EP Magazine Article

January 5, 2005
The wet look

Invented by the romans, swimming pools have evolved from public baths to stunning statements of individual style. Matt jones uncovers some refreshing ideas for contemporary residential pools.

as Published in EP Magazine

What, you may ask, have the Romans ever done for us? All right, what apart from sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system and public health?

We'll they gave us the swimming pool, and today more people than ever can be grateful to them for that. According to the US National Spa and Pool Institute, pool construction in America has increased by five to six per cent year-on-year since 1998. Traders in the UAE say sales are going swimmingly here, too.

"Now everybody's looking for swimming pools," says David Cross, general manager of Dubai-based Alyasat Pools Trading. "Pools are becoming extremely popular," confirms Amirali Somji, general manager of Silver Fox Pools. "Swimming pool equipment costs have decreased considerably over the last five years, so more and more people are opting to put a pool in their backyards. Now that you can have your own villa with Emaar, things have really changed."

According to John O'Keefe, author of What Color is Your Swimming Pool? (Storey Books), continuing advances in the technology of pool construction materials and design have brought pool ownership within reach of even the tightest family recreation budget. But, he adds, "The price you pay varies dramatically, depending on what type, size, shape, materials, and landscaping you want."

"Swimming pool designs range from the very small and basic inflatable pool to the grandiose and extravagant in-ground designs that at first glance look like a natural body of water," says Brian Reid, publisher of Ontario, Canada-based Swimmingpools101.com.

Reid highlights three main categories of swimming pools on his website: inflatable, above-ground and in-ground. Family-sized inflatable pools have the advantage of being inexpensive, easy to assemble and disassemble, and simple to maintain, he says. Many are constructed of vinyl (PVC) and either sit on grass or a harder surface in the garden or yard. Above-ground pools, often round and oval in design with a visible structural frame and vinyl liner, are the next step up - easier to install than in-ground pools and a serious option if you want to avoid the expense and inconvenience of excavation. You can even take them with you when you move home. As their name suggests, pools in the third category are dug into the ground. "In-ground pools can be any shape or size imagined and can range from the very basic to the extremely elaborate," says Reid.

According to Somji, it's the in-ground pool that's making a splash in the UAE, costing anywhere from around Dhs 50,000 to Dhs 180,000. "The current trend would most definitely be medium-sized, outdoor, irregular pools used mostly for relaxation and social events, such as a pool parties and barbecues," he says. "Concrete pools are the most popular due to the fact that they can be customized to your specifications: any shape, any size, with various tile designs inside the pool, to various depths, with the additions of kiddy pools, Jacuzzis, or the incorporation of fountains and other water features."

Fanny Tagavi, author of Small Pools (Harper Design International), says we've come a long way from the Roman natorium, a cistern-shaped swimming pool found in the thermae of pre-Common Era public bathing complexes. "Over the years, the pool as a piece of construction, has evolved in accordance with architectural trends," she says. "But it was only in the mid-20th century, with the development of new materials and construction methods, that designers have been able to give free reign to their boundless imaginations, creating, shaping and molding an environment."

"Long gone are the days of cookie-cutter pools, whereby one size is supposed to fit every backyard," says Alan E. Sanderfoot, author of Pools and Spas: New Designs for Gracious Living (Rockport). "Increasingly, a swimming pool of the new millennium is designed to match the lifestyle of its owner, the architecture of the home, and the topography of the land. In fact, many of today's pools have very little to do with swimming - they're more about creating a scene for entertainment and relaxation. That requires moving water, nighttime illumination, and architectural details that please the eye. From modern, geometric designs to natural-looking pools with amazing rockwork, contemporary swimming pools are about individual style."

Sanderfoot says the 'nesting' phenomenon of the '80s and '90s has been a boon to swimming pool and hot tub designers. "As people continue to seek ways to make their limited free time at home more relaxing and enjoyable, aquatic environments naturally top the list," he says. "Indeed, homeowners aren't stopping with the bathroom remodel, gourmet kitchen, or home theater. Along with these lavish amenities, people are looking outside their abodes for ways to expand their living space. Consider the increasing number of outdoor kitchens, high-end barbecue grills, elaborate gardens, casual furnishings, swimming pools, and hot tubs, and you can see that the concept of the 'outdoor room' has caught on."

