Pool Perfect

Say goodbye to the old kidney-shaped favorite. Today's pool is as chic and expensive as its customer demands.

It's early evening and you've had a long day at the office. As you drive home, you dial your cell phone and instruct your swimming pool to retract its vinyl cover, heat the spa to 102 degrees, turn on the underwater stereo system, and rev up the volcano. When you arrive, you change into your swimsuit and emerge onto the back loggia of your home to survey what has become your patch of paradise in the city: a pool lined with glass tile and flanked by limestone pavers. At one end lies a grotto surrounded by palm trees; at the other, a sunken bar beneath a thatched roof, its swim-up stools floating close by. Suddenly a huge jet spouts up from below the surface. Ah, you think, the volcano is working. You slowly immerse yourself, satisfied that backyards just don't get better than this.

"The actual construction of a pool is crucial," says Bruce Conn, the vice president of California Pools, which has built more than 50,000 swimming pools. "But if you've hired a top-quality company, that's pretty much guaranteed. Really the most important thing to worry about when it comes to building a swimming pool is the design. That's what will make it stand out. It's also what tortures clients most."

When that design includes luxurious finishes and high-tech bells and whistles, it can easily elevate the cost from $35,000—the minimum to build a bare-bones, high-end pool—to upwards of $500,000. It can also involve building a natural or artificial setting around the pool, often with a structure as elaborate as a Disney stage. "Today, pools are seen as a design element that can bring in other elements," says Mark Scott of Mark Scott Associates, a landscape architecture firm in Newport Beach, California. "When clients say that they want a pool, it usually means they want fountains, grottoes, spas, sports bars, surround-sound systems, and TV monitors. We did one pool for $350,000. It included a Roman-style aqueduct built to simulate ancient ruins, a water slide, and boulders."

But beware—with so many new materials and technologies available, it's easy to go overboard and create something you may not want to look at when it's done. And unlike decorating a home, where you can simply replace curtains you don't like or repaint a wall, a swimming pool is literally cast in concrete and revamping it can be costly and time-consuming. To help you avoid the pitfalls, here is some advice on stylish swimming-pool design from the best architects, designers, and pool specialists in Florida, New York, Atlanta, and California.

The Rectangular Pool is Back

"The kidney-shaped pool came into its own in the 1950s and 1960s," says Robert Bray, a New York-based designer and copartner of Bray-Schaible Design. Since then, some say, they have proven problematic from a design standpoint. "If you're not careful with the materials, they can turn out static and look synthetic," says Ricky Patterson, a draftsman and designer at Superior Pools in Atlanta. "We don't prefer them."

A better choice is an asymmetrical, free-form pool. "We frequently place a spa or plant ornamental trees within the curves of a free-form pool," says Patterson. "It ties in especially well when the landscaping is curvilinear." Often, free-form pools are called "lagoon pools" because they include inlets, coves, and peninsular plantings to simulate ponds found in the jungle. "They're a lot more fun for kids," Scott says, "but they do take up a lot of space—it's best to have at least 60 by 80 feet."

Classicists and modernists alike prefer a rectangular shape for pools, mainly because it doesn't compete with the architecture of the house. Jeffrey W. Smith of Smith Architectural Group in Palm Beach, an avid classicist who regularly designs Mediterranean-style villas for customers, likes to leave his pools "very simple, so that they look as if they have always been there." Steven Ehrlich of the Los Angeles-based Steven Ehrlich Architects, a leader in the field of contemporary California architecture, also only designs rectangular pools. "They work well as extensions of the geometry of my architecture," he explains. "It's especially powerful when the house has glass walls that seem to disappear before the pool, uniting the indoor and outdoor living areas."

Lap pools are the most coveted rectangular pools for serious swimmers. They range from 40 to 75 feet long and are often eight feet wide, the standard width of a racing lane. (A standard rectangular pool, on the other hand, tends to be only 30 to 42 feet long and at least ten feet wide.) Their depth ranges from three to five feet, and they sometimes include underwater current machines to provide for a more difficult workout.

