete. From our experience, it drove us to start our own company,” Acklin said. “In 1996 we started Aqua Design to be consultants for commercial swimming pools. What we do is so specialized –
you don’t come out of school with a degree. We sell intellectual property to create incredible pools.”
Added Paulson, “David had experience in sales of equipment and knew vendors associated with that field. I came into it from a design aspect and we combined our talents. Then we became work spouses.”
Aqua Design clients are generally architects and landscape architects who design pools and water features for resorts, schools and municipalities. Other local projects include the Omni Tucson National Resort, the lazy river at JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa and the community aquatic center in Sahuarita.
Dave Burns of BWS Architects worked with Aqua Design on two local play pools – one for the City of Tucson and one for Pima County. “They’re very good to work with,” he said, referring to Acklin and Paulson. “I particularly respect their knowledge in pool design. That’s a value they’ve brought to our local projects.”
Kevin Barber of Swaim Associates in Tucson recalled similar experiences with Aqua Design’s owners. “It’s been positive, a real team experience. They’re very responsive and always have answers for us. They’re always right on.”
While it’s rewarding and convenient to handle jobs close to home, there’s not enough business in Tucson and the Southwest to keep them busy, according to Paulson. As a result, he and Acklin developed and nurtured relationships with architects around the world and often reap the rewards of repeat business from a job well done.
Sometimes, they go to the customer. “We do client meetings in Dubai, Korea, the Caribbean, Canada,” said Paulson.
For the most part, however, the partners and their eight employees run the business from Tucson in a small office hidden away near Foothills Mall.
“With the advent of the Internet and having AutoCAD (software program), we realize we can do jobs anywhere on the planet,” Acklin noted. “We have so many projects outside the region, the barrier of not being there is more accepted.”
One of the biggest challenges Acklin said they had in the beginning was figuring out metric and language conversions. “When we got into international work, we had to learn to provide metric plans. And we found people who interpreted the plans. There are services that charge on a per-word basis. Now it’s second nature.”
“My largest difficulty,” Paulson said, “is working with different architectural systems. Internally, each has its own way within the CAD program. They all like lemonade with different amounts of sugar in it and you must conform.”
He also acknowledged the complexity of balancing jobs. “We work 40 hours or 80 hours, depending on the work. We have a flex schedule.”
Among their most spectacular endeavors is the MGM Grand in Egypt. “There are 200 bodies of water under construction,” Acklin said. Other projects that stand out include the Palm West Resort on a man-made island off the coast of Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and a residential development in Morocco with more than 20 pools and water features.
In these days of water conservation, building over-the-top water features seems like a tough sell, especially the larger projects Aqua Design does overseas. Paulson explained that some other cultures look at water differently than we do.
“We have jobs in Saudi Arabia. There, water is held precious to them – they’re conservative with the water,” he said. “But they also want to show you their water. It’s a statement of wealth and power.”