A custom spa features a waterfall descent that spills into a vanishing-edge pool. photo courtesy of Westport Pools

What makes a swimming pool more than just a backyard tub of water? That’s the question many homeowners consider when it comes time to build a pool or spruce up their existing one. With smaller, specialty pools generating plenty of interest, deciding on form and function usually depends on the budget and the space available. 

    Specialty pools…reflecting, vanishing edge, spas or lap pools, are generally higher-end features, and at times, may not serve as typical ‘swimming pools.’ “The homeowner sometimes forgoes the practicality of a swimming pool, and makes a decision based on aesthetic value,” says Rob Warren, project manager for Baker Pool & Spa.

    A reflecting pool can be used as a swimming pool, but its materials and design configuration are a little different, he explains. “It’s usually treated more like a water feature, with minimized pool decking around the perimeter and different material selection than a regular pool,” Warren says. Reflecting pools have very still water, and are usually made with a black finish. “The darker colors yield a more reflective quality to the water to make a visual statement in the backyard.”

    A vanishing edge pool, too, is high in aesthetic value. “A vanishing edge has a descending wall section where water overflows into a lower catch basin. The basin collects the water and re-circulates it,” Warren explains. While pleasing to the eye, this type of feature does not accommodate typical pool activities. “It could prevent you from playing water sports like volleyball, and it eliminates 360-degree access to the perimeter of the pool.”

    A spa feature can either be added to an existing pool or designed in conjunction with a new one. “These can be built either attached or adjacent to the pool, or detached,” says Bill Shea, pool consultant for Westport Pools. A detached spa is typically built when yard space is limited. “It usually depends on the slope of the yard. When it’s a steep slope, we sometimes create a two-tiered design where the spa might be in the upper deck above the pool,” he explains. “We’ve also connected a spa with the pool to resemble a creek. It adds to the landscaping.” Shea says another way to enhance a pool/spa combination is to create a waterfall effect. “We can create a water feature out of the spa into the pool as a way to re-circulate the water.”

    The typical spa is usually eight square feet, and can be built on its own. But Shea says more elaborate pool/spa combinations cost an average of approximately $140,000 to $150,000, and can run as much as $300,000, depending on size and materials, and whether the lot is flat or on a slope. 

    A lap pool is ideal for those who have fitness in mind, but do not have the space for a bigger pool. “A huge motor jet is piped into the pool to make the water go as fast as you want it to go,” explains John Jacobsen, president of Liquid Assets Pools. “It allows you to swim with the current and use the pool for exercise.” He says it costs an average of $5,500 to $6,000 to retrofit a fast lane into an existing pool.

    In the pool world, it seems everything old is new again, according to Jacobsen. “More and more of the older pools are being renovated,” he says. “Because people aren’t moving as much as they were five years ago, many of them are deciding to keep their current pool and redo the plaster or deck.”

    Other ways to breathe new life into an old pool include retrofitting deck jets. “They have these fountain-like mini-jets that make an old-style pool look more modern,” Jacobsen says. “There’s also a practical use. When water gets tepid in the summer, you can turn on those mini-jets at night. The night air cools the water over time.”

    Whatever the budget, Jacobsen says there are many ways to maximize the enjoyment you get from your pool. “If your pool is outdated or even if you inherited it from the previous homeowner, it’s possible to put your stamp on it and make it your own.”