Ryan Hughes on Creating Outdoor Living Spaces

Baton Rouge pool builder Lee Russell and his family have been building pools for three generations. As such, they’ve garnered a lot of respect in the industry as well as within their own community. In Baton Rouge, they have established themselves as one of the top pool construction firms in town.

That reputation assures that Russell is frequently one of, if not the first, pool builders that homeowners will contact for a swimming pool estimate. His family has managed to build a business that has been able to stand the test of time. In down economies, hurricanes, you name it – Russell and his family have remained a single constant in Baton Rouge for over 56 years.

Pool Builder Has Dominated The Baton Rouge Market For Generations

Russell who has picked up the family mantle for pool construction, first worked side by side with his father and grandfather for years. The company was originally founded by Roy and Betty Russell back in 1965. Today, Russell Pool Company is owned and operated by Keith and Lee Russell who are continuing to run the business by the same high standards set by the original founders.

The Russell Pool Company started a tradition of excellence in Baton Rouge back in ’65 that is still their same hallmark today.

Lee says that he first got his start in the pool industry by coincidence. After getting injured on the playground as a child, his father picked him up early from school. Instead of taking him to the doctor, however, he took him to work with him, and from that moment on he was hooked. After spending time working as an assistant and general gopher for his grandfather, Russell explored interests outside of the pool world. He gained a Bachelors’s and Masters’s Degree and was even pursuing his Ph.D. at one point.

Although the lure to try new things has been strong, Russell says that he’s always gravitated back to building pools. “I get to do something I enjoy every day, I get to create. I’m very fortunate, not everyone gets to do something that they love,” said Russell.

Pool Builder – Lee Russell’s ability to conceptualize modern and traditional outdoor living spaces sets him apart.

Exploring the creative side of his nature is something that Lee Russell is very good at. In fact, he’s developed a following, both among homeowners that are looking for traditional Louisiana style and flair in their backyard, as well as with folks looking for a touch of the more contemporary aesthetic in their backyard to complement their modern home.

“I’ve always loved to work with my hands. When I was a teenager I would take computers apart and rebuild them. I took my car apart and rebuilt it. I always enjoyed the mechanical side of things and being able to see how they work.” said Russell, “I love creating and trying new things.” he said, explaining what motivates him to distinguish this generation of the Russell Pool Company from prior ones. “I could always do things like my grandfather did for fifty-plus years, but I want to try new things.”

Understanding What The High-End Luxury Outdoor Living Market Wants

“Being a pool builder in Louisiana, you have to understand our architecture is different than a lot of other areas of the country. We have these huge Live Oak trees and a lot of brick and stonework. Traditional just fits in a lot of these backyards that we come across” said Russell. “Every so often there is someone who is from somewhere else in the country that comes in and wants modern and we will absolutely jump on that. I love doing modern designs and modern pools, I wish I could do that all the time but that’s just not my market,” explained Russell.

The traditional Creole French-Colonial aesthetic is predominant throughout the Baton Rouge area.

Baton Rouge is definitely a market that is better well known for its charming French-colonial homes. As a high-end pool builder, Russell is often looking to push the envelope on his designs. The luxury custom homes in his local area necessitate a different style of pool that leans to more traditional aesthetics. The topography of Baton Rouge is very flat and creating the dramatic elevation changes that are the hallmarks of most award-winning pools simply doesn’t exist in his area of Louisiana.

Short of manufacturing those elevation changes, many designs are tasteful, elegant, and flat. That certainly hasn’t stopped Russell from exploring more contemporary designs. Russell’s collaborations with Baton Rouge, Landscape Architect – Ryan McKnight, have allowed him to incorporate more modern design aesthetics that complement traditional homes.

Citing landscape architects like A. Hays Town, whose work in traditional influences of Spanish, French, and Creole-style architecture that can still be seen today; Russell stated that many of the high-end custom homes lean towards that more quintessential Louisiana style architecture.

Russell Pools isn’t a production, volume builder and doesn’t profess to be one. Truth be told, they may build 70 pools a year at most. However, the pools they do build are exquisite though. Being one of the top pool companies in Louisiana, Russell has his fingers on the pulse of what the outdoor living trends are in his neck of the woods. We asked him, what’s hot right now with homeowners and what kind of features they are looking for in an inground pool.

