Sink or swim?

Amid material and labor shortages, can Colorado’s pool industry survive a pandemic-era boom?
(Photo: Belgard)

In 2019, that innocent time before toilet paper was a luxury and hand sanitizer a necessity, Lindgren Landscape in Fort Collins typically received one or two requests for pool installations a year. Over the last 12 months, however, that number has skyrocketed to eight to 10 times as many.

“It’s been unbelievable the amount of requests for swimming pools,” says Tim Lindgren, the company’s president. “It really caught us off guard, but it’s great.”

As the pandemic canceled vacations and closed community spaces, many Coloradans found themselves without access to their usual swimming spots. The lack of options plus increased time at home meant a lot of homeowners decided it was finally time to take the plunge and install the backyard pool of their dreams.

“For a lot of people, their home is now their office,” Lindgren says. “If they’re going to be there more often, they want it to be more livable, and the backyard is a big part of that.”

According to a recent study from the International Casual Furnishings Association, 90% of Americans now say their outdoor living space is more valuable than ever before, and 78% are making outside upgrades during the pandemic. Nationally, sales of pools and spas were up about 25% on average in 2020, compared to 2019, according to the Pool & Hot Tub Alliance.

Joe Raboine, director of Belgard residential hardscapes at Oldcastle APG, says the pandemic accelerated what was already a developing trend. “Outdoor living has been growing exponentially for the last decade,” he says. “COVID just threw gas on what was already a pretty big fire.”

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Can the pool industry keep up? The surge in demand has put additional strain on a supply chain that was struggling due to pandemic-related shutdowns and social distancing mandates. The industry is also having a hard time finding enough laborers to perform the installations. The average wait for a pool in Colorado is currently around one year to 18 months, and customers are getting frustrated.

“I was telling someone the other day that it’s been a great year for business, but it just doesn’t feel good sometimes,” Raboine says. “It went from zero to 100 miles an hour, and we’re working 24/7 to keep up with the demand.”

New era of pool design

The increased demand for pools is further complicated by the fact that, often, a pool installation is not just a pool installation anymore. “Not that long ago, people used to install a rectangular pool, pour a band of concrete around it, and call it good,” Raboine said. Today, however, homeowners are looking for a lot more.

Raboine’s design team is seeing a variety of trends. Many homeowners want more linear, modern designs than they used to, with the pool being a focal point, not just a place to swim. About 30% of the pool designs his team sees involve a vanishing edge pool. Instead of simple concrete, these homeowners are opting to surround the pool with large-format pavers or tiles, in very light or very dark tones. Or some owners go the opposite direction and opt for a natural look, with a pool that looks almost like a pond, surrounded by boulders and natural-looking outcroppings.

Pools are also doubling as social gathering spaces. Swim-up bars are very popular, Raboine says, as well as adjacent pergolas, cabanas and outdoor kitchens. He’s also seeing designs where the pool surrounds a sunken fire pit, giving the yard a unique conversation space.

In smaller spaces, homeowners are installing pools that double as water features, with fountains or waterfalls, and include built-in seating. Fort Collins’ Lindgren says “spools”—small pools that can double as hot tubs—are growing in popularity in Colorado. His firm has seen one install so far and has two more in the works.

“There are so many opportunities for inspiration and so many products now,” Raboine says. “You could pretty much create anything in any size space and feel like you’re not being short changed.”

Pool prices booming, too

Innovation comes with a price tag, of course. Raboine says the designs his team sees can run from a couple hundred thousand dollars to a million dollars. Even simple pools are more expensive these days. A few years ago, Lindgren says, a basic pool and hot tub would have run about $125,000. Today, it’s more like $300,000, largely due to the rising cost of materials and labor.

Craig Mauk, vice president of sales with Pioneer Landscape Centers, says the pool boom is also being helped by the fact that the pandemic has left some homeowners feeling more financially stable.

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“People have more time and more money—thanks to the government stimulus programs, among other things, like fewer opportunities to spend their money at restaurants—to invest in their home renovation projects,” Mauk says.

Even among those who are feeling less flush with cash, Pioneer has seen an increase in sales of supplies for above-ground pools and hot tubs, which are slightly cheaper and typically more readily available than in-ground options.

“People are finding less expensive ways to make their yards ‘vacation worthy’ with the addition of above-ground pools and hot tubs,” Mauk says. “People want a getaway that’s affordable and attainable, so why not have it in the backyard?”

What happens to pool installations post-pandemic?

As vaccines and reopenings make vacations and community pools more accessible, however, will pool sales take a dive? The answer is unclear, but several indicators point to a lasting boom. COVID variants and a mixed vaccine rollout still have many Americans anxious about gathering. A recent survey by the Pool & Hot Tub Alliance found that more than half of Americans (52%) worry about COVID-19 at public pools, and among those, 82% are especially concerned about large crowds at the pool. Even among vaccinated Americans, 59% said they would still require capacity restrictions to swim in a public pool.

And while stimulus checks might have ended, mortgage rates remain low. According to Freddie Mac, mortgage refinancing activity in 2020 reached its highest levels since 2003. In the fourth quarter alone, homeowners cashed out $48 billion in home equity when refinancing. Refinancing volumes have declined some in 2021, but rates remain low, giving many homeowners a still-untapped source of home improvement funds.

“The question for everyone is, is this an anomaly, or is this going to shape the way that things are built and done forever?” Raboine says. “If that’s the case, if the baseline business continues at even its current rate, then we need to add a lot more people.”

Labor shortages have been a long-term problem for the construction and landscaping industries. But the strain is even more apparent now due to the multi-industry labor constraints the country is experiencing as employment sorts itself out post-pandemic.

“There are more jobs than people,” Mauk says. “And while getting skilled labor has always been tough, we’re now competing with other industries like restaurants and the rest of retail to get good people.”

Additionally, the pool industry doesn’t have apprenticeship structures or other formal trainings in place, mostly because the job involves too many variables.

“If you’re doing pools today, it’s basically like building a complete home outside,” Raboine says. “You have to know drainage, weather, plant materials, a whole host of other things. It’s really going to take a joint effort between manufacturers, installers, and dealers to recruit the next generation.”

The industry is getting creative about solutions. Belgard, for example, is working to expand its video training options, and its Belgard Rooms program provides pre-made templates to help streamline the design process for contractors and their clients. Lindgren has seen the industry innovating on the materials side, too—he recently worked on a design that used an old shipping container as a pool.

If the industry can overcome the materials and labor challenges it faces, Raboine sees a bright future ahead.

“I think that idea of how these spaces can impact your everyday health and well-being is the biggest driver for why this continues to grow so fast,” he says. “People want and need places to connect.”

Corey Dahl is a freelance writer based in the Denver area.

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