"Lap pools are great because they are simple and straightforward," says Patterson. "They tend to be placed next to houses with a rather austere style. But that's not to say they're austere. We designed one with a peach stone deck and a deep-blue interior that was magical—it made the property come alive." Even Conn, whose company regularly designs and constructs elaborate pools for clients, says he likes these minimalist pools best. "Lap pools are simple and the lines are clean," he explains. "And they can be much less expensive to build."

For those who have no real intention of swimming, a "cooling pool" (also referred to as a "party pool") may be the best choice. They're typically 20 feet long and ten feet wide, no more than four feet deep, and include built-in seats. "We did one cooling pool for a hockey star," says Scott. "It has a large spa, lots of seats, and a full entertainment center with monitors."

Waterfalls et al

One popular option with lagoon pools is to place natural boulders around the perimeter, to give the sense of being in the Great Outdoors. But the risk here is that you can spend a considerable amount of money on what may end up looking fake. "If you get a contractor that does them well, they look fabulous," Scott explains. "The problem is that you cannot fully design how they will look ahead of time, since each boulder will have a different size and shape. And two thirds of the boulder has to be buried underground so that it will look realistic. A lot of contractors try to make a pyramid of stacked boulders, and it looks incredibly contrived.

"Instead, some who long for a pool au naturel are placing imitation boulders made of fiberglass and concrete around the perimeter and anchoring them to the pool deck to create a solid structure. Sometimes these rocks are used to create grottoes—often with a bubbler in the bottom to simulate a hot spring."

Waterfalls cost anywhere from $7,500 to $100,000 to construct but, Conn cautions, "they can look extraordinary—or just gaudy." In California in particular they are often now substituted with what is known as a "sheer descent," a single sheet of water that can vary in width, typically a foot and a half to ten feet. Unlike a waterfall, whose cascade is irregular, the sheer descent's is extremely precise—and still includes the waterfall's gurgling sound. "A sheer descent looks best with the crisp, geometric lines of a modern-style pool," Scott explains. "And it's very architectural. When it's not on, you don't realize it's there."

Stepping Out

The standard way to enter a pool is via three or four narrow steps. Today there are three alternatives that are considered a cut above the norm. The first is what some refer to as a "Venetian entry," which has steps extending the entire width of the pool, much like the steps in the canals in Venice. Because they are so wide, they often are used as underwater benches. The second type, known as a "beach entry," is meant to resemble a beach sloping into the water. The effect is achieved with a material comprised of tiny pebbles enmeshed in pool plaster, with a natural finish (Pebble Tec is a well-known example). Finally, there are reef, or shelf, steps, which are commonly found in Mexican resorts. With these, the first step is six by ten feet wide and four or so inches deep, so that you can place a chaise longue on them. "Ree steps often include umbrella sleeves," says Conn, "so you can be in the shade."

Breaking Waves

They were standard on older residential pools, but these days gutters are found mainly in commercial swimming pools. Smith feels they're worthwhile for their aesthetic appeal alone. "They're very old-world," he says. "I remember seeing a pool from 1935. The maintenance guy was telling the owner to get rid of the gutters; he said they would be inconvenient to clean. But they were beautiful." And, Bray adds, swimmers will want gutters to break the wake of the waves.

Hand-cut Mosaics Can Be Chic Outside of Florida, where they are popular, mosaics are often considered a waste of time and money, and opponents argue that they detract visually from the pool's remaining elements. Scott is currently designing one mosaic for a Turkish client in southern California. "But we don't do them often," he says. "It's a very ornate thing. In southern Florida, where the architecture is often extravagant Spanish Revival or very Italianate, mosaics are appropriate."

The beauty and subtlety of mosaics depends upon how the mosaic is made, according to Susan Comeau, manager of the Palm Beach showroom of Paris Ceramics, a top supplier whose showrooms are found throughout the country. Machine-mad mosaics, with every piece cut to exactly the same size, have a static, two-dimensional appearance. When cut and set by hand, however, as is done in Milan for Paris Ceramics, the design comes to life—and the result is significantly more expensive.

