The ins and outs of pool design

June 1, 2012

This project is a great example of the various elements and considerations that go into designing a complete backyard project.

By Tim Valerioti

“We would like a pool.” This is the typical, first broad request from customers that most pool designers/builders can relate to. And, more often than not, these projects become much more than just a pool. Why? Projects tend to escalate from this basic request as a pool designer/builder investigates further to understand what the client is looking for to ensure the project—from design to completion—fulfils their needs.

This was the case for the Monique project, which we recently completed. In fact, for this particular job, the process of incorporating the customer’s ideas into a working design spanned four months. The initial stages were conversational and used as a way to get to know the client better rather than find out what the project would entail. This included a number of meetings to help determine how their requirements could be satisfied. Several reference checks and portfolio reviews also occurred before moving forward.

The next step was getting an understanding the family’s lifestyle and how this pool project would fit into it. Simply knowing what features people want is not enough. A designer needs to know what has led the client to request certain features, e.g. “My neighbour had one,” “I saw it in a magazine,” “We loved it on a trip we were on,” or “My child thinks it is cool.” All of this helps to better understand the client’s mind set. It also helps to decipher which items or features a client may think they want, but not know why the items may not necessarily work for their particular project.

Laying the groundwork

Some customers who want the project to move quickly may find the initial design stage to be a ‘step back.’ However, it is important to take small steps during this phase as it sets the groundwork and is a foundation for the design phase. Not only does the customer get a feel for how the pool builder operates, the pool builder also learns more about what the client is thinking while observing the interaction between the decision-makers.

These client nuances are important for the designer to see. For example, in the Monique project, both of the clients had different key requirements in mind. One wanted a large garage as a primary feature to store the family camper and vehicles, while the other wanted an enjoyable space for their daughter and sons to play. Both, however, were looking for unique style and functionality that would remind them of places they have travelled.

Top-level requirements

Based on the observations and groundwork, the next step was putting together a list of the project’s top-level feature requirements. The client was a designer’s dream as they prepared a general feature list, but were more than willing to listen to additional ideas and suggestions. As a result, a joint list of primary features and ideas for the project was created, and, as with many projects, the pool was not actually the first item on the list. Instead, the elements around and integrated into the pool were discussed first. From waterfalls and fire features to grottos and lounge cabanas, these items where separate from the pool; however, the pool was the foundation of these elements.

Taking a closer look

Once a basic idea of what the project would entail was decided, careful attention was turned to the site to determine how each element could be incorporated. In this case, the property was on a hill slope next to a lake and was purchased specifically for the outdoor living space. The property adjoins the main house, which is surrounded by other homes in the neighbourhood.

The lot was long, narrow and elevated 3.6 m (12 ft) from the existing house. When initially walking the site with the customer, there was discussion as to how the different elements could be incorporated, and what would be the best angles for observation. Functionality of the space from the house was also looked at as were privacy concerns from neighbouring properties. This process also raised the question of how a 12- to 15-m (40- to 50-ft) long garage would fit into the landscape while leaving room for a large pool and other features. In this case, the answer was constructing the garage underground and building everything else above it. Not only would this provide the client better access to the garage, it would also allow the garage to be hidden at the same time.

Design: Phase One

With these solid ideas in place, the actual design process began. At this stage, the designers were two weeks away from the initial client reveal. The first order of business was taking pictures of the site to have reference elements, which could be used to work from at the office. Next, both site and elevation surveys were performed and initial geotechnical reviews were conducted to provide guidance in putting everything together.

Knowing soil conditions and survey issues upfront is critical to ensuring no time is wasted during the design phase. These surveys also highlighted the no-build zone requirements for utilities, as well as the property’s height restrictions from the original owner. Both of which would become difficult to deal with later in the design process.

Pictures and website references provided by the client were also used to help speed up the design process. What someone might say compared to what they might be thinking are often two very different things.

Within this two-week period, a first draft of the entire project was put together, going back and forth to the site to perform layouts and determine what features and elements would and would not work. Once satisfied, the first design was presented to the client.