In their book Outdoor Living (New Holland Publishers), Karen Roos Annemarie Meintjes point out that, "For generations, alfresco meant the terrace, the summerhouse, or simply the shade of the garden's largest tree. From the 1960s, however, swimming pools gained popularity where space allowed and this alluring stretch of aquamarine became a favourite meeting and relaxing place… Superbly designed hotel pools have inspired a new generation of home builders to integrate their water features into the garden and the landscape, to compelling and romantic effect."

"These days, style is everything," says Silver Fox Pools' Somji. "No one wants the boring rectangular pool anymore. Almost 60 per cent of the pools we sell now are irregular shaped, and approximately 90 per cent of them are modified to a client's specific need. Very few people settle for the 'standard'. Some people will add a telescopic fountain, others a children's pool. Health-conscious people will add a counter current machine for exercise. Elderly people will add an attached Jacuzzi."

"There was a time when what passed for modern design was a 40-foot lap pool with cantilevered decking," says Sanderfoot. "Today's architects - armed with space-age materials and engineering prowess - surpass earlier notions by taking residential pool design to new levels. The result: swimming pools and hot tubs that are as innovative as the homes that surround them.

"Everything about a swimming pool and hot tub, from the pumps and heaters to the lights and water features, can be easily controlled with the touch of a few buttons, either from inside the home or via remote devices, including the Internet.

"By merging the latest technologies with innovative designs, modern architects are proving that 'minimal' doesn't have to mean sterile, 'modular' doesn't have to be uncomfortable, and 'contemporary' can be timeless."

While modern design has its adherents, many home owners prefer a more natural look. "Environmental concerns and modern stress have combined to inspire a new naturalism in garden and pool design," say Roos and Meintjes. "City-dwellers are more nostalgic than ever about the countryside, striving to recreate a slice of the wild to come home to every evening after a hard technology-driven day. We want to feel we're taking a dip in a secluded mountain pool, rather than an Olympic-style bath of improbable turquoise.

"Shapes may be formal or naturalistic, but the colour of the water is always keyed to the setting. Painting the interior of the pool dark blue, grey, black or a sand colour makes all the difference, transforming the water into a mountain stream, a rock pool or even a drop of the ocean."

"Using a palette of natural tones and materials culled from the earth, architects are creating spectacular pools and spas that blend seamlessly with their native surroundings," says Sanderfoot. But he acknowledges that placing a pool in a garden setting has its challenges. "By bringing sod, trees, shrubs, and flowers closer to the pool, you create a situation where organic debris - everything from grass clippings to dried leaves and petals - can easily dirty the pool water and wreak havoc on the filtration system," he adds. "Also, some delicate plantings don't do well next to sun-baked concrete decks or when splashed with chlorinated water. Nevertheless, with the right planning (and maybe a little help from a landscape architect) it is possible to have the best of both worlds."

One of the most stunning swimming pools, both to relax in and admire from a nearby patio or balcony, is the vanishing-edge pool, also known as a negative-edge or infinity pool. "The mysterious qualities of vanishing-edge pools have caused their popularity to skyrocket in recent years," says Sanderfoot. "Depending on the pool's site and how well the architect masterminds the design, a vanishing-edge pool may appear to have no wall retaining the water on the negative-edge side. The best illusion is created when the pool is elevated above a natural body of water, so that the pool appears to flow directly into it." But, he adds, "You don't need an oceanfront estate to reap the visual rewards of a vanishing-edge pool. All it takes is some creativity and a builder with some engineering savvy."

Despite its magical effect, the concept behind a vanishing-edge pool is simple, says Sanderfoot: a portion of the pool wall is lowered allowing water to spill over it, with a catch basin or gutter system on the other side collecting the excess water.

"In addition to the spectacular views they typically offer, vanishing-edge pools require less space than similar-sized pools with decking on all four sides," he says. "That can be a tremendous advantage when space is limited." The illusion of even more space can be achieved by building up instead of out, using terraced decking and elevated seating areas.

"It's a well-known fact that homeowners spend more time looking at their pools than they do swimming in them - and proper exterior lighting extends their viewing pleasure into the darkest hours of the night," adds Sanderfoot.

