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Ask the Expert: An Insider’s Guide to Swimming Pool Design from Scott Lewis

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Ask the Expert: An Insider’s Guide to Swimming Pool Design from Scott Lewis

July 29, 2021

“A well-designed pool can be a restful, soothing, and sophisticated water element in a landscape,” says Scott Lewis of  Scott Lewis Landscape Architecture. Since launching his San Francisco firm in 1993, Lewis has worked on numerous pools and water features in his designs for residences, resorts, estates, and public institutions. “A pool needs to be part of a whole plan,” he says, “so we base the size, shape, and location on the specific project. We don’t use a formula.”

Read on for his 13 top tips on swimming pool design:

Photography courtesy of Scott Lewis Landscape Architecture.

A swimming pool at a Napa Hills estate, by Scott Lewis Landscape Architecture. Photograph by Scott Lewis Landscape Architecture.
Above: A swimming pool at a Napa Hills estate, by Scott Lewis Landscape Architecture. Photograph by Scott Lewis Landscape Architecture.

1. Where should I put the swimming pool?

A pool is more than a place to swim—consider how it will look in the landscape. Ideally, the pool should sit in the property’s sunniest spot, and be attractive even when not in use—especially if it’s visible from the house, says Lewis. Consider a swimming pool to be a water feature in your landscape.

A swimming pool and spa in the hills of Marin County, California, by Scott Lewis Landscape Architecture. Photograph by Bruce Damonte.
Above: A swimming pool and spa in the hills of Marin County, California, by Scott Lewis Landscape Architecture. Photograph by Bruce Damonte.

2. What is the best shape for a swimming pool?

“Most of the pools we design are rectangular, as that shape works well architecturally,” says Lewis, who recommends not getting too fancy with the shape. A freeform shape can be difficult to incorporate in the landscape—it tends to call a lot of attention to itself. A rectangle also is the best shape for accommodating a pool cover, and, of course, for swimming laps.  Round or square is a good shape for a spa.

3. What are other design guidelines for pools?

The pool’s intended use should dictate its design, says Lewis. If lap swimming isn’t a priority, consider making your pool look luxurious and inviting with a set of wide steps that descend into the water at the shallow end. Families might opt for a continuous underwater shelf, or pool bench, along one side to provide an area for congregating. If you’re water volleyball fans, construct a “sports profile” pool: shallow at both ends and only 5-6 feet deep in the middle. It’s also good for kids hanging out and for most lap swimmers.

To connect the swimming pool to the landscape, Lewis surrounded it with perennial grasses on two sides. Photograph by Bernard Andre.
Above: To connect the swimming pool to the landscape, Lewis surrounded it with perennial grasses on two sides. Photograph by Bernard Andre.

4. How will people get to and from the pool?

Says Lewis: Map out a circulation plan as part of the design, and think about how far away your dining or play areas should be. If your pool doesn’t need hard surfaces for circulation on all four sides, you can use plantings or grasses to delineate one or two of the pool’s edges.

A pool with an infinity edge; Lewis sited it to take advantage of a dramatic view. Photograph by John Sutton.
Above: A pool with an infinity edge; Lewis sited it to take advantage of a dramatic view. Photograph by John Sutton.

5. What about a pool with an infinity edge?

An infinity-edge pool needs an appropriate setting. While it can be a striking design element, this type of pool works best on a site with a significant drop-off, says Lewis. You also want to make sure the placement of the infinity edge works with other elements of the space—perhaps helping dramatize a spectacular view.

A wall fountain in a swimming pool that Lewis designed for a ridge-top home in northern California. Photograph by John Sutton.
Above: A wall fountain in a swimming pool that Lewis designed for a ridge-top home in northern California. Photograph by John Sutton.

6. Is running water a good design element?

Says Lewis: You can get dramatic effects with minimal effort by adding a water element to the pool, to provide a visual focal point and an appealing sound. There are numerous design guidelines to consider: the size of the opening, the force of the water, the amount of water, and the distance the water falls. (A water feature that spills into the pool must use recirculated pool water, so as not to introduce a new water source.)

For more on slot fountains and other water elements, see Hardscaping 101: Fountains.

Stone pavers feel good underfoot on a deck Lewis designed to surround a swimming pool. Photograph by John Sutton.
Above: Stone pavers feel good underfoot on a deck Lewis designed to surround a swimming pool. Photograph by John Sutton.

7. What are the best materials for pool decks?

Choose deck materials for practicality. Lewis says the prime consideration for any deck or terrace material is that it must remain at a comfortable temperature under a hot sun. “We prefer neutral shades, so we often choose light gray or buff-colored limestone or sandstone, or light-colored concrete or precast pavers,” he says. “To judge the color properly, we look at the terrace material when it’s wet, and under different sky conditions.” If you’re going with wood decking, Alaska yellow cedar can be another option to the darker-colored ipe, since it stays cool underfoot.