Design presentation

The initial presentation of any design can be stressful; the key is preparing the client as much as possible before hand. We always meet with the client to review the plan in person or video-conference to ensure a controlled release of information with supporting rational behind the design decisions. After presenting the design any necessary edits are made alongside the client.

For the Monique project, the initial plan was received well by the customer; however, changes were required to better create the outdoor space they were looking for. Some of these tweaks included moving the garage, adjusting the retaining walls and determining different points of access from the house.

At this time the primary hardscape, key features and layout became the focus. The final element in this phase was completing the site layouts, which allowed the client to walk around and visualize the design concept. The process of completing the site layout is as simple as using a can of paint and a tape measure. This helps the client get a better feel for how the spacing of features work, from a functionality standpoint, while also setting the framework for the construction phase.

A working plan

Once the working plan was in place, more discussions were held with the client for another two weeks to get a better picture of the final project. Before moving onto the second phase of design, the project’s costs needed to be discussed. This is a critical element to the end of phase one and is a step that should not be left too far down the design process as it can have a significant effect on the project’s final look.

During phase one, most designs are generally based on a controlled wish list with a typical budget in mind. Accurate project costs cannot be provided until all major features and design elements are on paper.

For the Monique project, a general breakdown of all the features was put together so that the customer could understand how this project would budget out moving forward. It had all the key elements in place, which included a large underground garage, a large infinity-edge pool (on top of the garage), a grotto with waterfalls, slide and tunnel, a firepit next to pool, cabana, pool bar and change room, retaining walls, as well as gardens and water features. Once everyone was on the same page, phase two began.

Design: Phase Two

Phase two involved taking the project’s essential element (i.e. pool) along with its supporting features (i.e. grotto with waterfalls, slide, firepit, etc.) and finessing them into a more deliberate plan. During this phase of a project, concentration is placed on the details and appearance of the various buildings and features that are to be included.

C:UsersrobertDocumentsA-HDD-2011135-10 Hampton MoniqueMoni[2]
To provide the client with a better idea of how the completed project would look, elevation shots of the large garage, pool, pool house and several other key features were produced.
C:UsersrobertDocumentsA-HDD-201158-11 MoniqueMonique Final[3]
Construction/material breakouts were added to the plan to give the client a better idea of how the project would look when completed.

The Monique project initially had an Okanagan look and feel; however, upon introducing a few Mexican Rivera elements to the design, including large-stone carvings and thatched roofs, the clients liked the idea, but a recent trip to Bali morphed the Rivera into a tropical Indonesian beach getaway. This was great for the project as it helped in designing and shaping the look and feel of the outdoor space.

To provide the client with a better idea of how the completed project would look, elevation shots of the large garage, pool, pool house and several other key features were produced. From the elevation shots construction/material breakouts were added to the plan to get a better idea of how it would look when completed.

With the Bali theme in place, we contacted Sun Country, a local supplier dealing with products from Indonesia and the surrounding area was contacted and they provided direct contact with suppliers in Bali who could help produce some of the elements being sought. From simple stone carvings to full wooden cabanas and marble tiles, we were able to source a fair bit of product. This allowed the design to truly evolve into a Bali oasis.

Changes and alterations

Phase two took approximately four weeks and involved additional changes and alterations to the plan, with the major issues being height restrictions and privacy. For instance, in looking at the varying view angles to the lake from the pool, it was determined that raising the pool would be necessary to ensure a clear, infinity-edge reveal to all areas of the upper deck. In doing so, however, there was a need to keep the building’s rooflines to a minimum in order to stay below the height restriction.

At this point, it was decided to remove some overhead wires, which ran along the side and front of the property. This was easier said than done, as it took a few iterations to come up with a plan that not only created a private experience for the client complete with a spectacular view from inside and outside the pool, but also one that conformed to the property’s requirements.

A grotto experience

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To create the grotto experience the client was looking for, the project went from initial design to clay models to full-engineered drawings.

