Why do surf parks use the Design Build process?

Between the vision of a wave pool and the bedrock reality of opening day lies a tangle of parts that must fit together perfectly – on time and on budget. Within these phases the biggest one is physically making the damn thing happen. This is called delivery method, and it denotes how you will proceed with the architect, contractors, subcontractors, and everyone else. 

There are three main ways of executing a contract delivery method: Design-Bid-Build, Construction Manager at Risk, and Design/Build. In a nutshell, Design-Bid-Build involves the owner hiring a Design team and low-bid contractor separately. Construction Manager at Risk means the owner hires a construction manager to work with the design team and go back and forth. In the Design/Build method, the owner contracts with a single entity, the design/build firm, to provide both design and construction services.

Joe Cerrone and his company RDC Design/Build is the latter. They have built three wave pools to date, two in California and one private one in the Northeast of the US. We spoke with Joe to find out what exactly is involved in this process, what developers should be aware of and how to smoothly get your surf park done.

 left to right Jeff Crews, Stantec,  Reni Lochtefeld, surf Loch,  Tom Lochtefeld, Surf Loch, Joe Cerrone, RDC Design/Build, Luke Cerrone, RDC+ Architecture, & Christina cerrone, RDC Design/Build.
(L to R) Jeff Crews, Stantec, Reni Lochtefeld, Surf Loch, Tom Lochtefeld, Surf Loch, Joe Cerrone, RDC Design/Build, Luke Cerrone, RDC+ Architecture, & Christina Cerrone, RDC Design/Build.

What’s your background Joe?

My great grandfather was brought to this country as an immigrant from Italy, as a stonemason to build Grand Central Station in NY city. My grandfather was also a builder, developer and real estate guy in Chappaqua, New York, which is in Westchester County. My father was a custom home builder, developer in Westchester County. My education is in architecture, but my passion is really in building. So, after I left college, I obtained my GC license in Florida, and at a very early age I went into business for myself. I would do design/build projects in my mid-20s, which was a huge separator from other contractors at the time. I could design the projects and submit them to the building department for a permit. The clients loved it, having just one person to deal with. And then I would build it for them. At the time, I was working on smaller projects, such as commercial interiors and home remodeling. I have been doing Design/Build for the past 40 years.

So what is the one thing in building that is the most satisfying to you? Why have you stuck with it for all these years?

It is the satisfaction of watching somebody enjoy what you have built, live in it, use it, and just really enjoy it. I am not a surfer. I enjoy the water, and I enjoy everything in water, and I am a swimmer. But to watch those guys surf on that surf pool is amazing. 

What is RDC?

RDC or Recreational Design & Construction, inc. is at heart a design/build firm. We build parks, recreation, athletics, and sports facilities. We have also built a large number of facilities, such as aquatic facilities, 50-meter pools, and water parks. Actually, our pools -facilities regularly host big competition swim and diving events all across the country. That is what we do. We are working on a project now in Miami where we are putting a 53-meter pool and a resort style pool on the roof of a parking garage. To my knowledge, that’s never been done before. 

examining the caissons
Checking the caissons during the Palm Springs Surf Club construction. Image by RDC Design Build.

Can you tell us what is the smallest project you have done and what is the largest? 

For a good client, we will build them a chicken coop if they want. I don’t care, for us it is all about the relationship. We work mostly by referral, (RFQ’s) request for qualifications or negotiating. Some of our smaller projects are half a million dollars, some of our smaller parks and aquatic projects range from $1million to $2million. Our larger projects include entire water parks, Aquatic facilities, that include competition swimming, diving, lazy river, and leisure pools. We did a project called Porsche Towers which is in Sunny Isles Beach, Florida. We built 116 private pools in a single 65 story building with every condo unit having a balcony pool.

So how do you figure all the engineering side of something like that? Is it just crunching math?

We embrace technology, we have a large database of historical knowledge. And we have a very capable chief estimator. He can be a little cranky, but he is terrific. With our custom-designed software he can conceptually estimate the facilities, which is really an art form. He and I will sit, and we have a napkin sketch of what a client wants to build or what ownership has relayed to us and he and I can sit down and put a scope of work together and some additional drawings and he is always within 5% of the true number.

How many people do you employ? How do you scale up and scale down according to projects?

We try not to scale up or scale down for a single project. We have 41 employees right now. Fifteen of us are in the office which includes project managers, assistant project managers, estimating, accounting, Business development and our in-house Architect. The balance is superintendents, carpenters, pool technicians and plumbers, which are the guys in the field that build everything. We hire Builders, people who have the ability to build not just contract services. We also look for people with a sense of urgency, that’s something you can’t teach, either you have it or you don’t.  

