Sleek upgrades, stylish shapes, and tech-friendly advancements turn your backyard into a custom area for swimming, sunning, and socializing.

By Blythe Copeland
February 18, 2021
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The luxury of having a swimming pool in your own backyard is no longer reserved for homeowners with massive properties or infinite budgets: As in-ground swimming pools increase in popularity, there are sizes, shapes, and styles for every situation. "On top of COVID restrictions, and people not being able to get to the community pool, everyone's wanting that convenience factor of a swimming pool in their backyard right now," says Matthew Biron of Hoffman Landscapes. "Everyone's looking for their own oasis in their backyard." If you've decided to take the plunge, expect to work through these five design decisions before breaking ground.

outdoor dining table and swimming pool in backyard of nantucket home
Credit: Courtesy of Tharon Anderson

Choose the right location.

A wide variety of factors will narrow down the exact spot where you can build an in-ground pool, including zoning restrictions, property line and septic system setbacks, and drainage systems, says Biron. But after considering those, your next decision is where you want the pool in relation to your house—do you want to walk out of your kitchen directly onto the pool deck or would you prefer a more secluded pool atmosphere? "Is it a destination pool, or is it close to the house?" he says. "If it's a destination pool, is there going to be a structure, a pool house, a cabana, so when you go out to the pool environment, it's its own space?" That choice should also be influenced by how you plan to use the pool: Are you the go-to host for family functions, do you think this will be the prime hangout for your teenagers and their friends, or a more private swimmer looking for a quiet place to read?

Consider what size and shape makes the most sense for your space.

Whether you choose a pool in a classic rectangle or an organic freeform shape is primarily a matter of your taste—and budget (but, cautions Biron, convenient automatic covers—more affordable and available for rectangular pools—are often a deciding factor). Calculating the right size for your pool means thinking about the overall area you have to dedicate to your swim space. "It's tempting, in a small yard, to simply fill the space with the pool and decking, and maximize the water area," says Randy Angell of Randy Angell Designs. "This can lead to a cold, uninviting space. It is important, regardless of the size of the space, to strike a balance between water area, hardscape or decking, and landscape." Your home's size and style can also help inform the area and design of your pool. "Proportion-wise, with the pool's relationship to the house and the scale of the property, it shouldn't dwarf it and it shouldn't feel too small," says Biron. "It needs to meet the scale of the home, and the property, and the space."

A popular option for homeowners with smaller yards are plunge pools: These rectangles are usually about half the size of a traditional pool, maintain one consistent depth throughout, and offer an efficient space for a quick dip, a game of water basketball, or a swim. "Would you like to be able to play water volleyball? Perhaps you would like to be able to swim laps, or the pool may be more for lounging, and taking a quick dip," says Angell. "Establishing how you would like to pool to function for you and your family is another key to determine the size of the pool. Clients can forget to consider that their kids are going to grow up, and the pool needs are going to change over time. Don't become hyper-focused on just how you want the pool to function today, but consider how you want it to function in the future."

Make it a striking sanctuary.

A rectangular pool with a concrete patio and diving board may have been Clark Griswold's 1980s dream, but contemporary designers turn their pool installations into hotel-worthy havens. Wide, shallow entries with holes that support umbrellas offer shaded spots for lounging with cocktails or entertaining splashing babies, while more dramatic stairs create a central gathering point, says Biron. Water features in a variety of materials add soothing sounds and visual interest: "These can range from simple sheer descent waterfalls to bronze or stainless-steel water scuppers, to large boulder waterfalls," says Angell. Integrated spas allow homeowners to use the pool area after swim season ends, while upgraded jumping-off points are beautiful alternatives to traditional diving boards. "The diving board is a thing of the past," says Biron. Instead, his clients opt for diving rocks, diving boulders, or cascading water features that offer the feeling of jumping off a waterfall.

Think of nighttime dips.

Make your pool a go-to spot even after the sun goes down—and when summer ends—with intentional upgrades: A pool heater that extends your swim season (and an automatic cover to retain the heat overnight in spring and fall); a fire pit built into the surrounding patio; stylish underwater LED lighting in a rainbow of shades for night swimming. "Nighttime becomes a magical time with a swimming pool," says Angell. "New advancements in LED lighting in and around the pool can turn a normal backyard into a visual masterpiece." Many pool systems also offer remote access through connected phone apps, says Biron, so you can control the lights, heat, jets, and vacuum from anywhere on your property.

Design a cohesive environment.

Think beyond the pool area when creating your design, Angell suggests. That means you'll also want to consider how much of the pool area you'll see from inside your home. "As wonderful as it is to have a pool in the backyard, we truly spend more time looking at it than swimming in it," he says. "This is why the aesthetics of the pool space need to create visual interest from inside the home, as well as the surrounding patio areas." Add landscaping; attractive fencing; patio spaces dedicated to dining, lounging, and conversation; easy access points; and an out-of-sight spot for your pool equipment as part of a master plan before you break ground, says Biron. "Anyone can draw a rectangle on a piece of paper and call it a pool," says Biron. "It's really how you take it from that and tie it into the existing site conditions and then tie it into your home—because it is basically putting an addition on your home."

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