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How to design a pool area – expert advice on features, materials, planting and more

How to design a pool area – expert advice on features, materials, planting and more

it’s important to know how to design a pool area – after all, a backyard swimming pool has always been desirable for fitness, family fun, cooling off and entertaining, but it's vital that it complements the rest of the yard rather than simply being a functional addition that doesn’t look as if it is part of the whole.

The loveliest pool ideas use attractive materials that suit a home’s architecture and the local area’s characteristics, offer chic dining and seating areas, boast great planting, and feature atmospheric lighting for gatherings after dark. 

This expert pool area design advice examines the options for yards of all sizes and styles.

From the best-looking, safest materials for underfoot to clever ways to provide shade and privacy, here we look into the practicalities of creating pool landscaping ideas.

It’s vital to consider how much hardscaping is required around the pool when designing a pool area. How much furniture will be located there? Should it incorporate a distinct seating as well as dining area? How much space do you want to allow for circulation?

‘A generous border of hard landscaping around the pool allows for sun loungers and the ability to walk without worrying about getting to the edge,’ says landscape designer Marcus Barnett.

The other advantage of a larger area of hardscaping can be to prevent a lawn from being splashed by water containing chlorine or salt water, which could damage it. Narrow margin? Zoysiagrass and Bermudagrass are salt tolerant.

When you’re deciding how to design a pool area, bear in mind that repeating the patio ideas and pavers used in other zones of your yard can be a sound tactic, creating a harmonious look. Alternatively, you might choose to distinguish the pool area with a different paver. If so, make sure its color is sympathetic to other hardscaping as well as the planting, and the materials from which your home is built for a consistent design.

Whichever option you take, the location of the pavers requires that you pay attention to their slipperiness. Walking around with wet feet, plus the splashes from the pool create a potential hazard.

Marcus Barnett recommends repeating the pavers used elsewhere in the yard, but swapping to a finish such as bush-hammered or flamed to create a non-slip surface. Look also for sawn finishes, and avoid smooth honed pavers.

Pool pavers need to be hard wearing enough to cope with the foot traffic of the area, as well as the furniture kept there. However, it’s also essential that the material selected can deal with salt or chlorine.

Don’t be afraid to choose natural stone, if this is your preference. ‘You might think there would be problems with a real stone surround,’ says garden designer Dr Peter Reader MSGD. ‘In reality there is usually no, or very little, problem and indeed for a number of other reasons (appearance and non-slip surfaces) natural stone makes for a very good pool surround. Travertine, limestone and sandstone are all popular and the fact that they absorb a small amount of water actually improves their non-slip characteristics. 

‘That said, all stones vary to a degree in their properties depending on type and provenance. It is always sensible, therefore, to use a reliable stone merchant who can provide you with details on a particular stone’s performance and suitability for a pool side.’

It’s not just the anti-slip properties and durability of pool pavers that need to be considered. They will heat up in the sun, and need to remain comfortable enough to walk on. For regions with hotter temperatures, opt for pavers that are lighter in color.

Factor in glare as well. While ultra contemporary backyard designs often feature very  pale pavers, these might prove dazzling in high sun and make the space uncomfortable to be in.

Don’t rule out using deck ideas as an alternative to pavers when deciding how to design a pool area. It’s another way to create a cooler feel underfoot, and can also help blend the pool area into the surrounding landscaping, or link it to a home with wood siding. 

Choose a wood such as cedar, teak or ipe that will stand up to the demanding conditions, and bear in mind that it will have maintenance requirements. 

‘Another option to consider is using some of the non-slip composites instead (made from polymer and wood fibre) which are sustainable and much more durable,’ says Fellow of the Society of Garden Designers and CEO of Bowles & Wyer John Wyer. ‘If you’re absolutely sold on the wood look, you could use non-slip porcelain planks, which are available in a wide variety of wood-like finishes.’

Think about whether you install the same pavers right up to the edge of the pool, or go for a second material for the pool coping – in other words its edging. This can focus attention on an interesting pool shape, as well as make the design of the pool area richer in detail.

Pay attention to the edge of the coping as well, and how this complements the rest of the backyard design. A square-edge coping appears clean and modern, while a bullnose has a softer effect. Meanwhile, coping with an edge that drops down can give the pool area a more luxurious look.

How to design a pool area when it comes to planting? For a coherent yard design, follow the style of the rest of the space. However, not every plant will be suitable for a location near the pool.

‘You should choose plants that won’t shed leaves into the pool – bamboos are one to avoid for this reason, particularly on the up-wind side,’ says John Wyer. ‘Instead, opt for low growing herbaceous, clipped topiary and smaller grasses to bring in some movement and texture.’

Borders can be used to divide the pool area from the rest of the yard, subtly distinguishing one zone of the space from another and introducing a softer element that will contrast with the hardscape and horizontals of the pool area.