If the project is out of town. We have developed a formula, for working successfully on the road. This is where our project manager in our Florida office team up with our out-of-town project superintendent (only some of our project superintendents like to travel). We establish an office on site, as for living we’ll either rent a house or sometimes we have bought a house for them to live in while the project is underway. They come home every other week. We try to make it as easy as possible for them, because without them on the job, it doesn’t work. We do not hire local superintendents, because they don’t know our style, or our culture and how we want things done. So, we take our employees, and we land them in the spot. But all the subcontractors are local to the project. In the NE and California, we occasionally had to fly our crews out there. If we could not meet the time schedule, or if the subcontractor could not meet the schedule, or if there was a scope of work that they were unfamiliar with, or if their budget was just ridiculous, then we would send our guys out and they would knock it out and then come back home. Typically, they would stay for two or three weeks and then come home.

wave pool construction
With Design/Build the architect, engineers, aquatic engineer, and the landscape architect become part of the design/build team, working together towards the common goal.

So how do you do the project planning part? Because that sounds like you have so many moving pieces. Do you have someone dedicated to that? 

We are a highly collaborative group, we involve our director of operations, director of aquatic, estimating, project management, architecture including myself. We all sit together, and we map out the entire project from the beginning. Planning the permitting approach, site movements, logistics, everything involved in building. It is an ongoing process. In design/build, we have the ability to move and manipulate the site pieces around. We work with the architect and engineers to re-envision what is proposed and come up with alternative solutions when necessary to avoid additional cost and remain on the time schedule,

So, if I need to figure out how to build a wave pool, I come to you? Can you explain how the process works?

I would back up to the point where you have a dream, or you want to develop a surf pool. My suggestion is once you have your wave technology selected and planned to move forward, that’s when you should bring us in.  We can help with the site selection. Each surf technology has a different foot print, operates differently, and has different site and utility requirements.  We can help navigate the information, provide sketches and costing based on the different properties and configurations. As an example, one piece of property is low lying and requires dewatering to build the pool. And there’s another piece that has a higher elevation or it is not next to a water source. Even though one may be more expensive, dewatering a pool this big is a big expense. Once the property is selected, we would refine the site plan, lay out the access and ancillary structures, (restrooms, mechanical spaces, food and beverage retail…) budgets are refined, drawings are produces to match the budget.

You want someone who knows the technology, somebody who’s built a surf pool before, because there are so many nuisances to a project like this. Meeting with the city and building department requires a strategy, and everyone on the team must be on the same page. Control the narrative. 

So, I would suggest that you bring the design/builder, in earlier in the process. It doesn’t cost very much if anything to do that. We do this all the time waiting for the project to develop. We do not charge for it. 

In California, we knew exactly where the pool would go. We were stuck with it. But again, early on, we were able to place the wave. We could orient it slightly to keep it away from the property lines. Tom Lochtefeld and myself and the architect and the owners got together and said, OK, let’s shift it.

Wave pools need rebar
Something to consider is that each surf technology has a different foot print, operates differently, and has different site and utility requirements.

Walk us through the process from the beginning for a Delivery Method. What does someone need to think about?

There are three basic delivery methods. 

BID: Bid is typically a low bid scenario. The architect is hired directly by ownership and is independent from the contractor, not necessarily working towards the common goal. When the plans are completed and ready to go out for bid, when the pricing is presented to ownership it could potentially be shocking, because architects are not builders or estimators. Now come decision time do you move forward with a potentially overpriced project, or do you redesign to bring the project into budget? You can imagine the loss of time and money. The contractor is also hired directly by ownership and independent, you end up with potentially a low bid situation where the contractor is capitalizing on every mistake or miss on the plans, both architect and contractor are pointing the finger at the other, and everything is landing on the owner who has to pay for it. 

CONSTRUCTION MANAGER AT RISK: There is a construction manager at risk. Under construction manager at risk, the architect is hired independently by the owner and the owner hires the contractor independently. The main difference is the contractor is brought in earlier than in a Design-Bid -Build. The idea is the contractor assists the design team in pricing the project as it is developed. But there are still two separate entities, Ownership must manage both making sure the budget is maintained and the time line is maintained. This does not mean the contractor and the architect will not be pointing fingers at each other, and the owner will have to pay for any discrepancies. The liability still lies with the owner. The construction manager really has no risk. He is normally paid a percentage of the total project. 

DESIGN/BUILD: Design/Build is not a new project delivery method, it is the way all the major buildings in history were built, even the pyramids, and the great cathedrals were built using Design/Build. There was one master builder/Architect that was in charge. Everybody worked under his control, and the master builder dealt directly with the patron/client. In a modern Design/Build, ownership has a direct relationship with the design/builder, so there’s a single point of contact for ownership. The architect, engineers, aquatic engineer, and the landscape architect become part of the design/build team, working together towards the common goal. Design/build is historically quicker, involves less ligation and cheaper than the other delivery methods. There are many contraction methods withing the design/build delivery method. 

Ben Gravy at the Palm Springs Surf Club
Ben Gravy at the Palm Springs Surf Club. Both the first test facility and the second commercial-facing wave pool were built by Joe’s company, RDC Design/Build.