For the pool at a Napa Valley project, Lewis had waterline tile laid in a conventional running bond pattern. Photograph by Scott Lewis Landscape Architecture.
Above: For the pool at a Napa Valley project, Lewis had waterline tile laid in a conventional running bond pattern. Photograph by Scott Lewis Landscape Architecture.

8. What is the best color for a pool?

Traditionally, the underwater surfaces of most swimming pools were white or very dark, says Lewis. But in the past few decades, more color options have come on the scene, and it’s common to see pools with plaster tinted in various shades: light to medium gray, sometimes with added blue or green tones. These shades cause the water to range in color from slate blue to azure to green-blue. Deep blue or azure water color is achieved by using gray and blue tints in the plaster. The deeper the pool depth, the deeper the blue of the water. “We often create several mock-ups with variations of plaster color to get the ideal tone,” says Lewis.

&#8\2\20;If budget allows, mosaic tile for the entire pool is a beautiful alternative to plaster, creating a color-filled underwater environment for swimmers,&#8\2\2\1; says Lewis. Photograph by John Sutton.
Above: “If budget allows, mosaic tile for the entire pool is a beautiful alternative to plaster, creating a color-filled underwater environment for swimmers,” says Lewis. Photograph by John Sutton.

The tile at the pool’s edge also has an impact. “Waterline tile that matches the water color and is laid in a running bond pattern is preferable to a band of tile in a contrasting color outlining the pool—which only detracts from the view of the water,” says Lewis. “We find excellent tile options at McIntyre Tile Company and Heath Ceramics.”

If you’re adding a spa or hot tub, keep it separate from the pool whenever possible, says Lewis. Photograph by Matthew Millman.
Above: If you’re adding a spa or hot tub, keep it separate from the pool whenever possible, says Lewis. Photograph by Matthew Millman.

9. Where should I put the spa or hot tub?

Pools look best as a single, unbroken sheet of water, says Lewis: “We generally make the spa a separate unit and place it elsewhere in the landscape.” However, it is more efficient and less expensive to have the spa integrated into the pool.

10. What kind of pool furniture will I need?

A pool area crowded with furniture becomes less restful, says Lewis. “Depending on the intended look, we prefer pieces with classic, simple lines,” he says, citing Richard Schultz’s 1966 Lounge Collection for Knoll (“comfortable, low-maintenance chairs and tables that can be left outside”). Texture can also work well, such as Paola Lenti’s line of well-designed chaises.

 &#8\2\20;We try to avoid umbrellas, instead using trees or arbors to provide shade. When pots are needed, we like simple forms, understated textures, and subdued colors—such as the pots made by Belgium’s Atelier Vierkant,&#8\2\2\1; says Lewis. Photograph by Mark Darley.
“We try to avoid umbrellas, instead using trees or arbors to provide shade. When pots are needed, we like simple forms, understated textures, and subdued colors—such as the pots made by Belgium’s Atelier Vierkant,” says Lewis. Photograph by Mark Darley.

11. Chlorine versus a natural swimming pool?

Lewis recommends consulting with a pool contractor and maintenance service before choosing a water system.

Chlorinated pools, salt-water system pools, natural (or chemical-free “bio”) pools, and ozone pools all have their own installation and servicing issues. “Chlorinated pools have advanced considerably over the years; an experienced maintenance team and modern equipment can keep chlorine at minimum levels so the pool will remain clean but won’t give off a heavy scent,” says Lewis. “Non-chlorinated pools often require special maintenance, while saltwater pools can have chemical corrosion issues if not properly cared for. Bio pools are a great concept, but require careful upkeep to keep the water sanitary.”

Perennial grasses create a soft visual backdrop for a pool. Photograph by Bernard Andre.
Above: Perennial grasses create a soft visual backdrop for a pool. Photograph by Bernard Andre.

12. What are the best plants to grow near a pool?

Says Lewis: Avoid plants that attract bees, plants with spikes (such as Mexican Fan Palms and agaves), and trees with large leaves that can drop into the pool. Ornamental grasses are a good choice; they’re debris-free and look soft and billowy near the water. “Due to water-usage concerns we don’t use much lawn in our California projects, but we’ve found that a small amount of traditional turf grass or lawn around a pool can work well,” says Lewis.

13. Is it possible to live with a pool cover?

There’s no doubt that a 20-by-40-foot sheet of shiny blue vinyl is visually unappealing, says Lewis: “When safety codes require a pool cover (or a client asks for one), we specify a cover in a neutral color, rather than bright blue, so it will blend with the landscape—especially important in fall and winter when the pool isn’t in use. We also suggest locating a covered pool in a spot that doesn’t dominate the view from the house.”

N.B.: This post is an update; it was first published June 2018.

See more of our favorite projects by Scott Lewis:

Finally, get more ideas on how to integrate a swimming pool into your landscape or exterior home project with our design guide to Swimming Pools 101.

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