Be aware of potential issues, though. ‘Pools are built so that the paving surround runs off, away from the pool. So if you have planting around the pool area, consider installing a gravel French drain so that chlorinated water doesn’t damage the planting,’ says John Wyer.

Irregular-shaped yard? Planting can be a way of filling the spaces created by a rectangular pool area within it. 

Pergola ideas can introduce welcome shade for seating or dining areas by the pool to allow them to stay comfortable for day-long use. Choose a version with a roof, and consider whether your location also means it needs to include the option to shade the sides when required.

Adding a pergola to the pool area also has the benefit of creating vertical lines that add interest to the design and make the area around the pool feel larger by drawing the eye upwards.

A sloping yard can be boon when considering how to design a pool area. With the pool above ground, the coping can double as a seating area overlooking the rest of the space. Alternatively, consider terraced seating with a view to the pool at the lower level. 

Composite decking can be a useful material choice to create terraced areas, and its care needs are minimal.

Garden privacy ideas will be needed if your pool is overlooked. However, you might also want to consider screening it as part of the overall design of the backyard, or to ensure the pool is not a major feature of the space when its cover is on and it’s less attractive. And of course, if your pool area is entirely open to the elements, you might like to consider shade garden ideas to create some relief from hot sunshine.

There are lots of options for screening. ‘In a larger wrap-around garden, the pool can be to the sunny side of the house and slightly out of sight from the main garden,’ says Dr Peter Reader.

‘Many garden designs create “rooms” within the wider space and so the pool area can be compartmentalized off as part of the wider design. This can be done by the use of walls, hedging, or other planting, as well as simple hardscape structures like trellising. 

‘Both trellis and planting have an added advantage over more solid structures like walls in that they can have a degree of transparency which allows the spaces to be separated and yet still linked. Examples might be a trellis that has a greater or lesser amount of climbers on it, giving screening that you can moderate. Plants like tall grasses or pleached trees can create a similar effect. The advantage of the shared planting between the two areas is that it also adds continuity to the wider garden design. 

‘Another option is to sink the whole pool area to create a sunken garden. This can obviously be a more expensive option as it requires a greater amount of dig out, but it delivers the benefits of hiding the pool, providing privacy and also potentially shelter from the wind.’

If you’re wondering how to design a pool area that’s atmospheric as well as safe after dark, clever outdoor lighting ideas are key. The patio needs sufficient light for family and guests to move around at night with the edge of the pool and the water clear to see. 

Take a lead from garden and landscape designer Janine Pattison, who uses color-changing LEDs in and around pools to allow different moods to be created easily.

In a medium or large yard, it’s worth upping the size of the pool area to make space for one of our pool house ideas. The building can echo the lines of the pool with elegant curves, for example, and complement the contemporary or classic style of the yard design.

As well as creating space for changing in and out of swimwear without trekking into the house, it’s also a shady spot to enjoy when the day is at its hottest. But a pool house can also provide a place to store furniture in winter, tidy away the extras that go with a pool such as rafts, noodles and so on, and you could even include a section to stash pool chemicals safely away in its design.

To create a pool area with plenty for the viewer to enjoy visually, try mixing hardscaping materials. Christopher Grubb, an interior designer and founder of Beverly Hills-based Arch-Interiors Design Group used decking, concrete, tile and grass for this stylish space in order to create a design that keeps the eye moving.

Consider following his lead by using different levels, too, in order to distinguish separate zones.

To build a good pool area make sure it fits naturally into the yard. You could opt for an overall design that zones the backyard into different areas plus use similar plants and subtle screening so that the pool and wider yard flow into each other, suggests Dr Peter Reader.

But there are alternatives. ‘A pool doesn’t have to look like your classic bright blue pool at all,’ says Dr Reader. ‘It can be styled and constructed out of materials that make it look like a crystal-clear pond. This can create a much more naturalistic and relaxing pool experience and on a chillier day you can leave the pool open and simply view it as a pond. Attractive historical tiling mosaics on the bottom of the pool can really add to the atmosphere and create a story or air of mystery. 

‘You can go one step further and put in a natural swimming pool. These have become increasingly popular recently and deliver a completely different pool experience. They cleverly use natural filter systems and the poolside planting to keep the water clean and safe and therefore do not require any chemicals. Large areas are kept for open swimming and play, but you can also include quiet areas where you can sit amongst the waterside planting and observe the wildlife that visits.’

To decorate a pool area and add color and energy opt for an accent color for patio umbrellas that can be picked up on patterned throw pillows and outdoor rugs. Add planters with summer blooms, too. 

If you’re spending time out there after dusk, dress up the area with lanterns to add soft light and design detail and use backyard string light ideas to add atmosphere. You can keep any late night chill off and create a focal point with a fire pit or outdoor fireplace along with throw blankets you can offer guests. And for table settings for day or night-time dining, choose colorful china and glasses.