Designing a Pool with the Landscape in Mind

A pool is only one part of your yard. Ideally you should plan the whole project at one time so there is an integration of the design and materials for the pool, patio, pool deck, outdoor kitchen/BBQ area, walkways, spa and water features. Here is a partial list of some of the key questions to consider and which will help a landscape designer prepare a plan when designing a pool with the landscape in mind:

  1.  What other activities or functions do you want in the backyard besides the pool? (Barbeque island, fireplace gathering area, lawn areas, flower beds, etc.)
  2.  Do you want a spa as part of the pool? Would you like the spa integrated with the pool or more secluded away from the pool?
  3.  What amount of shade do you want around the pool and would you prefer to stay with trees or perhaps use more formal structures such as ramadas, patio covers, lattice covers, etc.
  4.  Are you interested in having a water feature such as a waterfall, sheer descent, deck jets or other type of fountain?
  5.  What basic shape do you prefer, formal or informal?
  6.  How will you use the pool? For exercise, for children to play, or to just cool off?

Design

In terms of shape, I shall limit myself to concrete in-ground pools since I am not familiar with other types. The shape is therefore whatever design you wish to create. Although when talking about pools with a pool sales person, they may initially show you pre-designed shapes which are popular among past customers. But don’t be limited to simply picking a shape. Before you do that, consider all the other factors that surround the pool and the amenities that you may want to go with it.

If you have a preferred theme or style expressed to your landscape designer as a criteria, this should be reflected in the pool shape as well. Modern, contemporary, naturalistic, classic European styles are all found in pools and can be carried out in the landscape elements as well.

The site’s topography may lend itself to incorporating a “negative edge” pool, also called vanishing edge or infinity edge. Here the outer edge of the waterline seems to disappear off in the distance as if falling off the edge of a waterfall. The ground below is not seen from the primary vantage points on the other side of the pool such as the main lounging areas or from the key views inside. This is a type of waterfeature that is both subtle, yet very dramatic if the elevation change on the property is significant.

Swimming Pool Decking

The decking surrounding the pool must first be designed in terms of circulation and use areas and secondarily as to the material. The material choice will be affected by the style or theme of the pool and landscape as well as the edges of the decking.

Most pools are fairly close to the house which often has a covered patio. This covered patio surface is then often extended to become integrated with the pool decking, but not always. Do you need to be able to walk completely around the pool? Would you want to? Perhaps that feature would be appropriate for children playing in and around the pool and provide more than one entry/exit point.

Areas for patio tables, chairs and lounges must be accommodated and should be about 15 feet for a table and chairs and less for lounge chairs depending on how many pieces of furniture is desired. Patio umbrellas should also play a factor in deck design as umbrella sleeves can be built into the decking during construction.

Seating and lounging areas should factor in not only what views they will have, but the orientation of the sun. How will shadows be cast if shade is desired from a shade structure or umbrella?  If there is a great view beyond the pool, perhaps the lounge seating area could be on the opposite side of the pool so that one’s view captures both the pool itself as well as the view beyond. If such a seating area was on the other side of the pool, one would be facing away from the pool. These types of analysis should be considered when designing a pool with the landscape in mind.

Pool Decking Materials

Decking around a pool should consider how slippery and dangerous it could be while wet. A non-skid surface should be a priority for safety concerns. The other issue is heat absorption. Generally the darker the material, the hotter it will be and the lighter the material, which reflects light and therefore absorbs less heat will be relatively less hot.

Many pools sold by the pool industry at least in the Southwest US, over the past 20 years overemphasized the use of the pool industry standard decking material known as Kool Deck. It was easy to install and when pitched based on the fear factor of not wanting to burn your feet, was an automatic choice for the uninformed homeowner. Nowadays, there are other materials that are considered reasonably cool on bare feet that provide design options instead of the contemporary simplistic look of Kool Deck.

Decorative concrete coatings that mimic natural stone or tile is often used as a cost savings alternative to natural stone, travertine and flagstone. Concrete pavers are also a popular choice for pool decking today although most concrete pavers are on the darker color range. Travertine pavers are light in color and their pits and imperfections are unfilled so their natural pitted texture adds to their skid resistance. Since they are created as pavers, there are no grout joints.

Pool Waterfeatures

Waterfeatures may be natural boulder waterfalls, formal fountains, scuppers that shoot water out from a raised wall, deck jets that shoot streams of water from the decking or sheer descent waterfalls that put out a wide sheet of water through a narrow slot.
Each type of waterfeature should be consistent with the overall style of the pool and landscape theme.

I would highly recommend a pool have some kind of moving water that not only creates visual interest, but sound and can serve as the focal point. Pools without any moving water can appear lifeless, almost too serene if the surrounding landscape is not designed well.

Spas

Spas that are built as part of the pool can be situated on the edge of the pool or could be separated. One of the benefits of integrating the spa with the spa is to elevate the spa so it can cascade water into the pool and serve as a scupper type waterfeature without too much added cost. In this case, they are usually raised 12” to 18” which gives sufficient height to create a noticeable waterfall effect as well as provide more surface of the waterline tile to be exposed up the face of the wall between the pool and the spa.

A raised spa will also provide for a separate sitting area which could be expanded to accommodate seating or lounge chairs. Perhaps this would provide you with just enough added height to capture views.

A concrete spa does have limitations compared to its cousin the portable spa or hot tub. Portable spas are free standing self contained units that are designed more as therapeutic benefits by having many more jets and ergonomic seating and lounging. Concrete spas are not at all therapeutic other than the heat, bubble action and swirling jets. You cannot recline in a concrete spa as you can in portable spa and the jets are not designed to directly hit specific parts of your body such as the lower back or neck areas.

A spa can add about $7-$10,000 to the cost of the pool depending on how high it is, the decking around it, and the type of heater you use. If you are attracted to a spa for its therapeutic benefits, you may want to consider a well equipped portable spa for the same cost.

Swimming Pool Fencing

Many jurisdictions require a swimming pool barrier to protect children from accidental drowning. The simplest way to fence a pool is to surround it with a fence. But if you simply wrap the perimeter of the pool with a fence, it will look like it is caged in. I’m telling you from a design standpoint, this is the most difficult thing to deal with when designing a landscape with a swimming pool. It becomes safety vs. aesthetics vs. cost. It is best to place this barrier as far away from the pool decking as possible depending on the design. But how do you fence off the direct access from the house? You cannot avoid having to look out on your barrier fencing as seen from the house and this destroys the aesthetics from a design standpoint. You as a parent, must decide how to balance these issues.

Shade at the Pool

Landscape designs for pools should have some shade for at least one are of the pool decking. Basically there are several options from naturalistic to formal structures. The simplistic and least expensive choice perhaps is to include shade trees that are not too close to the water’s edge to keep debris from being an issue. Umbrellas are another alternative and can be placed in umbrella sleeves embedded into the decking for multiple locations including inside the pool itself.

Structures such as ramadas and gazebos can provide not only shade, but an outdoor room if fitted with appropriate seating and perhaps an outdoor fireplace or outdoor kitchen. Keep in mind the direction of the sun and as the sun gets lower in the afternoon, the shade canopy may not function as well as during midday. So placing shade structure towards the south and southwest may be the most practical it may not be feasible given the placement of seating areas and potential view blockages.

There are many other considerations to explore when designing a pool such as lighting, heating, filtration, chlorination and general maintenance, but they go beyond the topic of designing a pool with the landscape in mind.