Create a seamless backyard with the right pool design, landscaping, lighting
By Ron Coker Jr.
When planning a pool, homeowners and pool builders alike want the end result to be a beautiful, seamless outdoor environment. And just what are the keys to a creating a balanced backyard? With the current trend toward complete backyard renovations, it's all about creating an outdoor room that allows the yard to become an extension of the house - and for that, you need a comfortable and attractive transition. You don't want to force elements that look unnatural into a design; you may want a specific design feature based on a picture you've seen, but when it comes to your own pool and backyard, it really has to flow...with the terrain, the environmental setting, even existing walls or other features.
Pool Designs for Sloped Yards
Depending on the slope of your yard, some features will fit perfectly into the landscape, and some will not. A backyard that slopes away and down from the house is ideal for a vanishing edge, a popular pool design in which water spills over one side of the pool and appears to have no wall holding it back (in reality, it's caught in a catch basin). Even if you have a side-to-side slope, the vanishing edge can be set so that the decking is on the side away from the edge -- achieving that infinity effect from the deck. The most difficult yard type for accommodating this feature slopes away and up. The only way to create a vanishing edge there is to have the edge spilling towards your house. The pool will be on a higher level, and you'll still have a waterfall effect that is visible from the house -- just not that perspective of a vanishing horizon. This may not be as conducive to the design, but it's a good option if you really want to incorporate that feature.
If you're open to other features, I suggest using the away and up slope to your advantage by cutting into it with a series of retaining walls. You can use stacked stone or brick that matches the house, tying the two spaces together and creating multiple levels. You can have boulder waterfalls and sheer waterfalls that spill toward the house, giving you a beautiful backdrop with the pool nestled right into the slope. Elevated spas are perfect to place on the far side, where you can step up around the pool to an upper patio level. You can even have the spa 18 inches above that patio and spilling into the pool -- creating a nice water feature that's functional as well as aesthetic.
Pool Interiors, Decking, and Retaining Walls
Color and texture play a key role in choosing your materials. Your pool's interior needs to either match or complement the rest of the materials to achieve a harmonious look. If you use tile, I think the color should blend into the interior surface, so the shape of the pool and water itself are your focal point. Water may look clear in a glass, but its natural color in volume is aqua blue. Therefore, aqua blue or dark cobalt tile is ideal for a white plaster or white exposed aggregate interior, so the tile blends with the water color. For darker interiors, such as a gray or sand-colored PebbleTec®, gray tile maintains that natural look without calling attention to the tile.
In choosing your interior, you will want to get the color palette right. If you're going for a natural setting, you may use stone and have a stone waterfall. Earth tones, including browns, green and gray, are the most conducive to stonework. Say we're doing a patterned concrete deck: It's hard to pinpoint an exact color - especially since concrete can always look different depending on how it cures - but you narrow it down to a family of colors that you know will work well, such as a beige cream.
For a more contemporary look, which typically uses sleek lines and geometric shapes, you may have a classic spillway spa or sheer descent waterfall. Modern-style pools can have a few more colors and unique features. To achieve clean lines and elegance, you'll want design with a lot of symmetry -- I suggest using a cut stone, such as a classic limestone or a cut Pennsylvania bluestone. When you lay it down, they look antiqued right off the bat, as if the stone was always there.
Coordinating the deck and any elevated walls takes a bit of strategy as well. If you're matching the deck to elevated walls, you can overwhelm with too much of a good thing. Huge areas of stone flatwork right up against stone walls can cause the space to lose its dramatic appeal. In this case, contrasting decking -- such as patterned concrete or pavers -- distinguishes itself from the vertical walls and really allows that stone to stand out.
Trees and Canopy for Shade
Your existing foliage and architecture always play a role in building a poolscape. I never want to clear the entire lot for the pool; it's good to keep some of the topography. Showcasing a beautiful tree is as important as creating walls and other focal points. You can frame the tree with a curved wall of stacked stone; this helps contain its roots and hold water for the tree, but also frames the tree so it becomes a key visual element in the poolscape. Trees also provide that wonderful shade that homeowners may not consider in planning their poolscape. Everyone wants to maximize sun, but come August, you realize that you really need a shady area.
If you have a mature deciduous hardwood, such as an oak, poplar or maple, it's nice to accommodate them in the design. They are attractive, provide shade and a canopy, and offer a nice backdrop and depth to a yard. However, you'll end up with some leaves in the pool. In-floor and other cleaning systems, as well as pool covers, can minimize cleanup of fallen leaves and other debris. Especially in Atlanta, we try to maintain the canopy as much as possible to prevent the land from becoming overheated. Landscape is an important part of the design, but if you have a bare piece of ground, it's difficult and expensive to create an "instant canopy". Even if you put in a large deciduous hardwood, you need decades for these trees to mature. Adding arbors and pavilions is an excellent solution for yards with few trees.
Tip: Pool equipment should be hidden as much as possible, so you may want to extend pipes and house it around the side of the home. But other elements, such as water valves that control and divert water to in-floor cleaning systems, must be in close proximity to the pool; this equipment can be hidden by the strategic placement of shrubs and planters.
Landscape Lighting Around the Pool
Around the pool, you should have both functional lighting and mood lighting. At night, most people spend little time swimming; they're more likely to be cooking and socializing. You want lighting that's conducive to all of that and creates a pleasant experience, so avoid anything that looks like a harsh spotlight across the pool - instead, use combination lighting effects to illuminate elements around the pool. Moon lighting casts a soft glow from above, similar to that of a full moon. You can put moon lights in tall trees or off the side of the house; they have shades you can turn to direct the light where you want it.
Subtle uplighting, also known as "wash" lighting, uses a big broad light to highlight the underside of softscape element, typically a group of trees. By uplighting the trees beyond the pool, you give depth to the pool and yard at night, making you feel more comfortable and less confined to the pool itself. You can highlight all the surrounding plants, so the whole yard becomes part of that room. Certain showpiece trees, such as a flowering cherry tree in one corner, might warrant a spotlight to capture your attention.
Colored lights can be interesting when applied appropriately. In classic, symmetrical pools that are elegant in design, colored lights can look too artificial and detract from the design. This technique, in which lighting changes from one color to the next, works better in a more eclectic poolscape design, especially with features such as telescopic fountains that project upward.
Photo courtesy of Artistic Pools, Inc., Atlanta, GA
Ron Coker Jr. is the president of Artistic Pools, Inc., Atlanta, GA, and vice-chairman of the Master Pools Guild, an international group of elite builders. His company's custom pools have been featured on the Home & Garden Television Network (HGTV) and in several books, including Pools, Patios & Fabulous Outdoor Living Spaces.