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Cover story: Backyard pool forever changed
Question of the Day
Picture this. Dad is busy flipping burgers on the grill, Mom is laying out some fried chicken on the table, and the kids are busy plowing headfirst down the slide. Just another lazy summer's day at the local park, right?
Wrong. In fact, you're all wet - or they are, at least. Because despite the grilling, the chicken, and the sliding, everybody, yes, even Mom, can be in the pool.
"The biggest innovation in pool design today is outdoor living," said Dick Covert, executive director of Master Pools Guild, a Richmond-based invitation-only network of luxury pool builders from around the world. "It's not just a place for exercise and play any more."
Swimming pools are not what they used to be, and they are not used the same way either. Dad can work the grill with his bottom half squarely in the water. And Mom can prepare a meal, or work the bar, without ever leaving the pool.
And the kids? After they have had enough sliding, they can hide in a grotto, relax in the spa, or just enjoy the play of the LED lights on the water as day turns into night.
So forget those pools of yesteryear. Today's swimming pools offer cutting-edge design coupled with innovative technology that can make you and your family interact with the backyard in a whole new way.
And, according to the National Association of Realtors, an in-ground swimming pool may also increase your home's value. Realtor.com even allows prospective buyers to narrow their home searches to properties that include a pool, which often are fixtures in the D.C. area's upscale neighborhoods.
But pools are not for everyone.
"Some areas are more acceptable to pools," said Jack Sheffrin, chief real estate appraiser at Old Line Appraisals in Laurel. "In other areas, having a pool may not contribute much to the value of the home, and ongoing costs can have an impact."
But if you are like many Washington-area residents, just the sight - and the smell - of a swimming pool is all that is needed to signal summer. The softly lapping water, sparking tiles and that distinctive odor of chlorine can be enough to send you over the edge, literally, as was the case with former D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, whose cannonball plunges into one of the city's public pools marked the start of the summer season.
And, as the economy starts to come back, people who actually enjoyed their "staycations" are now willing to put a little bit extra into the idea of a swimming pool, said Drew Crowder, vice president of commercial design at NV Blu Pools, a swimming pool design and build company based in Fairfax.
"People want a complete backyard oasis," he said. "A swimming pool is usually the second-largest monetary commitment a family can make, after the house. Some people put aside money for years."
What can it cost? A lower-end pool might set a homeowner back $25,000 to $40,000. A customized, state of the art pool can run from $100,000 to $750,000.
For that kind of money, don't expect the crisp, rectangular, blue-and-white pool of your youth. Today's pool designs often are the centerpiece of an outdoor room that comes complete with kitchen, fireplace, distinctive lighting and other amenities, such as state-of-the art sound systems or outdoor theaters. They have swim-up bars and adjoining hot tubs, fountains, and in some cases, even flames.
Pool designers make a considerable effort to marry the shape of the pool to the size and shape of the lot.
"Shapes are always kind of crazy," Mr. Crowder said.
Even traditionally shaped rectangular pools don't always look the same. Infinity, or zero-edge pools are designed to provide an optical illusion of water that seems to flow into the distant horizon, rather than the cleverly concealed catch trough below. Sometimes called vanishing-edge pools, these types are especially effective for showing off the scenery as they guide they eye toward a particular point.
And forget those waterline tiles you remember from your days at the Y. Other than a diving board, there is nothing that makes a pool look more dated. Today's pools often feature dark finishes that magnify the reflective properties of the water, or beadcrete, shimmering glass beads that add a touch of elegance.
"They are absolutely gorgeous," Mr. Crowder said. "It's almost like having a glass mosaic underneath your feet."
Still want to dive? Diving rocks, which blend into the natural environment, can fill that need.
Older pool lovers, as well as those with young children, often favor beach-entry pools, which offer a gently sloping surface rather than steps. These are especially beloved by sunbathers, who get to set up lounge chairs on the shallow end, which warms up quickly, or by older folk who just want to get a "little bit" wet.
