Summer Splash ‘Staycations’
By Lis King
Sun glints on the pool, a waterfall splashes, a fountain bubbles and dragonflies dance above lily pads. The air feels cool and rich, and all seems well with the world.
That’s the memory we take back with us from top spas or resorts, and it’s this kind of ambiance that homeowners now strive to create in their own backyards. Even in a tough economy, we can’t stay away from buying personal water wonderlands, says the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals. It isn’t just the pool that attracts us. More often than not, according to the organization, the backyard investment continues beyond poolside with such amenities as waterfalls, fountains, spas, decks, terraces, outdoor kitchens and more.
Landscape designers and contractors go even further. They say the economic downturn is actually fostering interest in converting backyards into personal sanctuaries.
Bob LaNeve Jr., president of Stonetown Construction Corp. in Oakland, explains that people would rather invest in improvements to their backyard than in a vacation at some resort. “Staying at home – the industry refers to it as ‘a staycation’ – and having fun with family and friends wins out over airport lines and paying hefty sums for borrowed amenities,” he says. “The away-from-home vacation may leave you with good memories, but adding resort features to your own yard is an investment that keeps paying dividends.”
Roger Monteforte, a Manhattan financial advisor, agrees wholeheartedly. He and his wife spent two years turning their Greenwood Lake vacation home into a private sanctuary, which he says was worth every minute and every dollar. Built by Stonetown, the project includes a spectacular pool that’s perpendicular to the lake for an infinity effect, an outdoor kitchen, TV area and fire pit.
“The pool and other activity areas are somewhat elevated,” says Monteforte. “We wanted to mimic the effect of separate indoor rooms. It worked beautifully. Now, every summer weekend is a mini-vacation with family and friends.”
A new aspect of the backyard spruce-up trend is the remodeling and updating of existing pools.
“It has become a very big business,” says Bruce Bagin, president of B & B Pool & Spa Center, Chestnut Ridge. “There are so many decades-old pools. You know the ones: turquoise water holes surrounded by stark paving. They look sad compared to today’s freeform luxury pools, with their spas, waterfalls, fountains, underwater lights and more. Well, those old pools can be upgraded and augmented in many ways, with design and with technology.”
Bill Kronberger, renovation specialist at Carlton Pools, tells of one such major remodeling project with new steps, a sun shelf and a shallow area for both children and adults. “We’re also installing a waterfall, and the entire decking surface will be coated with stamped concrete veneer to add pattern and color. And the pool itself is being transformed from a plain white to a beautiful Pacific blue.”
This is not to say that making over a rectangular pool is easy. Chris Cipriano, whose firm, Cipriano Landscape Design of Ramsey, has won numerous design awards, warns that there’s no way you should try to convert one into a freeform, “natural” pool.
“You can’t just dump a bunch of rocks by a rectangular pool and expect it to look natural,” he explains. “There are many tasteful things you can do to update and upgrade such a pool,” he continues. “If the old pool has that typical concrete surround, new decking is a terrific facelift.” Choices range from wood and brick to quartzite and granite. Quartzite is becoming very popular because it’s extremely durable, resists stains, doesn’t reflect heat and doesn’t absorb water, which makes it highly resistant to freeze/thaw cycles, notes Cipriano.
People can also change the coping (the top layer of a wall) by using clay tile or stone, finished very much like the edge of a countertop. “Pay attention to such details as decorative tile trim and dramatic underwater lighting,” he says, adding that fountains and waterfalls are other great ways to broaden a pool’s appeal.
“The most important thing to remember is that whether it’s a new pool or a makeover, it should complement your home,” adds Bagin. “This is true both when it comes to style and use of materials.”
For the pool itself, landscapers rave about new finishes introduced during the last few years. Kronberger is especially enthusiastic about a very durable substance called EcoFinish, which greatly reduces the need for chemicals, he says. Another favorite finish is aggregate plaster, which adds an attractive texture and lasts two to three times longer than old-fashioned finishes. It’s also stain-resistant, and comes in colors. The traditional plaster color is white, which gives the water a light blue tint, while tan and beige tend to add a tropical look.
Is the garden around the pool old and overgrown? “If so, get a good landscape designer to help you decide what plants are worth keeping and which should be replaced,” advises Cipriano. “Maybe there are specimens that just need a draconian pruning, and don’t forget that most plants, even large trees and shrubs, can be transplanted. If you have the right plant in the wrong place, try to move it rather than just chopping it down.”
These days, technology should be part of any pool makeover, say the experts, including such options as saline pools, variable speed pumps and computerized controls. These kinds of items “may not sound as sexy as waterfalls or a pool bottom studded with LED lights,” says LaNeve, “but wait ’til you experience the difference it makes when you go swimming, plus it’ll save lots of energy and maintenance.” Gone are the days of sore, red eyes and faded bathing suits from chlorine, he notes. Saline sterilization
systems now use common table salt to automatically produce just enough chlorine to safely and effectively keep a pool sparkling clean. Saline pools also have the silky, soft feel of natural water, he says.
Another big improvement is the variable speed pump, which can save 30 to 90 percent in energy costs over conventional one- and two-speed pumps. Bagin says few homeowners realize their pool pump can use more electricity than
any appliance in the home, and they’ll be pleasantly surprised when they see substantial savings with a new pump.
Heat pumps, too, are far more efficient today, and top quality filters capture two or three times as much dirt and debris than regular types.
Also check out the new computerized control systems. They reduce energy costs by triggering the circulation system, heater, lights and auxiliary equipment only when needed, turning them on during off-peak hours when energy rates are lower.
Automatic feeders that do away with daily chemical balancing are also worth considering, and for the ultimate ease of maintenance, add an automatic pool cleaner.
“I used to pay hefty fees for a crew to maintain my pool,” says LaNeve. “Now I do it myself. It’s so easy.”
Waterfalls and Fountains
Aren’t we all looking for a little stress relief? Yes, and that explains the huge popularity of waterfalls and fountains, be it as part of a poolscape or stand-alone backyard features.
“Quite simply, trickling and bubbling water calms tired nerves and turns an ordinary yard into a multi-sensory experience,” notes Bagin. “It also does a great job of masking nerve-jangling traffic noise.”
Although elaborate waterfalls and fountains are part of most luxury pool projects, they can also be yours even if your garden space is limited. Nor do they have to be expensive.
Rocks for waterfalls are sometimes fake, but some landscapers use lichen-covered and weathered boulders from mountain tops to create more authenticity. Cipriano favors 25-feet sandstone columns that he drills to be used as fountains. “They are spectacular in a luxurious pool setting,” he says.
However, fountains can be as modest as a terracotta pot outfitted with a small pump, or a precast design hung on a wall. For theatrical effect, you can’t beat the freestanding water wall, which is becoming tremendously popular. Its catch basin can be as narrow as one inch at the base, and because of its small size is popping up in front and side yards, if not indoors. A water wall can be dressed up, for example, wrapped in glass tile or brilliant metals such as bronze and copper.
A simple fountain won’t require any special permits, but for more elaborate water features, including pool remodeling, make sure to check with your municipality.
“Chances are that zoning and set-back laws have changed since that pool was built decades ago,” says LaNeve. “There are also new laws concerning drains and impervious coverage.”
Of course, you needn’t worry about any of that if a bona fide contractor does the work for you. He’ll research the regulations and obtain the proper permits.
B & B Pool & Spa Center
Chestnut Ridge, NY
Cipriano Landscape Design
Stonetown Construction Corp.