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If we accept that the backyard is really just the final domestic frontier — a land beyond the back wall that people want to tame and colonize — and if we believe that people are looking to create the same types of social spaces they enjoy elsewhere, then that's how we should approach its design.
That is the consensus of builders and backyard professionals as they explore the growing outdoor living phenomenon. It requires the widest possible lens to encompass the expanding scope of backyard social roles.
The days of thinking merely in terms of structures are over; the prize is what can be induced to happen there — socializing, relaxation, play, entertainment — not the form itself.
When looking at the entire backyard, the standard design method is to break it down into smaller areas, which can each be developed individually and integrated into the broader plan.
Interestingly enough, the same technique can apply perfectly to the water itself. This strategy works because, like the greater backyard space, the pool surface is a large open area that can be made more interesting and useful simply by breaking it down into smaller pieces and trying to develop each into an alluring entertainment zone in its own right.
The main stage is the shallow portion of the pool, the general expansion of which has been going on for decades.
"When I started building pools in 1980, every pool was 8 feet or 10 feet deep," says Bob Mellon, owner of Signature Pools, Clovis, Calif. "Those days are gone. We came to realize that with a deep pool, you just jump or dive in, then swim to the side. Those deep ends force users to tread water, and that's not that easy to do. So everyone gravitates to the benches and shelves and shallow end.
"Today's pools are just shallower, making the majority of the pool shallow enough to incorporate socializing areas with tables, benches, stools, sundecks, umbrellas and games."
Giannamore, too, has been selling the shallow social space in the pool for some time. "We are pool builders," he says. "We don't even do outdoor kitchens. But we do focus on selling the outdoor living room right in the pool itself. It used to be really expensive and time consuming to create features like in-pool stools and tables, but today we have manufacturers who are providing us with fast and easy-to-install products that make the pool more 'social.'
"They quickly turn a section of the pool into a social area, whether it's used to talk, eat or play cards, and the tables even come with the option to add an umbrella, so that section of the pool becomes a good area to get out of the sun — without getting out of the pool."
These shallow areas offer excellent opportunities for builders to create a space that will be enjoyed by guests for years to come. The versatility of the setup adds to its value, says Kathryn Varden, western regional sales manager for Inter-Fab, in Tucson, Ariz. "More and more builders are discovering that anchors installed into the sun shelf allow for the addition of removable tables that can retrofit to the plastic umbrella sleeves or fit into game anchors. These tables provide a place to put your drinks, sunglasses, books and food. They instantly provide an entertainment center that is affordable and thus an easy upsell for more profit dollars."
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This shallow end social area, or "entertainment center," is a perfect example of the kind of discrete zone into which the pool can be divided in order to bring order and understanding to the whole. Varden advocates the use of this approach to the design of pool spaces. "The best way to start," she says, "is to divide the pool into at least four sections: the shallow end, the deep end and maybe two areas within the middle or middle-shallow area of the pool, both the left and right side.
"Shallow-end entertainment centers might be designed around a sun-shelf, the centers around the middle- and middle-shallow area of the pool might lend themselves to a sports center, a swim-up bar, or a table with stools. The deep end zone obviously lends itself to a landscape slide, grotto or other water feature center."
An entertainment center with growing appeal for active families is the sports center, which can feature a basketball and volleyball set. This can be the most utilized section of the pool in many cases, with kids spending hours playing games in summer with their friends.
"Adding sports equipment for kids has been really terrific for our business and our customers," Mellon says. "We like to install the type that are anchored directly into the deck because they are more stable and won't tip over — they are very solid. And they are terrific for winterizing or changing the 'look' of the pool because they are easily removed, and then you just put a cap over the anchor when you don't want the game on the pool. They are also more aesthetically pleasing because the uprights are available in powder-coated colors to match the deck and pool color scheme and décor. That way these products are harmonized with the look of the pool."
Two anchors, one on either side of the pool, can usually provide all the stability necessary, with the games played in between.
Few things go together as well as sports and bars, so an obvious complement to a pool's sports center is a swim-up bar (perhaps with a sufficient buffer to allow for errant spikes or the odd bricked three). These super-functional areas are particularly popular as entertainment centers that can bridge the gap between pool and deck, a place where those who wish to be wet and those who don't can mingle.
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Kelly Norman, president of South Texas Pools in La Feria, Texas, says these social areas are popular with customers because they please a variety of guests. "Recently, I added a swim-up bar area to a pool project that faces a natural palm tree leaf palapa portion of the yard. This swim-up bar area is about 3 feet deep with custom, built in stools (see photos). I included four stools, each made with a sono tube that is about 8 inches in diameter and filled with concrete. We added a 12-inch concrete cap then tiled the stools. These are positioned about 2 feet apart with the water shallow enough so that, while sitting, the water reaches just below the chest of swimmers. The depth of the pool immediately adjacent to the bar is about 6 feet, so swimmers can easily swim away after socializing at the bar.
Across from the swim-up bar, Norman placed a small resort area with a waterfall, slide and grotto for extended play by the kids and to form an attractive backdrop and anchor for the entire project. This area also serves to balance the pool's shallow-end zones with more exotic and visually interesting features.
"It's important to really think about the waterfalls, water features, grottos and slides because they are the most 'eye-catching' part of the pool and a very important entertainment zone," Norman says. "We like to start with this entertainment zone feature and add other features based around the water feature or slide."
For the hydraulics on the slide and grotto, Norman used a single-speed, 2-hp pump with a three-way valve to divert the pool water to the slide and water feature. The entire pool is automated and controlled by the homeowner's iPhone. The features are programmed to come on every day between 4 and 8 p.m., when they will likely be used, in order to conserve energy.
In planning for a pool, the builder or designer has an enormous advantage over the customer in terms of experience. It's often the customers' first time, but the builder may have been through this process thousands of times.
So the builder knows that what may seem important to a potential client early in the planning stage — such as a strict limit on the project budget — may not seem so essential in the end compared to the value an added entertainment center that brings the family together. Giannamore, a veteran builder, has seen this many times.
"We'll get a customer who really fears they are spending too much on their pool," he says. "So their first reaction is to say no to some of these socializing features, thinking they are too frivolous. But frequently, once the contract has been signed, we get change orders, and those changes are often to add these social features back into the project.
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"Once they really think about the fact that they're spending $60K on the pool, they realize that they should just add in another $10K to get the most value out of it. And in today's pools, which are often much smaller than the pools we built in the past, the consumer can add a bunch of entertainment features in a compact space for a much more reasonable price than they thought."
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