When designing any watershape environment, choosing the finish materials can be both exciting and overwhelming. When choosing the type of decking, coping, and interior pool finish, you will need to consider texture, color, and durability while making your decision. But not to worry—you are not alone. Today’s high-end designers use creativity, knowledge, education, training, and resourcefulness to sift through a bountiful selection of finish materials to custom design and build exquisite outdoor Shangri-Las.
Types of Pool Decking
Pool decking is one of the most important items in a harmonious design. Decking options include concrete, wood, composites, and stone. When searching for a deck material, remember to keep these questions in mind: Will the material be slippery when wet? Unglazed options tend to be safer around water. Will the surface sizzle in the intense summer sun? Some materials, like brick, get too hot, while others, such as travertine, handle the heat very well. Don’t choose with your eyes alone: do your homework and think about how the material will be used.
Concrete is one option. Your designer may suggest tinting the concrete with an integral color and seeding it with decorative rocks. You may also have the concrete ground and polished just enough to expose the surface of decorative rocks, creating a terrazzo-like effect.
A designer may also recommend exotic hardwoods like Ironwood, Ipe, or Mahogany. Sustainable forestation and harvesting have made these materials popular, not to mention environmentally correct. If you don’t want to use the real thing but want the look of wood, composite materials are a viable alternative. This manmade choice comes in a variety of colors and styles.
If the architecture of the environment and buildings demand a more natural or formal material, your designer may propose natural stone decking. A knowledgeable designer will specify the type of stone, required thickness, pattern, shape, durability, and method of installation. An expert designer will also be aware of which types of stone are not meant to be in a swimming pool environment or certain regions of the country. Some stones decay in the presence of saltwater and pool chemicals, or may bleed minerals. Others wear poorly, degrade, fracture, become extremely slippery when wet, or cannot handle the freeze and thaw cycles of severe winters.
Using your local stone yard may enable you to discover a fine choice of materials to enhance your setting, and help you save on shipping costs as well. If you want a one-of-a-kind result, however, think outside the yard. Resourceful designers will have multiple contacts to obtain exotic stones, and they can even import custom quarried and finished stones from anywhere in the world.
Stones can be processed to add textures that appear natural, or they can be tumbled in an agitator along with ceramic discs to antique their surfaces and edges, imparting a softened velvet appearance.
Hard stones, such as granite, can be flamed to create a natural slip-resistant surface by soaking stones in water and then passing them through a controlled flame. The water in the top millimeter of the stone flashes into steam, causing microscopic pieces of the stone to separate. The natural cleft, vein, and density of the stone causes the stone to spall, or break up, into a natural pattern so that the resultant texture appears as though Mother Nature herself created it. This process is one of my favorites because it usually does not impart any stress into the stones, and I often utilize it to treat bluestones and granite tiles.
Whatever surface is chosen, however, it is important that the designer integrates the deck drainage into the stone pattern, concealing the drains in the grout lines or under stone grates.
Pool Coping Materials
Coping, the material that is affixed to the top of the pool wall, visually ties the pool to the decking materials. Blending the coping into the design is paramount. If it is a substantially different color or finish from the decking material, it will appear as a giant stripe around the pool. The scene will look like someone took a highlighter and outlined the pool—a highly unfavorable look. Remember, visual harmony is the ultimate goal!
The coping should be smooth and free of sharp, jagged edges that may scratch or scrape bathers or snag their suits as they slide into the pool. Slightly overhanging the material will create a defining shadow line under the coping, and it will provide a handhold for small hands to grasp.
The coping can be a formally cut and processed stone, such as a 2- or 3-inch-thick bullnose—a curved semi-circular side. On larger projects, a thinner material could look insufficient or unsubstantial as it may be out of scale with the entire venue.
In some cases, the transition from deck to pool can be achieved without coping. You may opt for a cantilevered design, which is a simple and understated extension of the deck that continues right over the top of the pool wall. On a perimeter-overflow style pool, the interior finish of the pool can be continued right up to the point where the water is collected in a slot or gutter. Your designer will know what looks appropriate for your project, but if you are in doubt, purchase sample boards or mock-ups.
Interior Pool Finishing Materials
Most pools are constructed of fiberglass, vinyl, or concrete. Each type has its own set of pros: Fiberglass pools consist of one-piece shells crafted from factory molds that are brought onsite to be installed, while vinyl-lined pools can be configured in many shapes and sizes. Both fiberglass and vinyl-lined pools feature smooth surfaces and are becoming more avant-garde as technological advancements are introduced into the manufacturing processes. Concrete is most common for custom designs and perfect for specialty applications—from vanishing edges, beach entries, and lap pools—but must be finished with plaster, tile, or stone aggregate.
With advancements in cement technology, there is now a plethora of special finishes designed for lining the interiors of swimming pools, spas, and water features. Most of these finishes are bagged and pre-blended in a factory under rigid quality control standards. All the applicator needs to do is add water. Some include the aggregate in the mix, while others provide it in bulk or in separate bags. These pre-blended products eliminate variables in quality control. The resulting colors and finishes are more consistent and the surfaces much more durable.
Almost all of these pool finishes incorporate some new and interesting aggregates. Some manufacturers utilize small exposed pebbles as aggregates, while others polish the exposed pebbles to soften sharp edges. Most of these decorative rocks are held in place by a matrix of colored plaster, which appears in the background and is only visible between the aggregate.
A few manufacturers incorporate crushed marble or glass particles, glass beads, or quartz crystals into the finish. Some of these materials are polished after they are installed, while others are so fine that they are troweled smooth during the application process. Again, a mix of colored plaster holds it all together.
In the past decade there has been a resurgence of interest in all-tile pools. Combined with a harmonious design, glass tile mosaics add a richness and elegance to any watershape. They can be ordered in custom blends so that they impart the hue that the designer is attempting to achieve. I have found that small glass tiles are the most versatile. From a distance, your eyes blend the various colors of the small glass tile mosaics into one homogenous color—like the pixels on a television screen. They can even be installed in a gradient blend, so the color changes as the water deepens.
Not all name brand glass tiles are worth the glass they are made of, however. Designers who have their fingers on the pulse of the industry will have intimate knowledge of the tiles that have a history of superior performance in outdoor environments, such as Sicis and Bisazza (Italian), Light Streams (American), and InterStyle (Canadian). All are made of first-quality materials and offer strong warranties and customer support.
While recycled glass may be environmentally-friendly, I would not recommend using glass tiles that utilize recycled glass in their manufacturing process. When such tiles are exposed to thermal shock (as in any outdoor environment), they become susceptible to random fissures and fractures. Read the warranties carefully—some expire once the tiles are installed, while others place the burden of validating the quality of the tile upon the purchaser or installer.
In order to create a lasting project, you should require that your finishes be installed exactly as the manufacturer recommends. With natural or bulk materials, insist that the nationally published trade practices be adhered to. Your designer should be familiar with the standards from the American Concrete Institute, Tile Contractors Association, Tile Counsel of North America, and the Masonry Contractor’s Institute, among others. Following these guidelines will assure that your investment lasts a lifetime!
Photo courtesy of Aquatic Technology, Morgan Hill, CA
Paolo Benedetti, principal of design, consulting, and construction for Aquatic Technology Pool & Spa, Morgan Hill, CA, has over 17 years of experience in the swimming pool industry. Benedetti, who has designed and built award-winning poolscapes all over the world, appears regularly as a design authority in magazines, in industry classrooms, and as an expert witness.