Materials & Features for a Luxury Pool Retreat




Outdoor Tranquility

How to choose materials and features for a luxury pool retreat

Escaping to your own backyard is one of the best things about owning a pool. Being in the pool business for 20 years, then founding LifeScapes, Inc., Cashmere, WA, 10 years ago, I set forth a goal to instill that sense of blissful escapism by creating unique, customized waterscapes and outdoor living spaces for homeowners. Whether your backyard has a beautiful view, enclosed intimacy, or is an open canvas, the key to a successful implementation of your envisioned pool and outdoor living space is having a coordinated design and proper material selection. The size and scope of your new swimming pool and backyard haven also depends a lot on your budget and on the comforts and features that are most important to you.

Choosing Pool Features for Your Budget

Like many people, you may have a huge wish list that includes a spa, water features, cabana, or sitting area, and often a firepit or fireplace along with the swimming pool—but your builder or designer needs to give you a rough idea of pricing. Once he or she breaks it down, you may only be able to afford the pool, then opt for a few lower-cost features that will satisfy the effect you were going for. Many people can incorporate a gas firepit because it’s relatively inexpensive to install and hook up. An outdoor fireplace raises the price but provides a dramatic look with a cozy feel.

When designing waterfalls, the size and price can vary greatly because they are often dictated by the site. I worked on one project in a mountainous area in which the client requested a waterfall included in the end of the swimming pool. This simple idea turned into an 80-foot-long, 10-foot-wide stream with a 12-foot waterfall—it increased the final price by tens of thousands of dollars. By comparison, a waterfall that consists of a few rocks with a small spillway might only cost a few thousand dollars.

If you have an open-ended budget, the price and project can rise easily and dramatically. Structures such as outdoor kitchens, bathrooms, changing rooms, and cabanas drive up the price. Hardscape such as concrete decking and retaining walls is also expensive and plays a big factor in the cost of large yards that require a lot of stairs or several sitting areas on different levels. I have a current project that started out with a solid budget, but as the clients got further into the design, they chose to add a few firepits, an outdoor kitchen, additional water features, and extended decking—all of that increased the price by 50 percent from the original budget!


Entertaining Amenities

The way in which people will move around your pool is not only a space issue, but a visual one. I create areas for people to gather that are positioned for the best views, while also maintaining the desired level of privacy. The shallow end is usually positioned at whichever end of the pool is closest to the back door or patio exit—homeowners and their guests should not have to walk all the way around the swimming pool to get to the sun ledge or entry steps. The most deck space should be on the north side of the pool so your lounge chair faces the south. This way, you can face the sun and the swimming pool at the same time (rather than sitting with your back to the pool).

Pergolas are often requested to provide partial shade and add style and character to a poolscape. Their open walls give an airy feeling, though some pergolas are more open than others. You may want a series of beams so light shines through, or you may prefer a solid roof with no openings.

We’ve had a growing number of clients incorporate an outdoor kitchen. It takes the barbecue grill to another level, not only making it convenient, but also giving it a more stylish and integrated look. Wind and smoke are an issue, though, so it’s important to position it so that smoke is not blowing into outdoor dining areas. Of course, the grill must be close enough to carry food to and from it easily. A bar area with a refrigerator and icemaker is a popular request; it makes the poolscape very resort-like. We’ve completed half a dozen within the past year alone.

Since homeowners and their guests spend a lot of time lounging by the pool (and typically less time swimming), I often add thermal (sun) ledges with an anchor for an umbrella. Extended steps and underwater benches are also great places to sit and talk or simply relax and cool off.


Natural Settings & Views

To have a beautiful retreat, you need a swimming pool design that really blends with the surroundings, whether the design is contemporary, architectural, or natural. Here in Washington, we have a wide variety of fantastic terrains. You can be in the desert, the mountains, along the Columbia River, or looking out at the ocean. It’s all about observing the terrain and determining which theme the homeowner prefers. One of the first things I do, however, is determine which views to maximize and note any that should be covered up. For example, we created a vanishing-edge pool that overlooked a river, but to create privacy on one side, we built a 9-foot soil berm and landscaped it. The berm provides an attractive screen without ruining the backdrop of the river.

The look of water features is also determined by the surrounding architecture and style of the waterscape. If you’re going for a rustic look, you might want a mountainous stream with natural rock all along the edges. If the backyard has a big slope, you can have a series of several pools with 2- to 3-foot waterfalls in between. The changes in elevation become advantageous to the swimming pool design.


Choosing Decking, Coping, and Pool Finish Materials

When choosing materials to fit the design, there should be continuity from the architecture of your home to the pool and surrounding hardscape. The decking and coping should complement one another to avoid looking like a hodgepodge. You can have stone coping and concrete decking, but make sure the colors and textures work together. I always want the homeowners to express which materials they really like, but if it looks like two styles are competing against one another, I’ll wave a red flag.

In the Northwest, many clients have surrounding rocks, forests, and bodies of water that provide the perfect backdrop for a natural-style pool, using colors, materials, and shapes inspired by nature. That said, I also have clients who go for a tropical look and may use a white plaster finish with blue quartzite mixed in. I’m working on a current project that features a large glass tile mermaid in the center of the pool’s floor.

The best thing about the pool design process is that you can get as customized as you want, as long as you stay within budget or you’re willing to make adjustments. People often want a calm place to relax after work, as well as a crowd-friendly area to entertain on the weekends—and much of that involves a visual aspect. You may have been dreaming about a swimming pool with a spa, waterslide, and an outdoor kitchen, but don’t forget to take a look around and see what truly inspires you. A professional pool designer can bring those reveries to fruition.

Photo courtesy of LifeScapes, Inc.

Rick Newton is the founder and president of LifeScapes, Inc., a pool and outdoor living space design, consulting, and construction firm based in Cashmere, WA. He is a graduate of the Genesis 3 Design School where he studied architectural history and elements of design, as well as the specialized use of vanishing edges and cosmetic materials.

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