In some ways, working with outdoor audio/visual systems might be equated to providing outdoor kitchens or dining areas. AV systems add experience and value to the outdoor setting and offer opportunities for pool designers and builders to expand the scope of what they offer.
That said, it's also important to realize that AV is a completely different animal from anything else we do in the backyard. These systems come with a whole new set of disciplines including acoustics and optics, putting many of us in unfamiliar territory.
As with all my design work, I think of AV holistically — as a way to further blend the indoor and the outdoor and create those exterior rooms we hear so much about. Providing sound, television and even video projection to the mix prompts us to consider what happens when someone moves through the landscape and how they intend to use their aquatic spaces. Will they simply enjoy looking at their surroundings, as many do, or will they seek something more? Just as playing in water or cooking outside are ways to actively participate in the environment, so are listening to music and watching movies.
In The Ears And Eyes
To be clear, I am not an AV expert. In fact, when it comes to some of the more complex systems we've done, I turn to specialists in the field who understand the finer points. I doubt I'll ever personally design the level of detail in an AV system that I would in a pool or hardscape. But knowing my own limitations in the field hasn't meant I'm unwilling to learn. In fact, I've come to believe that working with AV specialists is a great example of how reaching out to experts who are not typically associated with aquatic design and construction can yield great results.
Consider for a moment only the audio side of the discussion and how outdoor sound has become more commonplace. We know people are deeply affected by music and ambient sounds, such as the sound of moving water. In a sense, you could reasonably compare our love of music and aural experience to the innate emotional impact of water itself. Just as water is so often associated with our fondest memories, music also becomes indelibly imprinted in our emotional responses. A great song can lift our spirits, enliven a party or soothe tired minds and emotions.
When you look at it that way, it's not surprising that having the ability to play music in outdoor settings is essential to many clients. To them, it's an essential element in creating a fun and otherwise pleasurable environment.
Sound system manufacturers certainly understand that instinctive appeal and the value of generating sound without visual intrusion. If you've been to industry trade shows in recent years or otherwise researched outdoor speakers, you know that speakers now blend into the environment. Speakers that look like rocks are a prime example. These days, when I'm going through my portfolio, I'll point out how the speakers are blended seamlessly into the setting, which oftentimes is all the client needs to move in that direction.
Later, when the project's finished, it's great to hear from clients who want me to come over and experience what we've pulled together. In those revelatory moments, it can be amazing what a simple sound system adds to the experience of being there. And when the space also includes video projections, the experience can go to an entirely different level.
An Outdoor Extravaganza
For example, I recently completed a beautiful project — vanishing edge, beautiful materials, luxurious outbuilding and many other fine elements — that includes a particularly ambitious AV system, one that led me into a whole new technical discipline. On the audio side, it has a distributed system with recessed ceiling speakers and a subwoofer in a support column of the pavilion. We had to get up to speed on the mounting hardware, back boxes, types of wiring and conduit. In this case, we also set up a soundproofing box for the subwoofer to prevent noise and vibrations from resonating through the pool house structure.
As is true of other low-voltage systems, such as remote controls, it's important to run the cabling through separate conduit systems or use shielded cable when running in closed spaces such as ceiling plenums. As we discovered on this project, you can still have glitches even when you've followed installation guidelines to a tee. For example, we had a problem with a buzz in one of the speakers, which turned out to be due to the building's grounding system, which wasn't connected to the sound system. Fortunately, we were able to remedy the problem.
The big difference in this case, however, was the video-projection system.
This one was evolving throughout the project: The client is younger than me and far more tech-savvy. From the start he wanted his background in technology reflected in the project. The design provided the framework — the shell, if you will — and he drove the process with a series of questions about what we could or could not do. About halfway through the design process, the discussion turned to installing a video-projection system.
The proposed system was something entirely different from anything I'd done before. I'd been installing televisions in outbuildings for a long time, which is really no different than installing them in the house, but a video projection system is a completely different challenge.
And make no mistake, they are tricky. The type of projector, angle of projection, the distance to the screen, the types of lenses needed, all of those issues are crucial in order to make the system work. I learned, for example, you're almost never going to be able to set a projector square to the screen, a problem for which you have to adjust. Fortunately, projector manufacturers now make these wonderful lenses that can take an angle relative to the surface of the screen and in effect make it a perfect 90 degrees. The system actually bends the projection beam to create a flat image. It's pretty amazing technology.
A Place With A View
Both the sound system and video projection system are centered at the pool pavilion, so in this case we didn't distribute sound throughout the landscape. I wanted to direct all flow from the house out onto the oversized deck and entice people into the comfortable space of the pool pavilion. Here you either view a big-screen television, enjoy music, cook, drink, dine, workout in an air-conditioned gym or visit the loo. And did I mention swimming? From the side of the pavilion, the covered patio spills into the pool via a large descending stairway framed by the raised spa. And that is just during the day. At night it is a different but magical experience.
We mounted a projection screen on the far side of the pool in the landscape, as near the pool as possible in hopes of capturing reflection, but still 35 feet away from the projector. It measures 9 by 16 feet and is made of steel pipes and a vinyl screen material. It's easily erected and set up only when in use. We didn't want any permanent equipment located in the landscape because of the way the architecture starts out very rectilinear and disciplined at the pool house but then diffuses into more organic, less rigid forms. Plus, if the screen was upright all the time, it would completely ruin the views from the pool house when not being used.
In all we have 10 speakers mounted in the ceiling, the subwoofer in the column, with all the components, amplifiers, pre-amps, tuners, etc., located in a custom cabinet. The video projector is surface mounted from the ceiling of the structure. In all, there's more than 1,000 feet of wiring in the pavilion.
Of course, when you're installing these systems, it's hard to tell just how much they'll add to the setting, especially if you don't have much or any experience with them. For my part, I was extremely curious to see how the combination of elements and design layout would work together.
Not long after we finished, the clients had me over for a visit. I was blown away by the great sound — it carried cleanly throughout the pool and pool decks. When we started watching "Star Wars," experiencing it in situ with the dramatic images reflecting in the pool, I knew we had achieved something special.
Going forward, I see great benefit in designers and builders embracing AV systems, be they simple or complex. These systems are valuable elements in creating the exquisite backyard environments homeowners crave. The sights and sounds can be truly amazing!
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