And within the Design Build option are their subtleties?

You can write the contract to accommodate several different formulas. You can do a design build with a lump sum contract. Lump sum is just as it sounds like a lump sum cost contract is agreed to and there are no change orders unless ownership ask for them. You can have a guaranteed maximum price (GMP), where a guaranteed maximum price is agreed to, and the savings are normally split between the design/builder and ownership. There is also a cost plus a fee. Where the project accounting is an open book, where the direct cost of the project plus a negotiated fee makes up the contract value. And then variations, fixed fee, and fixed general conditions. So now you can really refine what is best for the project.

Design/Build is a very popular delivery method on complex projects like surf pools and large aquatic facilities. The design/builder is responsible to ownership for possible design mistakes, code issues, ownership simply looks to the design/builder to solve issues. Design/build allows ownership to know the cost of the project very early in the process. allowing for accurate pro formas and funding. It also allows for early work permits, thus allowing work to start site work, utilities, and foundations ahead of schedule. You are also saving time by not having to wait for the plans to be completed and all the permits pulled which can potentially save months on the schedule and opening earlier than expected.  

In the wave pools that you have seen built, is one method more popular than the other?

Yes, all the surf pools that we did were all design/build. When we attended Surf Park Summit, 2023, it was the preferred method that everybody – the architects, the builders in the room – recommended as the preferred delivery method. One reason is because surf pools are a “one-of-a-kind”. It is not like you are going to build a shopping center or something that has been built 10 million times, there’s only a handful of wave pools in the United States. And so having an experienced design/builder on the team is the way to do it.

Could you illustrate for us some of the differences and why it is advantageous for wave pools to use design/ build?

Sure, when we were building the project in the Northeast, it was the first Surf Loch surf pool. The owner had selected a piece of property that was partially on a solid granite ledge. Once we had geologic testing including percolation, reports and our detailed topographic survey. It was realized that the original plan to utilize excavator to remove the granite was not going to work in the schedule and the overall budget. So, we looked for another method to excavate the granite and create a level surface to build on. We settled on dynamite, to blast out the granite – which solved two issues; it removed the granite ledge but it also supplied the site with perfect drainage material. With another delivery method we would still be there excavating the granite. Not to mention it was a whole lot of fun!

“I would suggest that you bring the design/builder, in earlier in the process. It doesn’t cost very much if anything to do that.”

Joe Cerrone

You got to blow stuff up.

We did, and the owner and I got to push the button together. But it was design/build that gave us the freedom to do that. If originally the architect or the engineer may have said, you are going to have to use conventional methods to remove the granite, “dig this out”, this way we had the flexibility to the means and methods that this would be quicker and easier, less offensive to the neighbors in the long haul to blast out the rock. “Construction by definition is problem solving” As with all issues that arise in a large complex project issues emerge, Design/Build gave us the ability to work through the issues quickly without adding cost to the owner. In discussions with ownership we can add an extra door, we added sound dampening and it did not increase the cost to the owner. Because we were able to remove scope or omit something that really wasn’t necessary. Giving us the freedom to move line items in the budget to get the result ownership wants.

I think a big part of the delivery method is actually the company, the person, the entity that you’re going to work with. There are firms that do design/build but they’re not true design builders. They may only do design build for a small portion of there overall volume of business. So, it’s not ingrained in the culture of the business. You really need to get to know the person, the firm you’re going to be working with on such a complex and unique project. You must do a deep dive ask questions such as Have they done this type of project before? What’s their reputation? Do they have the bonding capacity? You really need to get to know the person and the organization. That goes with any delivery method. I think it is more important with design/ build because that is the person you are going to go to entrust with your complex- one-of-a-kind project too.  Not to mention spend a lot of time with. 

Joe Cerrone and Christina Cerrone. Joe in his natural habitat, on the phone taking notes.

What advice would you give to them when looking for someone to build?

A wave pool is not something that you want to learn on. This is akin to building the Hoover Dam spillway. It is heavy concrete. It’s heavy earthwork. It’s land development. You must be creative and outside the box thinker. Again, in many cases it’s never been done before. So those are qualities to look for. You certainly do not want to guess, unless you have built a Hoover Dam or, some big water treatment plant where it is has similar technology. And it’s a very large body of water. So pool contractors, a 50 meter pool is a big pool and that’s 12,300 square feet of surface area and some of the surf pools are in excess of 12 acres of water. So yeah it’s not a normal pool job.

And how about on the fun scale? Are wave pools fun projects to build compared to, say, a shopping mall?

Oh, that goes without saying. I mean, when we did the project in the Northeast, that is still my favorite project ever. And it had a lot to do with the ownership, he is just terrific. And we had a lot of fun together and everybody enjoyed the project. We had people that were hanging out. I mean, they did not have any work for a week and, you know, they were showing up just to come and look at and see what was going on that day. You know, people enjoyed it. And then that happened in California also. People were excited to build it and see this thing work.