"Custom-made mosaics look three-dimensional. They play with your eyes and have depth," says Comeau. "When done well, they're breathtaking."

Smith's firm is currently working on a project in Naples, Florida, that includes a custom-made neoclassic mosaic with leafy borders of varying shades of green and a complex geometric pattern. "But generally our clients want a classical-looking pool," notes Angelo Davila, an architect at Smith Architectural Group, "like the ones you'll find in the Mediterranean. Mosaics go hand in hand with that."

To Tile or Not to Tile

For lining the pool, Scott thinks that glass tiles are fabulous. "They're so reflective, I think they look great in classical pools, too," he says. "Plus, they come in beautiful colors." But you have to choose the tile surface carefully. "Some tiles are so iridescent they draw attention away from the pool and to the tiles themselves," Scott says. "We used some iridescent glass tiles on a project in Las Vegas and they looked amazing. In general, though, I try to use a flat color and make it nondescript so that the pool's shape can sing."

Romancing the Stone

Experts agree that the most sumptuous pool decks are made of real stone—which type of stone, however, is a matter of opinion. Patterson counts Indiana limestone and New York or Pennsylvania bluestone among the best. Scott likes limestone and travertine marble. Davila says his firm prefers limestone and coquina, a coral stone indigenous to Florida, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic. "It's whitish-gray and looks very old," he explains. "It has lots of fissures and fossilized shells in it, and acquires a rich patina over time, making it look earthy."

If you want an antique look, there are various finishes that can make new stone look old. Though they specialize in antique stones, Paris Ceramics will distress newly quarried limestone to achieve an antique look. If you go with clay tiles, you may be able to get real antiques, such as Paris Ceramic's terra-cotta tiles, which are taken from century-old rooftops in Provence.

Complement Nature—Don't Compete with It

That's especially true when pools are next to beachfront houses. "Most of the houses I design sit on the ocean," Smith explains. "I try to keep the pool on the opposite side of the house so it won't distract from the larger body of water. It's also better because pool decks tend to be cluttered with patio furniture, which would break the view of the waves beyond." Even Scott, who prefers to look from the pool directly to the ocean, notes that positioning the pool on the other side of the house also means protection from sea winds when lounging poolside. "It's nice to create two very separate water environments," he comments, "one wilder and more natural, the other calmer and more controlled."

Sometimes, of course, you don't have the luxury of choosing. On one project, Smith was obliged by the placement of the house to position the pool facing the sea. His solution: "I built two walls around the pool to enclose it into a courtyard, and I put in glass panels that rise on elevator pistons to block the breeze."

Indoor Pools and Cabanas

The decision of whether to build an indoor or outdoor pool depends mostly on the climate that you live in. In warm areas of the country where it doesn't rain much, such as southern California, indoor pools are rare. "But we did have one client here, a Taiwanese couple following Chinese tradition, who created an indoor pool with glass roll-up doors, like garage doors," says Ehrlich. "They wanted it to be like a health room."

While outdoor pools can allow for more design freedom because the shape is not dictated by the surrounding architecture, they do have several major caveats: In colder climates they are covered for most of the year; they require more frequent cleaning; and by law they usually must be enclosed by high fencing—sometimes as high as six to eight feet to keep deer out.

If you opt to build a pool house around your pool, you can match its style to the interior design of your home. Bray describes one indoor pool he designed for a client in Greenwich, Connecticut. "When I first arrived at the property—fourteen acres, two minutes from Main Street—I saw that the existing pool was outdoors, behind the house," he describes. "It was the major vista from inside. I knew that it would be covered for most of year, which would be unattractive, and that the client wanted to swim year-round. So we filled it in, built a heated pool house with a semi-underground tunnel linking it to the main house, and created an indoor lap pool."

