Plano-based designer Brad Holley wins Million Dollar Pool Design Challenge

Lazy river. Brad Holley's Million Dollar Pool Design Challenge winning rendering. Courtesy of Brad Holley and Pure Design.
Brad Holley's Million Dollar Pool Design Challenge winning rendering. Courtesy of Brad Holley and Pure Design.

Brad Holley does not take life too seriously. Even now, despite winning the Million Dollar Pool Design Challenge in his second year attempting the competition, Holley says he never saw himself as a designer.

The Million Dollar Pool Design Challenge brings together pool designers from around the globe to design hypothetical pools according to a theme — with zero budget constraints. The designs are then judged by a panel of seasoned designers.

Brad Holley with his pool designs. Photo by Yuvie Styles
Brad Holley likes to have fun with his initial pool sketches as he balances the client’s dreams and the outdoor design. Photo by Yuvie Styles

Plano’s own Brad Holley, the design director of Pure Design, was the 2023 winner of the competition. With a yacht-themed design that featured an entertainment space, putting green, closed-loop lazy river and an island with an oversized sunken fire pit, Holley’s design has caught the eye of designers all over the nation.

Despite his current success, Holley’s road to national acclaim is unconventional. He started in the construction industry with no formal education. After stumbling upon a job posting as the assistant to Randy Angell, a well-known outdoor designer based in Dallas, pool design became his passion.

“If you’d asked me 10 years ago if I see myself in the pool industry or as a designer, I probably would have just laughed,” Holley says. “It didn’t feel like me, but then I got into it and it felt like me. The more I learned about design and the more projects I was given, it became who I am now.”

How did you get into outdoor design?

I worked several jobs when I was younger, but I didn’t finish any kind of formal education. I didn’t really have the discipline to stick with it at the time that I probably should have. But I had a really good work ethic, and I think that carried me from one job to the next. I made a lot of good connections, until eventually, I was invited to be a part of a commercial construction company that renovated big apartment communities. While I was working there, I stumbled across some software called SketchUp.

It was just like everything that I needed, because it allows you to simply intuitively model things in 3D space. So I fell in love with this; I just started using it as a hobby. I found some creative ways to use it at work, but really, I was just in love with making things in 3D space.

I did a Google search on how to do something inside SketchUp and it ended up leading me to a job posting, though I wasn’t looking for a job at the time, to be the assistant to this successful designer. I didn’t know anything about swimming pools or really even about the design at the time. When I went to work for this guy, and it turned out, he was a very notable person, not just in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, but across the country. I worked with him for eight and a half years, and he essentially taught me everything that I know now.

Putting Green. Brad Holley's Million Dollar Pool Design Challenge winning rendering. Courtesy of Brad Holley and Pure Design.
Brad Holley’s Million Dollar Pool Design Challenge winning rendering. Courtesy of Brad Holley and Pure Design.

What brought you to the Million Dollar Pool Design Challenge?

What makes that competition so compelling is that it really is some of the best people in the nation. So that’s exciting to begin with. If you’re gonna be a part of that competition, you’re competing against the very best that’s out there. The other thing that makes it really exciting is that you get to design for a very unusual and uncommon scenario, in that the budget is virtually unlimited. You don’t really get to do that as a professional in real life. It’s very, very uncommon for somebody to come to you with an almost unlimited budget. The fact that you can really just go crazy and just come up with the most amazing thing that you can dream up allows you to tap into just pure creativity, because there’s no boundary there.

How did it feel to get fourth on your first try of the competition?

I actually felt more confident the first year for the design that I had submitted. I thought that what I had created was even more open. My understanding of the competition up to that point was that it was really they just wanted to see these crazy, insane designs. I was just going for ridiculous, over the top. And I submitted that, and I was really proud of it. I felt really strongly about it. Especially when I had gotten a call and I was told that I was being invited to the finals.

I guess it was a little hasty looking back. I found out once we got into the judging process. They’re all giving live critique and feedback, so they’re giving you some praise but they’re also telling you where they think that you screwed up or where you went in the wrong direction or could have done something differently. And I think that was hard to hear. I also found out that I had unintentionally broken one of the rules that wasn’t really clear. And so I think that was part of why I got fourth place.

How about winning the latest competition?

I’m still trying to get over a little bit of impostor syndrome. It’s strange to feel that I was like relatively nobody, and then I kind of out of nowhere I’m in this competition. And then suddenly I’m sort of thrust into the spotlight and being called one of the best outdoor designers in the country. It was just a very strange feeling because before I had competed in this competition, I wouldn’t have described myself as even among the best because I would get on social media and open up our industry publications and magazines and I would look at all these other amazing designers.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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