Design/build: Crafting unique swimming pools

Photo: Caviness Landscape Design/FlickrPhoto: Caviness Landscape Design/Flickr

Swimming pools are one of the quintessential signs of summer. These bodies of water often create a welcome respite from the heat and can prove to be a popular place for people to gather.

Providing clients with a private oasis is just one of the ways you can help them enjoy their outdoor living space, but how do you make your work stand out from the competition?

The sky is truly the limit when it comes to creativity if your customer has the budget, so here are some of the factors to consider when designing a unique pool for homeowners. 


While your clients may already have a laundry list of their wants and need as well as how deep they’d like the pool to be, the first thing you need to determine is why they really want a swimming pool. Do they want it for lounging? Hosting parties? Exercising?

Photo: McKay Landscape LightingPhoto: McKay Landscape Lighting

Before Scott Cohen, owner of Green Scene Landscaping & Pools based in Chatsworth, California, begins a pool project, he has his customers complete a four-page questionnaire that asks about their interests, hobbies, favorite colors, children’s ages and more so he can better understand and know what they value.

“As a designer, I can see the potential for each space,” he said. “But, it’s not about designing for me. It’s about the clients. I get to know them and their lifestyles to personalize the design.”

This also helps him avoid getting into a design rut, as he does not base any new work off of past projects.

If your client is wanting a pool for relaxing, incorporating bench areas, a beach entry or a sun shelf are all options to provide places to sit or lie down. These types of pools can also be more freeform compared to an exercise pool that is better off being linear for laps and water games such as pool volleyball.

Shape and size

The shape of the pool is mainly dictated by how the client wants to use theirs, as we just mentioned, but it should also complement the look of the house and the landscape.

For contemporary and modern homes, a pool with straight, clean lines helps maintain the minimalist look of the architecture. More rustic-style homes are suited for freeform pool designs, but these can be harder to incorporate into the landscape.

Beach Front Swimming pool with all white concrete patio, orange chase lounge chairs, on the back of a large beach houseOne way to ensure every pool project is different from the last is to work with the topography of the backyard. A sloping or raised backyard offers opportunities to incorporate the terrain for unique water features such as an upper-level pool connected to a lower level spa.

Rectangular pools are the safe route to go but shapes can get as intricate as mimicking a violin, depending on your customer’s preferences.

As for the size, this will once again depend on budget, as well as the land available, but remind clients that the bigger the pool they want, the more expensive and harder it will be to heat the pool.

A good depth for pools is 3 feet in the shallows and 5 feet in the deep end. Making pools deep enough for diving requires a lot of slope and a larger size pool than most backyards, so most pool designers advise discouraging customers from the practice of diving in pools.


The pool’s shape and size will go hand-in-hand with the planned location, as there will need to be enough space to accommodate the addition. Choosing where a pool should go will depend on practical matters such as zoning codes, existing utility lines and ease of access. But don’t forget its view from the inside.

Scott Lewis, principal of Scott Lewis Landscape Architecture based in San Francisco, California, says pools should be attractive even when not in use and to consider a swimming pool a water feature in the landscape, according to Gardenista. Visibility from the house is also important if the client has children.

Depending on your climate, the pool may need to be located somewhere sunny or shaded to ensure it is used as much as possible. Ease of access will also encourage frequent usage, so a logical progression from the house to the pool should be mapped out.


For the type of material to use around the pool, it is best to steer your clients toward non-slippery surfaces that will not become unbearably hot in the sun.

“We prefer neutral shades, so we often choose light gray or buff-colored limestone or sandstone, or light-colored concrete or precast pavers,” Lewis told Gardenista. “To judge the color properly, we look at the terrace material when it’s wet and under different sky conditions.”

Keep in mind that light colored paving products tend to stain and discolor easily, so products with a variegated appearance can help minimize any stains that might occur over time. For a naturalistic look, fieldstone, slate, flagstone and marble can all elevate the pool design beyond the typical concrete option, but it comes with a high price tag.

As for the interior of the pool, it is suggested to avoid darker shades unless the pool doesn’t have a lot of natural light overhead. Plaster is the most common interior option and it can come in various shades of blue depending on what suits the client’s tastes.

Also, remember to balance your hard and soft finishes. While hardscaping is a critical aspect, incorporating planters, garden beds and other greenery can help the space blend better with the rest of the landscape.

“You don’t want your backyard to look like a stone tomb – so consider this aspect your decision deeply,” Momentum Pools, a pool building company in Australia, said on its website.


Because customers want to get as much use as possible out of their swimming pools, lighting around pools has become more of a necessity instead of a luxury.

Some companies opt to contact landscape lighting companies like McKay Landscape Lighting, based in Omaha, Nebraska, to handle the lighting portion of the job due to the complexity of the design.

Photo: McKay Landscape LightingPhoto: McKay Landscape Lighting

“It’s a lot more important to exit the home and get to the pool safely, so usually there’s an elevation change, there’s steps, different hardscapes, different materials so lighting around the pool is really important just for safety,” said Jerry McKay, owner of McKay Landscape Lighting.

Aside from safety, landscape lighting around the pool can also help accent the space and give it some extra pizzazz.

“The secret sauce to that usually is if there is a view from the house and there is some landscaping on the opposite side of the pool, you get maximum reflection with that pool if you’re lighting something on the other side,” McKay said.

Seat wall lights or cap lights and bistro lights are both popular types of lighting to have around pools. For those concerned about landscaping lighting overpowering their lighting within the pool, McKay says this isn’t actually a concern.

“I tell every customer the same thing,” he said. “I’m not going to compete with your pool light. Nine out of 10 times, that light’s not on. As lighting designers, we want to make sure that people can walk around the pool if the pool light’s not on and highlight material around there.”

Extra features

Once you have addressed the basic concerns of the pool, then you can really start diving into the possibilities of what to add on to the pool.

photo of a waterfall water feature attached to a poolSome features, like an infinity edge, will definitely create a wow factor, but only if it has the appropriate venue. Properties that have a drop-off or a significant view will look good with this added element.

If mainly kids will be using the pool, adding a slide or a fun grotto to explore can introduce some adventure to the space. Caviness Landscape Design, based in Arcadia, Oklahoma, has even made a grotto that has a seating area inside with a TV.

Fire and water features are other good options that can provide focal points. When it comes to adding a water feature that runs into the pool, Lewis says some of the design considerations include determining the force of the water, the amount of water and the distance the water falls.

Automation is another popular trend, as it can allow homeowners to control their LED pool lights, lap currents, water features and water temperature.

Whatever the client ends up deciding they want for their pool, remember they’re the ones paying for it and the ones who will end up using it, so aim to meet their needs at the end of the day.

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