"Long gone are the days when a single underwater light mounted in the pool wall sufficed as pool lighting. Today, low-voltage fixtures and fiber-optic cables have reinvented the way we view and use swimming pools at night.

"Outdoor lighting fixtures are increasingly used to highlight the undersides of stairs, waterfalls, pathways, statuary, trees, and so much more. In short, lighting has become as important a design element outside the home as it has been within it." But, he warns, "Outdoor lighting must be both functional and stylish to be effective."

Good design shouldn't be limited to the actual swimming pool, however: landscaping around the pool - setting the context in which your delightful pool sits - is equally important.

"The options in pool landscaping are limited only by your imagination," says Swimmingpool101.com's Reid. "Your swimming pool's shape, size and design will be the focal point of your landscaping design. From that starting point, it is important to combine practicality with aesthetics for a backyard that truly reflects your personality and taste.

"Making choices about pool landscaping isn't always easy. You can choose curved walkways and rounded flower beds, or a design that is entirely linear and straight. The pool landscaping can coincide with the shape of the pool or can be entirely different to contrast. Landscaping around a pool can be minimalist or wildly eclectic, involving simple designs or ones that incorporate garden art, ponds, stone pathways and sitting areas.

"Define what you want to use your garden or patio space for," he adds. "Your space, furniture and design will be affected by whether you use it for reading, relaxing, playing or entertaining. If relaxation is your goal, consider soft flower colours and perhaps a hammock. If entertaining is your purpose, consider a built-in fireplace or fully equipped barbecue plus a large patio and a spacious lawn to better accommodate guests. Personal taste is absolutely important and yard art will define a theme and a tone around your pool."

According to Roos and Meintjes, the choice of pool furniture - benches and recliners and their coverings - should co-ordinate the outdoors to the indoor style of the house.

A completed pool can impress the neighbours and wow friends, but before plunging into the installation process, potential pool owners should prepare themselves for the disruption building work will cause. "Earth disturbance can be surprising and scary, as a major construction job will look like a war zone before it is finished," says Tom Griffiths, author of The Swimming Pool (Simon & Schuster). Somji says that in the UAE, you can expect to have 15 labourers in your garden for 45 days.

According to Griffiths, other important considerations are local building codes and legal restrictions; ground conditions and underground obstructions, such as existing tanks, pipes and cabling; and the position of overhead power lines - you wouldn't want them over your pool. You'll also need to think about where the sun and shadows are at key times of the day, and wind exposure in the chosen location. Access to the pool and pool area from the house, as well as views of and from the pool should be taken into account, as well.

"Regardless of its size, shape or slope, just about any yard can be fitted with a beautiful swimming pool," says Griffiths. "But successfully integrating the pool with the architecture of your home and landscape is extremely important and can be difficult to do.

"Do yourself a favour and take the following first step: take a look at a minimum of six other pool sites in your town or city. This is an enjoyable exercise and you'll learn a lot, especially if you take the time to converse with other pool owners."

Consider, too, the annual cost of pool maintenance, which in the UAE can be around Dhs 6,000 for a small pool, Dhs 8,000 for a medium-sized pool and Dhs 10,000 for a large pool. "Owning a pool today is quite a simple and trouble free task," reassures Somji. "Once you have a pool built, you appoint a pool company (preferably the company that built your pool, to maintain the warranty) to maintain the pool on a twice-weekly basis, whereby they send a technician to have the pool vacuumed and sanitized using proper pool chemicals. If the pool is maintained properly, you should have no hygiene problems, whatsoever.

"We always recommend having a pool maintained even if the pool owners are not in town. Better to pay for upkeep than leave it neglected to a point where mosquitoes start breeding and pool equipment is damaged beyond repair."

Finally, before picking up the Business Pages to contact your nearest pool trader, be aware that a pool is not going to add significant value to your property. According to the American Society of Appraisers, quoted in a summer 2004 New York Times editorial on pools, a home's resale value generally increases by only 35 to 50 per cent of a pool's cost, a figure that's confirmed locally by Somji. As the Times pointed out, you'd be better off installing a new kitchen, which recoups 65 to 85 per cent of its cost.

So, don't regard a new pool as an investment for short- or medium-term financial gain, something to fit before selling your home. Pools are for long-term pleasure, relaxation and social interaction. After all, that is why the Romans gave them to us.

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