Building Principles: Can Simple Questions Have Simple Answers?

By Rick Stryker, P.E.

Possibly one of the most painful lessons of any lifetime follows the adage: "You get what you pay for." After their first $500 car (or the $49.95 paint job for the $500 car), most people view "a great deal" with suspicion. Often the trouble with construction or building projects at camp is that is there is seldom enough experience to spot a deal that's either too good to be true or too expensive to try. How then can anyone gauge what a dining hall, swimming pool, or roadway resurfacing costs? We often get phone calls and e-mails from folks looking for a "ballpark figure" to begin a capital campaign or to begin to build a capital budget line item. Quite often, the caller is troubled that the answer to the question is not more straightforward or black and white.

On the other occasions, our cost estimate is questioned (always as "too high") because "Camp Such-and-So did it for much less than that. You're nuts!" they exclaim. Capital improvements are much more difficult to compare than shopping for a new car or even a house. To get a valid comparison, it is imperative to reconcile more than just the dimensions of the projects in order to validate what someone else paid for a similar final product. Let's look at some of the issues that cloud the answer and how your organization might approach the problem to get a useful figure.

Determining Project Costs

We can set the stage for our discussion by looking at a generic project, say, an "L" shaped swimming pool. It will have six lanes for competition racing, a deep end for a one-meter diving board, and a shallow end for lessons. The final cost of the project will depend on a host of issues, many of which are absolutely unique to the particulars of the construction on the site. Some of the more critical headings include the conditions of the site where the pool is to be built, what the pool will be made of, and which regulatory agencies or rules will govern. In some cases, your peer won't even be aware of all of these obstacles because his or her project didn't include some of these features — or things were already in place. Before you consider calling a contractor for a quote, though, you ought to have the answers to these questions and many more.

At the outset, the placement of the pool on the property will probably have an enormous effect on what it will cost to build. For example, consider the soil conditions and topography. As we've described the pool, there will be a significant amount of excavation required. The steeper the existing ground, the more compensating earthwork will be required to create a level area to construct a pool. If the normal ground water table is shallower than fifteen feet deep, pumps will be required to keep the construction hole dry. Also, the sides of the hole will need to be braced until the pool structure is built ("shoring"). If rock is prevalent, blasting may be necessary to create a hole, but the sides will probably not require shoring.

Answering Critical Questions

When complete, how will emergency vehicles access the pool? Is there already a road and vehicle access? If not, one will likely be required not just for the possible ambulance, but for chemical deliveries, maintenance vehicles, and disabled patron access. There may be trees or a pool already in the location of the one being proposed. In this case, the cost of clearing the area or demolishing of the existing pool is a real cost which should not be excluded. What becomes of the material which is removed? In many areas, it is illegal to burn or bury debris on site. This mandates, then, that the "waste" must be hauled to a regulated landfill, maybe miles away. Each of these issues and obstacles, by itself may not be significant. However, cumulatively, they can add tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of our pretend project.

At some point along the way, a decision was made about the materials which would be used for each of the pool components. Was that decision made based on local customs, available materials and practices, or on a personal preference? The former may deliver a less expensive alternative, while the latter may deliver a more functional but more costly product. Poured concrete is common in many places, but in certain areas of the country, so are "shotcrete," steel, and fiberglass.

What about the surfaces inside the pool? Again, painted concrete is common in some areas, but ceramic tile has merit in regions where intense sunlight causes paints to chalk and fade very quickly. The higher capital cost of tile could be offset quickly by annual painting. Many health departments require toilets and hot showers within a very short distance to commercial swimming pools. Does the area we're considering already have a sewage disposal area and will it be large enough to receive pool filter backwash? Where is an area nearby suitable to install a wastewater disposal system? Depending on the soil conditions, such a system could cost $15,000 - $25,000. Regulations may forbid discharge of pool waste to the sanitary waste system, mandating a separate, dedicated waste disposal system.

What about water supply? Is there sufficient water available to fill the pool and keep it filled when camp is in session? Perhaps a new well will be required, (@ $20+/foot of depth, plus the cost of a well pump and pressure equipment), or more water mains (@ $30+/linear foot) will be necessary to deliver the necessary volume. Clearly, each of these has a marked effect on what "it" might cost when all is said and done. Combine them and again, our project bill has climbed another notch without changing the appearance or operation of the final product.

Regulatory agencies also may have an effect on the project, depending on their varying level of involvement and on the specifics of their mandates. Consider these possibilities:

  • Which drawing plans will need to be reviewed and approved, by whom, how long does this process take, and how much do the permit applications cost?
  • Will the reviews require a site plan which shows the pool location relative to the property lines (i.e., is a survey required)?
  • Is site plan approval required to site a new pool, or to even install a replacement?
  • What about lighting? If the pool is to be used at night, a lighting plan will probably be required.
  • Will sedimentation and erosion control measures be required during construction?
  • Will storm water management measures be required when the project is complete?
  • What about a blasting permit in case of rock?
  • Are there regulations regarding muddy discharge from an excavation? (Hint: The answer in most locations is "Yes.")
  • Who (or what agency) is charged with enforcing Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates, how long do their reviews and approvals take, and how have they historically defined "reasonable accommodations" for similar improvements?

Let's revisit the original question and the most common approach. "Hey, Camp Such-and-So, how much did your new pool cost?" While you have them on the phone, be certain to ask whether they hired a single general contractor ("GC") — or acted as their own GC, hiring all of the specialists directly from excavators, to masons, to electricians, to plumbers. Did they competitively bid the project, did they solicit quotes, or just call a "pool builder guy"? What was the original contract price, and how much had they paid when the project was complete? What caused the price to change? Did they require payment or performance bonds? How is the warranty being enforced? What do they have in writing?

In short, it should be clearer than ever that like every person, each project is unique. Each set of finish criteria, each site, each group of involved reviewers and inspectors, each decision along the way will create an environment which will vary from one location to the next. By all means, network with your fellow camps! But neither hang your hat nor abandon your dream based on what you hear that some capital improvement cost another organization. Your situation could be entirely different.

Rick Stryker is a professional engineer with Camp Facilities Consulting, providing study, design, permitting, and construction consultation services to the camp and conference center community. Camp personnel may contact him at 570-296-2765 or by e-mail at

Originally published in the 2006 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.