The Greenwich pool house includes the pool (tiled in white so that the only color you see is the blue of the water), dressing rooms, a gymnasium, bathrooms, and a laundry room. Because the main house dates from 1929, Bray gave the interior style of the pool house "an Arts and Crafts feel." The floor is slate; the ceiling is stained dark mahogany, with mahogany ceiling fans to match; there's 36-inch-high wainscoting, and both ends have French doors. Bray also gave the pool house a high-tech touch: a Desert Air System, which keeps the ambient air three degrees higher than the temperature of the water and, he says, makes the air smell fresher. "We wanted to raise the standard of the indoor pool," explains Mitchell Turnbough, Bray's associate and codesigner of the project. "Without the system, the air seemed too heavy, and the smell wasn't right."

Of course, pool houses can raise your tab exponentially. Such was the case with one of Mark Scott Associates' projects, which had a $1,350,000 budget—only about $100,000 of which actually went to the grand, multilevel pool itself. Other elements included 25-foot-high waterfalls; a teak bridge that crosses a pond adjacent to the pool; and an elaborate pool house designed to go with the English Tudor main house. The pool house featured a full deck above, guest quarters and restrooms below, and a full entertaining kitchen.

Indoor pools that are incorporated into the structure of the house pose unique construction challenges. Some people choose to place the pool on a terrace or even the roof, but they pay for an elaborately engineered support system to shoulder the weight (even an average-sized lap pool can weigh more than 120 tons). Conn tells the story of one hillside house in the San Fernando Valley that had a pool up on the third floor. "The pool had glass walls on three sides," he describes. "So much of the construction was about weight-bearing. We had to sink caissons into the ground to support it."

All Tech-ed Out

Advanced technology is convenient, certainly—but not especially attractive. A perfect example: underwater fiberoptic lighting. It's formed by a series of plastic fibers in a tube that convey light rather than electricity. While some argue that fiberoptic is safer than regular bulbs because it doesn't require placing electrical wires near the water, others find the argument too weak to outweigh its neonlike visual effect. "Fiber optics look like disco lights," Conn argues, "and they're much more expensive. Regular light bulbs are encased in a can with a rubber seal, and are well-grounded. Yes, a bulb could short out, but it's not considered a danger."

Fully automated systems that control heating and lighting can be operated from inside the house or by phone. "You can even automate the cycling of the spa and the spillway—the part where water spills from the spa into the pool," says Patterson. "We had one client who bought a sound system with $600 underwater speakers, and he automated them too."

One automated feature that is energy-efficient and reduces pool cleaning time is a motor-driven vinyl surface cover, which can cost from $2,300 to $5,000. "People use it at night and all the time in winter," Patterson explains. "You can close it, lock it, and walk away with the key. It saves a lot of money on heating. And no one can fall in by accident."

Some lower-tech options that are popular and cost less than $1,000 include the underwater volcano and the Baja Bubbler. The former is a massive rush of air that spurts up at the shallow end of the pool, with a light in the middle that alternates between orange and red. "It's exquisite at night," says Conn. The latter is composed of spa jets embedded in the steps of the pool; as you're sitting on the top step, water bubbles up, giving your feet and legs a massage.

The most expensive high-tech option, and the one that design experts across the board adore, is the "infinity edge" (known also as a vanishing or negative edge). With it, the water flows from inside the pool directly over one of its rims, which is set lower than the others. From there it flows down the side of the wall into a trough below, where it is pumped out and recycled. "It creates a very beautiful effect," says Ehrlich. "When you look across the water you don't see a tile edge at all. It can be on one to four sides of the pool. We recently helped to design a pool that had two infinity edges. It was spectacular."

When Is The Best Time To Build?

Experts say that it can take up to six months to build a high-end pool— and that's assuming that the best masons and materials are available immediately. It's also assuming that your structural engineer doesn't discover some "challenge" on the site that must be overcome, such as imminent erosion that requires building a retaining wall as expensive as the pool itself.

Travis Neighbor Ward wrote about trusts for the November/December 2000 issue of Departures.