Russell has seen a surge in the influx of homeowners looking to create their ideal outdoor living environment.

Although Russell’s expertise in pool construction is in higher demand than ever before, the last two years certainly haven’t been without its challenges. Simply finishing the pools while waiting for essential materials has been a series of hurdles for the Baton Rouge builder who explained to us that just about every single material that he orders is taking weeks longer than it normally would to arrive.

Pool Builders in High Demand But Manufacturing Delays Continue To Hamper Growth

Last year’s Texas Pool Freeze caused damage and pool repairs for thousands of homeowners. Consequently, this did much to complicate things for builders all over the country by taking many vital components and materials out of circulation early in the pool season. It would appear that Russell Pool Company is one of a long list of pool builders still feeling the effects of those related shortages.

“As far as materials go, I think it’s worse today than it was a year ago,” said Russell, “I’ve got Poolcorp lagging behind getting their orders in from manufacturers for equipment. Materials are tough too. I’ve got a container of white quartzite that is sitting at the port in China that cannot be put into a container because there is no one to get it done. I have had that order in since February and I’m just waiting.”

“I’ve got one pool where I’ve got the coping on but the deck is not finished, but they’re swimming,” said Russell. “We get a lot of pressure from our clients. Something that used to take me 6-8 weeks to finish now I’m looking at 10-12 and that makes it tough. You don’t want to lie to your clients.”

Russell explained that setting expectations at the outset and explaining to customers the ongoing logistical issues that builders are facing with materials is paramount. He indicated that he’s been doing his best to front-load those expectations. His process has been to let clients know that their pool is going to take longer to complete, that some materials may be unavailable and that what items are available may cost more. Undoubtedly, this has produced some hard conversations, not just for Russell but for thousands of builders placed in a similar predicament.

Listen to Lee Russell’s thoughts from his time spent hanging out on the Pool Chasers podcast show.

We asked Russell about one issue he brought up while on the Pool Chasers podcast. He discussed the ongoing labor shortages many pool companies had faced last year. We wanted to know if this was still an issue for his company this year.

“When you can stay at home and not have to work and still pull a check, man there’s a lot of folks that don’t want to work. I’m not sure I want those people working for me. Skilled labor is tough.” said Russsell, sighing. “You used to be able to find guys that were willing to work. Now you’re lucky to get a crew of 3 or 4 guys together that are doing all the work. I don’t know if that’s going to get better.”

Shortages for materials needed to complete high-end pools have caused projects to take longer than average to complete.

Russell indicated that one of the most frequently requested pool features that homeowners request is glass tile. While he loves the look, achieving it with a limited skilled labor force is tough; especially when most of the contractors in his local area are reluctant to learn the trade.

While Russell is a registered member of the Society of Watershape Designers, disseminating education on the job site has been a challenge for him and others. This has been especially true for pool builders with a limited workforce at their disposal. “I think the guys that are running the company, the top guys, and management are getting better. There are a lot of guys that are doing Genesis classes and Watershape University and they’re learning and getting better,” said Russell.

Having a shortage of skilled labor to complete more projects is another factor stalling growth for companies this year.

“The problem is none of that education trickles down to the sub-contractors and laborers that are actually doing the work. I know how to build a perfect pool to all the codes and specs. The reality is when you come down to it, I don’t have my hands on everything. ” said Russell, who indicated that without skilled laborers to help fill in those gaps, often has him running from one job site to the next in order to ensure things are up to his standards.

Russell was actually late for our interview. The pool builder had been inspecting a job site where glass tile was being installed. “I had to swing by there to make sure there weren’t any issues with what they were doing. When I do it, I want to make sure that they have the substrate right, and the waterproofing right, and that they’re putting their thin sets down properly. It’s just so much oversight that it’s a little hard to do on these high-end jobs right now.” explained Russell.

The weather has also been a monumental challenge for the builder this season. With already unpredictable yearly weather conditions, Louisiana was recently hit by Hurricane Ida causing catastrophic damage to many of the pools under construction for hundreds of builders throughout the region.

