The backyard of yesteryear was a childhood refuge where youngsters climbed trees, built forts, and played hide-and-seek. Today, some backyards rival resort destinations, so prominent are their water features, culinary amenities, and creature comforts.
The in-ground swimming pool is the centerpiece of these residential outdoor living and entertainment areas to which homeowners are adding way beyond the usual bluestone patios and fieldstone sitting walls to create the ultimate backyard retreat, according to Bob Russell.
Russell is the vice president of pool services for the award-winning Glen Gate Company, a pool design, construction and maintenance firm in Wilton, which services properties in Fairfield and Westchester counties. The pool environment has also become more central to family life, says Russell, past president of ConSpa, the Connecticut chapter of the National Spa and Pool Association.
The residential pool is now surrounded by other features that add significantly to the outdoor living experience for individuals, family members, and invited guests.
Over the last decade or so, a dramatic change in lifestyle has people spending more time outside. Residents are creating resort-like settings in their backyard as a way of extending the pool season — regardless of geography — making the yard an extension of their house, according to pool and landscaping experts. “They are building into their yards landscape lighting so they can enjoy their property in the summer at night,” Russell says.
Living and entertainment spaces don’t need to be confined to the interior square footage of a home when people’s backyards are so well-equipped. Where once there were just outdoor grills, there are now high-end, built-in outdoor kitchens complete with refrigerators, wine coolers, and ranges.
Where once there was a fire pit or an outdoor fireplace, there is now comfortable built-in seating around those fire elements. Where once there was a small wet bar, there is a full-service bar with a long counter to accommodate a half-dozen or more stools. In one New Canaan backyard there is a pool with a swim-up bar.
A family in Wilton enjoys swimming so much that they have an outdoor pool and an indoor pool that is incorporated into their living room.
Pools have also become more elaborate with specialized features that improve energy efficiency, conserve water, automate pool and spa operation, cut down on routine maintenance, and enhance the entertainment factor. The pool area has become “an entertainment palace,” according to Jeb Henn of Henn Pools in Darien, which has installed a rooftop water fountain on a house in Greenwich and rooftop swimming pools in Manhattan.
Pool designers and builders can create whatever people can imagine, says Carvin DiGiovanni, vice president of Technical & Standards for the Association of Pool and Spa Professionals, based in Alexandria, Virginia. Backyard pools and water features are as limitless as the homeowner’s creativity and economic resources, DiGiovanni says.
It all depends on what someone is willing to spend, Henn says.
“You can have just about anything in your yard. It’s amazing,” says Russell, adding that Glen Gate recently installed a pool for a client in Bronxville, New York, the floor of which raises up to become a patio. “You can actually park a vehicle on this thing, drive off, and then the patio sinks and becomes a pool,” he says. It’s an engineering marvel, Russell says. As the bottom comes up the water runs sideways into a retention tank and gets pumped back underneath the cover.
Few homes have anything quite that elaborate, but that doesn’t mean folks don’t want something unique or unusual in their homes.
They don’t want the rectangular, “cookie-cutter” swimming pool, DiGiovanni says. They want something pleasing to the eye. It could be a free-form pool design that resembles a natural pond or lake, or a dramatic infinity edge pool. Some pools have interactive features such as diving boards, slides, sprayers and water pads. Others are outfitted with special water features including waterfalls and fountains containing built-in lighting to create colorful, spectacular light shows.
Technology allows the programmable light shows to be synchronized using a remote control. “You can have total disco mania in your pool or you can mute it and keep it blue, or dim it,” Russell says.
"Poolside lights and music can set the mood,” DiGiovanni says.
Just as automation has evolved to allow homeowners to operate lighting, security and heating systems from afar, so can they manage their pools and spas using smartphone applications. After a particularly hard day at work a homeowner can open the automatic pool cover, turn on the lights, and increase the temperature in the hot tub from their cellphone on the way home so they are ready to unwind the minute they arrive home. And more sophisticated automated systems also give people more time to enjoy their pools rather than cleaning and maintaining them.
Backyard pools are not limited to family recreation and fun. Because of the health and wellness aspects of hydrotherapy — including stress reduction and soothing sore muscles, more people are opting for swim spas, DiGiovanni says. Swim spas are aquatic vessels that are like over-size hot tubs. They have programmable currents allowing people to swim in place while also enjoying the benefits of a hot tub. He says these spas are also great for smaller backyards that don’t have enough room for a full-size swimming pool.
Consult an expert when considering installing and maintaining a pool and all its extras. Russell recommends checking to make sure pool maintenance workers are licensed, as required by Connecticut state law. Licensure guarantees they have a particular level of training and have passed a state exam, Russell says. The state has a list of licensed pool service technicians available online.