People are no longer just buying pools for enjoyment. They have also become aware of the aesthetics of their backyards. Pools are an integral part of the landscape.— Lew Akins, owner of Ocean Quest Pools
The days of buckets in backyards are gone. It's not your grandparents' pool. Free-form, natural-shaped pools resembling puddles and tide pools populate homes these days.
Three pool designers and builders with nearly 100 years of combined experience share the latest in swimming-pool features found in backyards from the Florida Keys to Las Vegas. If you can imagine it, they can build it -- from light, fire and water shows to pools cascading into the blue horizon. Pools have become the gathering place where people enjoy family celebrations, elegant dining, entertaining or some quiet relaxation.
"People are no longer just buying pools for enjoyment. They have also become aware of the aesthetics of their backyards. Pools are an integral part of the landscape," said Lew Akins, owner of Ocean Quest Pools by Lew Akins.
Compared to "what it was 35 years ago, we can do anything," said Alan Bryson, owner of AAA Custom Pools in South Florida. "You can really get your juices flowing and get creative."
The Vanishing Edge
Imagine the pool's water spilling out into a lake, ocean or canyon. The flow of water appears endless, disappearing into a serene natural scene -- a vanishing pool. The pool water empties into an unseen basin to create the effect and then recirculates back into the pool. Glass tiles help create the seamless look.
"If you are on the ocean and it's turquoise, they can match it," Bryson said. "And do the same if it's lake and it's brown."
"It's primarily about aesthetics," said Akins, who helped popularize the design by building more than 600 of the infinity or negative-edge pools in the past 27 years. A vanishing-edge pool typically costs $15,000 to $20,000 more than an average "box" pool, he says.
Fire and Water -- Opposites Attract Poolside
Fire features are a popular draw around a pool, especially in the evening.
Maybe water cascades before a wall of fire at one end, says Joe Vassallo, owner of Paragon Pools in Las Vegas. "You can see the fire burning behind the water. It's pretty cool," he added.
Or picture flames shooting out from a sunken poolside fire pit or fire magically rising from water bowls. "They can be anyplace," Akins said. "It brings some aesthetics at night while entertaining around the pool."
Acrylic windows give you a peak into the underwater world at aquariums or at luxury hotels. Mostly used in commercial pools, underwater acrylic windows are making their way into residential backyards, Vassallo says. With an acrylic window in your backyard pool, watching family and friends underwater becomes the new main attraction.
"It looks like people swimming in a fish tank," Vassallo said.
It's the Fourth of July, so why not turn on a changing pattern of color in the pool? Add red, white and blue lights to set the festive atmosphere.
LED, or light-emitting diode, lights offer a cost-effective alternative to incandescent lights with the benefit of a myriad of colors to choose from, Akins says. And with an average life expectancy of 18,000 hours, maintenance is reduced significantly.
"They rotate colors. Kids love that stuff. They put two or three lights in the pool and get a little show going on at night from red to green to blue to lavender," Bryson said.
Nothing sounds more glamorous than a midnight swim, except maybe through the star-studded night sky. "You have a field of lighted stars at the bottom of the pool," Akins said.
The underwater celestial experience is the work of fiber-optic stars lit along the pool floor. Not a bad way to spend the evening if you can afford the extra $10,000.
Looking and Feeling Good on the Inside
White plaster pool interiors now have plenty of competition. Glass tiles and pebbles are popular options. Pebble interiors offer greater life expectancy, says Akins.
"It's like walking on an orange peel -- a little texture, but not abrasive," he added. "They come in every color of the rainbow."
For a smooth feel on your feet, tile is the top choice. Popular colors are often blues, mixed earth tones and black. "We never show a prospective customer all tile if they aren't going to get it. It's like showing you a Ferrari when you are going to get a Toyota Corolla. You will be really disappointed when you get the Corolla," Akins said.
A Sun Shelf
Where there once might have been a diving board or slide, there is now the sun shelf or wet deck. Designed for sunbathers who want to remain cool but stay mostly dry, the sun shelf doubles as the first step into the pool and is a space large enough to fit a couple of chaise lounges and a table. It even has a hole for an umbrella.
You can get your feet wet in 6 inches of water under the shade of an umbrella and relax, says Bryson. "Everybody ends up on the sun shelf with a glass of wine watching the kids swim in the pool," he said.
Making Your Perfect Oasis
"The backyard is not just a pool. It has become an extension of the home's living area," Akins said.
Regional climate and personal choice combine to create the poolside retreat. You find tropical palm trees in South Florida as likely as you find purple and green succulent plants peppering pool backyards in Phoenix or Las Vegas. More formal gardens often have perfectly trimmed hedges and statues.
No matter what you choose, make sure it is consistent with the architecture and style of your home, Akins recommends.
For night swims, lighting is key to the right mood. "It's very important to not have harsh spotlights on the outside of the house," Akins said. Whether inside or outside the pool, lights shouldn't show -- just their glowing effects. "If you are fortunate to have large trees, you can light them up and down," Akins added.
Private patios, running water, stepping-stone paths, artwork and bridges help make the space feel like another world. Fire pits and fireplaces help keep the backyard enjoyable year-round.
"Everybody likes the sound of moving water. It's a relaxing look as well," Akins said. In laminar flowing fountains, the stream of water appears more like glass than water, says Akins. Fountains that bubble up, spray up or pour from one tier to the next are also popular in pool design, Bryson says.
Let the style of the pool help guide the look of the outdoor living space. "When you do a free-form pool, you always want to do rock bed areas," Bryson said.
Coconut Royal Palms are a favorite for these garden spots, says Bryson, because the fronds and coconuts give you a tropical feel.
An outdoor kitchen equipped with a covered patio, grill or barbecue, and even a TV create a living environment for entertaining, Bryson says. Some people use sliding-glass doors and add furniture in the backyard to blur the line between indoor and outdoor living, says Vassallo.
For some, the joy of the pool is simply the view from inside. Akins asked a client how often he used his pool. "He hadn't been in his pool in almost a year but said, 'It is the first thing that I see when I walk in the door, and it still takes my breath away.' "
- Photo Credit Jupiterimages/BananaStock/Getty Images
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