During this phase of the design, various options were also explored for creating the grotto experience the client was looking for. Due to the location’s extreme weather variables—cold winters and extremely hot summers—it was important the grotto could handle the area’s freeze-thaw cycle. With this in mind, it was decided to use a faux-rock material that could be custom manufactured to the project’s specifications.

This element became a sub-design process on its own. Working with a third party to design and build the rock grotto, slide, waterfalls, firepit, tunnel and pool surround was a three-week program. It went from initial design to clay models to full-engineered drawings with several changes along the way. As it would turnout, this feature became the main focus of the pool and a key focal point to the outdoor design space.

Incorporating the cabana

The last elements of phase two were incorporating the Bali-style features and making the cabana a unique feature all on its own. To do this, the client was presented with a twist with respect to a ‘floating-effect’ design.

Typically, this involves building the cabana inside the pool; however, the property for the Monique project did not provide sufficient space to do this. Instead, a unique water spillway system was designed to create the illusion the entire cabana was floating on water. The design also incorporated a weeping-wall element, which would operate off of the main pool pumps to create the appearance of an elevated, floating cabana.

Design: Phase Three

The third phase of design involves creating the working drawings. After several weeks of back and forth with structural and geotechnical engineers, city planners, and immediate neighbours, dirt finally began to move.

Due to the location of the property, and the numerous unique elements to the project, it actually created two customers. The first being the homeowner and the second being the City of Peachland, B.C., as the city wanted a full development plan and proposal for its council to review. This involved input and sign-off on the entire design from four different departments. An environmental firm also had to be engaged to oversee the design and come up with a construction plan inside the sensitive lake and beach areas.

C:UsersrobertDocumentsA-HDD-2011135-10 Hampton MoniqueMoni[5]
It took two months in addition to several meetings, presentations and negotiations before a plan could be finalized.

This phase typically takes two weeks to complete. For the Monique project, however, it took two months in addition to several meetings, presentations and negotiations before a plan could be finalized that the city and its engineers would approve. This stage is very important as it can greatly affect the design, which was the case for the Monique project. For instance, what was thought to look great on paper had to be changed in order to accommodate the interests of various parties. It involved moving and redesigning buildings, changing facades, plant materials and adding special rock walls. Luckily, the city was great to work with and everyone involved helped to get the project approved. Finally, with working drawings in hand, the customer was ready to get the project started.

Design: Phase Four

Even though the project was finally moving towards the construction phase, it did not mean the design was finished. The fourth phase of the design process involves the continual redesign of the project, which often happens during construction. This is typical for any design, especially on large projects that have a deadline attached to them.

As construction began on the Monique project, new challenges emerged. From utility locations and load restrictions to new features and material shortages, the design evolved and many more iterations were created with each ensuing challenge.

Design on the fly

A lot of time is spent in the preliminary stages of design answering all of the client’s questions, but for most homeowners, they simply want to swim in the summer. This occasionally means the designer/builder must start the project without every answer and thus design on the fly. From a design standpoint, the ability to resolve problems quickly makes it challenging and can enhance the finished project. The redesigns that occurred during construction of the Monique project enhanced its overall design and provided the client with a spectacular Bali pool and backyard oasis.

This project is a great example of the various elements and considerations that go into designing a complete backyard project as it pushed everyone to think outside the box in configuring a design that would bring the client’s ideas to life. A project’s design phase can sometimes be pushed or fast tracked for budget reasons; however, it is a necessary step the client and pool builder must complete to ensure the end results are favourable for all.


Editor’s Note: In the next issue, Valerioti will discuss the Monique project’s various stages of construction, from breaking ground to design completion.  


Valerioti_HeadshotTim Valerioti, BA, BBA, CSC, is the founder and president of Hampton Pools and Landscape Construction, a landscaping, concrete and pool/spa design/build firm in Kelowna, B.C. He has more than 20 years of experience in business and financial management and has grown the company into a multi-faceted design/build firm. After establishing Hampton Pools and Landscape, he expanded his expertise and further developed his design skills over many unique and challenging projects. He can be reached via e-mail at[6].

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