How to Make the Most of Your Pool Setting
By Eric Herman
There was a time when swimming pools were relatively limited in terms of their aesthetic bandwidth. They were either kidney, rectangular, or lazy-L shaped, with white plaster, blue waterline tile, bullnose coping, and—if you were lucky—maybe tile mosaics depicting fish.
These days, however, that has changed completely. Swimming pools and the landscape elements that surround them can now be seen as a rapidly expanding architectural art form with a myriad of features, colors, materials, shapes, sizes, functionality, and stunning sculptural beauty.
As a homeowner considering this spectrum of creative possibilities and lifestyle benefits, the first thing you should know is that when working with the thoughtful artists and artisans who create pools and backyard environments, you are the most important member of the project team and should regard the process as both a challenge and an opportunity to make your dreams a reality.
You’ll find that when you approach the building process with a basic understanding of design fundamentals, you’ll be better prepared to collaborate with the designer and/or builder in an informed way. Here are some key components to the design process you should keep in mind when planning your new pool.
In many situations, this discussion must begin with architecture. Because swimming pools and associated landscape elements are adjacent to your home, sometimes it is best to create a harmony between the home and landscape. When done, this creates a form of seamless integration where the exterior spaces become graceful extensions of the indoor living areas. Continuity of this type is typically accomplished by using similar architectural lines, textures, colors, and specific stylistic elements.
When using swimming pool design to enhance a setting, it is crucial to figure out how water directs the eye and links your personal space with the surrounding environment. Water’s ability to attract attention is no secret. The Romans knew this, as did designers from Islamic cultures, the Renaissance architects, and modern masters like Frank Lloyd Wright. But you don’t have to be a design professional to intuitively know that where water exists in a landscape it is noticed. Quite simply, there is something in human nature that is drawn to water.
Using that fundamental quality, many designers have learned how to use water to influence the way we see the surrounding environment. Perhaps the most dramatic example can be found in the advent of the vanishing edge. Also known as an infinity pool or negative edge, this familiar effect in which water flows over the edge of the pool has become one of the iconic features of today’s swimming pool designs.
Here’s why: Knowing that we will almost always look at water in a space before anything else, designers use the flat surface of water to draw the eye toward an artificial horizon created by water disappearing over an edge. By leading the eye toward that mesmerizing edge, the scene beyond the water’s surface takes on increased significance and interest. When that effect is used over an ocean, lake, or river, the distant body of water actually becomes a part of the private landscape. In other words, the far-off setting is inextricably linked to the close-up, intimate view.
Certainly, the water-on-water application of the vanishing edge is perhaps its most common use, but when the edge leads to a verdant landscape, perhaps a nearby stand of trees or a mountain vista, then it serves to bring the distance into the foreground. This principle is not limited to vanishing-edge design, however. Because water embodies such remarkable reflective qualities, even the simplest design can be used to interpret nearby architectural structures, landscapes, or works of art.
Consider the dimensional beauty that the reflecting ponds in front of the Taj Mahal or in the Mall of Washington contribute to the legendary edifices they reflect. In a residential setting, that same principle can be applied to a beautiful tree, statue, or the house itself. An experienced designer will take the dimensional beauty of water and combine it with natural environs for a flawless look.
Perimeter-Overflow Pools and Water Features
The vanishing edge is just one of the numerous examples of water-in-transit designs. There are many designs that use this basic principle of fluid edges and gravity to create effects that yield enduring excitement and beauty. Some are known as perimeter overflows, where the surface of the water is either raised above grade or flush at deck-level, and the water flows over the edge into a simple slot and disappears. In other situations, a waterfall, scupper, or spillway creates interest with an added benefit of the sound of falling water. In these designs, the movement of water over an edge draws attention to the geometry of the structure while the finish materials over which the water flows add to the reflective qualities that exist on the different elevations of the surface.
These are just a few of the design elements that you may want to keep in mind when interviewing a pool designer. The possibilities are limited only by the imaginations of the designers and homeowners—and, of course, the budgets! In fact, along with the many choices in materials, lighting, plant selection, fire features, outdoor dining areas, shade structures, and the myriad of other possible features that are available, this discussion could easily consume many more pages.
All of this, and more, is why you owe it to yourself to think about a variety of items before making a final decision. Along with the wide range of design possibilities, you need to take the time to find a designer and/or contractor who will use his skills to not only execute your ideas with reliable construction practices and artistic sensitivity, but also to help you examine features you may never have envisioned as possible for your backyard.
Photo courtesy of Elite Concepts, Inc., Lewisville, Texas
Eric Herman is editor of the professional journal, WaterShapes. He has been writing and reporting about the artistic use of water in the landscape for nearly 20 years.