How top experts are pushing the engineering envelope to elevate pool design.

We’ve all seen those magnificent resort pools, with thousands of gallons of water stretching along sandy beaches and infinity edges blending expertly with the sea. At these hospitality meccas, we expect topnotch features: integrated hot tubs, waterfalls, lazy rivers, acrylic panels, creative lighting, in-water bars. The more complicated the package, the greater the appeal.

Similarly, homeowners are equally eager for a pool that’s above and beyond the norm. When a pool pushes the limits of design, and therefore engineering and construction, it commands attention and garners immediate oohs and aahs. Sometimes it’s the size, sometimes it’s the positioning, but always it’s the detailing that contributes to an eyepopping end result.

Here are some of the most expectation-defying projects executed by the country’s leading pool designers and contractors. The concepts are inspired, and the end results spectacular. But the steps in between? Highly challenging in all respects.


The motto at Keith Zars Pools is “How do we know it can’t be done unless we try.” No matter the task, Keith Zars relies on its collaborative team of pool experts and over 100 years of building experience. “We have a depth of resources stemming from all of our equipment and the dedicated employees who have been with us for many years,” says Joe Fry, head of product quality assurance. “There isn’t much we haven’t seen or done after building almost 10,000 pools!”

President Keith Zars is no stranger to intricate poolscapes. “Pushing the engineering limits means looking at an ambitious design plan with elements stretching beyond the norm or a very challenging topography and knowing we have to think outside the box and collaborate on how to make the impossible possible,” he says.

Keith Zars multi level pool
This design by Keith Zars Pools has a 16-foot grade change between the top and lower pools. Photograph by Siggi Ragnar

One of the company’s most intense builds to date is a Texas landscape with two pools installed on separate elevations. “The excavation required the use of a total station GPS machine to accurately determine the grades. We use this machine on commercial sites but rarely need it on residential projects,” says John Polhamus, the project supervisor. “The reason for this extra step was the immense 16-foot grade change between the top and lower pools.”

Such extreme separation made for complex construction. Built with waterproof joints, the pools were shot with gunite separately. “We had to build up the 14-foot rock wall on the lower end before construction could start on the upper tier,” Polhamus recalls. Scaffolding inside the top pool was required in order to gunite its 11 feet of depth plus another 4 feet for the raised spa. Then the company set up scaffolding again to complete the masonry work.

Now, with cascading views and double the pool enjoyment, the Texas property is a true outdoor oasis. The Keith Zars team tested and surpassed their own limits, and the end result far exceeded everyone’s expectations.

“Pushing the envelope on swimming pools has taken on an entirely new meaning these days,” says Chris Griffin, EIT SWD, owner of sister companies Unique Landscape and Unique Custom Pools in Mesa, Arizona. “As designers and builders, we are always looking for unique and challenging ways to express ourselves with water. The best way to do this is with something that looks and most likely is challenging to build. If anyone can do it, it’s not that cool, right?”

According to Griffin, creating a limit pushing pool is a three-step process that begins with a creative mindset. “We want something unique, different, and inspiring. Oftentimes we don’t worry too much about how it’s built, because we know we have the skills and experience to make anything we set our minds to,” he contends. The second step involves getting it all done: the details, the drawings, the engineering, and the scheduling. Lastly, there’s the execution. “Meticulously carrying out each step to ensure there are no catastrophic failures in the finished project is the most important task of all,” he explains. With a degree in civil engineering, Griffin is well-suited for these high-level projects. And with three licenses, Unique serves as a complete general contractor, meaning it builds pools but also installs the entire landscape: patios, landscaping, mist systems, outdoor sound systems, lighting, and more. “Any time we tackle a custom job, it’s essential that it not only looks great but also stands the test of time and performs well,” he says. “Engineers play a huge role in many of our projects for this very reason.”

Unique Landscape's cliff side pool
An amazing project with breathtaking views of Phoenix by Unique Landscape and Unique Custom Pools. Photographs courtesy of Unique Landscape and Unique Custom Pools

One of the most challenging pools Griffin has tackled is perched high on a cliff. Situated on one of Phoenix’s central mountains, it’s one of the highest pools ever built in the city and surrounding area. At the project’s start, the client wanted a vanishing-edge pool but had very little available real estate.

“Everything was challenging because of proximity, logistics, and access,” describes the pool expert. “I recall having to move walls in the client’s house to drive the excavators through his living room in order to dig the pool on the home’s back side. We had to bring small loads of concrete up the steep 600-foot-long driveway, which took three times as long. Ultimately it ended up being a pretty amazing project, with breathtaking views of Phoenix.”

Going large is not the be all, end all of high-end custom pools. Neither is a slide, wave pool, or lazy river. “It’s the pools hanging off a building or over a heavy slope, not to mention the pools and water features directly integrated into a house slab, that top the residential engineering world,” explains Tanr Ross of Poolscapes LLC, an award-winning custom pool and landscape company based in Las Vegas.

With over 1,000 projects under its belt, Poolscapes is no stranger to difficult installs. “Rarely does anything that hasn’t been built before seem like a walk in the park,” explains Ross. “But troubleshooting situations and problem solving are what a good designer does.”

Pushing the envelope when a space or house calls it for is a natural instinct for pool designers, he continues. “When the architects, landscape architects, and pool designers need to get on the same page in order to pull off a seamless integration into a custom-designed home—that’s when you know it’s probably going to be tough to engineer and even tougher to build,” he explains.

Negative-edge pool and reflecting pond by Poolscapes LLC
Negative-edge pool and reflecting pond by Poolscapes LLC. Photographs by JMP Photography

This was exactly the case on one of Poolscapes’ most challenging jobs in Henderson on the border of Las Vegas. The project was two-fold: create a 2,500-squarefoot reflecting pond in the interior courtyard and entryway while executing a huge negative-edge pool in the rear.

The reflecting pond was risky for any experienced builder due to its sheer size and direct integration against the slab. “Especially since the slab sits an average of 18-24 inches out of the ground,” Ross notes. “Add in multiple water features, lights, a thousand linear feet of tile, and a couple full sets of sanitation and filters, and you’ve got yourself a pretty special first impression,” he relates. Not only does the reflecting pool flank the entrance walkway, it also bends around and surrounds a peninsula-style dining room on three sides.

Meanwhile, Ross delivered the spectacular contemporary home, designed and built by Merlin Custom Home Builders, with an equally spectacular pool space. The negative-edge design contains over 200 linear feet of overflowing edge and actually bends back and touches the house on one side. Its water level sits eight feet above natural grade throughout (quite a feat, considering the pool water depth maxes out at five feet, six inches). Below the pool, at basin level, lies the spa, which shares a separate equipment set with some of the pool’s water features.

“All in all, the house, the view, the client, the distance off the ground, the sheer size, the slab integration, and the water volume made this job by far one of our top five most special projects ever,” Ross asserts.

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