Pool Builder - Lee Russell is not afraid to get down in the hole and get dirty when it comes to building a pool.Pool Builder – Lee Russell is not afraid to get down in the hole and get dirty when it comes to building a pool.

We asked Russell how he’s able to prevail in such daunting conditions where builders typically may spend half of the day mucking a pool out before they can even get their day started.

“It’s tough but we manage to do it. We’ve been doing this so long in Baton Rouge that I know how to combat some of those issues before they even happen,” said Russell who indicated that this year has been especially challenging because of the weather. “For us, schedules are everything. That’s what throws us in a tizzy. If I can’t get materials or I’ve got 5 straight days of rain and I can’t shoot a pool – things like that drive my stress levels through the roof because I can’t stay on schedule.”

They’re Building Beautiful Things In The Mud Down in Baton Rouge

It would appear that if you plan on building pools in Louisana, that you’d better be prepared to put your game on expert mode. Russell gave us the ultimate soundbite of all time when he described the conditions for being a pool builder in Louisiana.

Want a beautiful example of a luxury pool? They're building them in Baton Rouge, LA. - Russell Pool CompanyWant a beautiful example of a luxury pool? Pool Builder – Lee Russell is designing high-end luxury pools in Baton Rouge.

“If you want to build something in the mud, you’ve got to get creative sometimes.”

Pool Builder, Lee Russell – Russell Pool Company

Predicting labor and material shortages has been hard enough. Trying to be a prognosticator of the weather is near impossible for even the best pool companies.

“I’ve got one eye on my crews and the other eye on the weather channel. If I were to pull a job crew every time the weatherman said 60% chance of rain; that’s half the days in the calendar and I’d never get anything done,” said Russell.

“I had one this year that wasn’t shot yet where it rained overnight. I had water all the way up to my forms,” said Russell, “We had to pump it out and get in there with the shovels. Then we had to get in there and wash it off and get all the mud off of it. Man, it’s tough. I’ve got to give my guys a lot of credit. A lot of days it’s been just shovel work and hot days. That’s what’s uncomfortable and what makes it tough.” he explained.

Russell says he finds immense fulfillment in looking at his completed projects and with pools like this you can see why.

Taking Time to Reflect on What’s Important

With all of the challenges aside, Russell says that building pools still is an incredibly rewarding experience for him. Helping homeowners bring their backyard vision to life is something he enjoys and finds fulfilling. “We get to see some phenomenal houses and projects that are just amazing. We’ve built lazy rivers and waterparks. We’ve built a pool with an island in it.” said Russell, reflecting on some of his past projects.

Russell tries to make sure that his job crews have a full appreciation for the work that they are doing for homeowners. He indicated that quite often it’s difficult for laborers to appreciate the end results of all their hard work. Russell exemplifies just how to do that with one story he shared with us.

One of the Best Pool Builder Stories You’ll Hear All Year

“We did a pool a little over a year ago that was 2,000 square feet and 13 feet deep. The homeowner wanted it so that he would have a balcony over his kitchen bar area and would be able to jump off that 10-foot balcony into the pool. He decided he wanted to put a waterslide running off that same balcony. We finished up that pool about two weeks before Christmas. Of course, every one of my guys had to take turns going down that slide and jumping off the balcony.”

It was Russell’s way of rewarding his crew for their work on a project they had worked on together for months. Creating the opportunity for them to share that moment and appreciate the end results of their labor is something he still holds near and dear to his heart. A poignant moment that perhaps sheds some light on the culture of the firm and why this company continues to prevail despite all the obstacles thrown at them this season.

Listen to our complete interview with Lee Russell

Photo Credits: All photos courtesy of Russell Pool Company, McKnight Landscape Architects

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Mike Hunter

Mike is the owner of the local pool shop. He's been in the business for over 20 years and knows everything there is to know about pools. He's always happy to help his customers with whatever they need, whether it's advice on pool maintenance or choosing the right chemicals. He's also a bit of a pool expert, and is always happy to share his knowledge with anyone who's interested.

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