Then there are "wet decks," oversized steps of a sort that enable people who don't want to go all the way into the water to sit.
And while you are unlikely to see a diving board on today's pool, because of safety issues and design changes, you are likely to find all sorts of other features. Waterfalls, bubblers, sconces, scuppers and other features all add interest and provide a focal point, even when no one is in the water.
"People want more water features," Mr. Covert said. "They love the sound of running water, and they have the added affect of drowning out the street noise."
Meanwhile, new ways of lighting abound, including using laminars that shoot water along with streams of color into the pool or deck area. Energy-efficient LED lights, which can offer an abundance of color and other effects, have replaced the floodlights from your grandparents' day. (They also last longer.) Fireplaces, fire pits, and fire bowls can provide lighting along with a bit of warmth for swimmers who have left the water.
"At night you can sit out and watch the lights play along the water features while you listen to music," Mr. Covert said.
Mr. Covert noted that most people spend more time around the pool than actually in it, so the area surrounding the water has changed, too. New materials and more luxurious outdoor furniture means decks often are designed as more than just places to hang your towel - they are spaces to hang out.
"You've really added another living area," Mr. Covert said. "People love being out there."
Often, these spaces are designed to mimic the natural environment, and include boulders and rock formations, or echo a design element from the home itself. Designers often speak of a "poolscape" that includes a variety of elements, both natural and created.
"You want to consider the wants and desires of the homeowner," Mr. Crowder said. "You also take into account things like cultural influences and the architectural style of the home. You want to take what's inside and bring it outdoors."
Among the more important changes from pools of the past has to do with its position in relation to the home, Mr. Covert said.
"They want to be closer," he said. "It's really more seen as another room, a living space complete with an entertainment center."
Closer pools mean they really do function as an extension of the home, with the pool and adjoining space making an additional room that, thanks to better heating techniques, can be used even when the days and nights grow colder.
Technology, too, has had a significant impact on everything from maintenance and management to pool design. Cameras can allow you to see what is going on with your pool even when you aren't home. And with a touch of a button on your iPad, tablet or other device, you can control the heat, filtration and even the retractable pool cover.
"You can turn the heat on when you're heading home," Mr. Covert said. "The only thing you have to do when you get there is pick up your martini or glass of wine."
Today's pools also are more eco-friendly, with variable-speed pumps better able to control energy and water usage. New methods of saltwater chlorination mean that the old chlorine sting is gone. And some pool owners are remodeling old pools to saltwater swimming pools, which require fewer chemicals, minimal maintenance and lower costs overall.
Meanwhile, some swimming pools actually make use of plant life to do the sanitation - no chemicals.
But if you are planning to add a pool to your property, be sure to consider things such as location.
"A pool does take away from your ability to use a certain part of the yard," Mr. Sheffrin said. "If you've got a small lot, that can be a situation where the pool takes away value and can be a deterrent."
A pool-design professional can help you navigate the sometimes-rough waters of permits, easements, and local codes. For example, many homes in the Greater Washington area are within the jurisdiction of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, meaning that pools have to be situated at least 100 yards away from any kind of moving water.
A poorly planned, dated or misplaced pool can depress your home's value, and even an up-to-date design can turn potential buyers away, wary of high maintenance costs and safety issues.
"Every house varies," said Mr. Sheffrin, who also works as a real estate broker. "If you lose 5 to 10 percent of the home's value, you may not be able to sell the house quickly."
Some homeowners even opt to remove existing pools, turning those areas into garden or play spaces.
A home appraiser like Mr. Sheffrin can help you determine whether an existing pool can be a boon or a bust when it comes to home value. And sometimes, those decisions have less to do with the state of the pool than with its location, its relation to other pools in the neighborhoods, and the size of the lot.
"The bottom line is you shouldn't expect to get your money back," Mr. Sheffrin said.
Still, pool lovers point out that it's not always about the bottom line.
"It's a great place to be with your family and friends," Mr. Covert said. "What better way could there be to end the day?"
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