POOLS & SPAS : Western Waterscapes : The New Wave in Pool Design Goes Beyond the Basics to Create the Total Aquatic Environment

<i> Virginia Gray is an associate editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine</i>

Building a pool today is a lot like buying a car; the options seem endless and can add up quickly.

A basic, 18x36-foot pool / spa combination from a high-volume Southern California company starts at about $18,000. For $5,000 more, you can add some landscaping and perhaps a built-in barbecue. “The cost of building the pool’s shell isn’t going to vary more than 10% to 15%,” a local pool designer says. “It’s the ‘flatwork'--what’s above the ground--that increases the cost.”

A custom pool by an independent pool or landscape designer, however, can start at about $50,000. Why the price leap? Large companies build hundreds of standard pools each year using their own in-house designers and fast-working construction crews. Smaller independents--landscape designers and architects--build fewer pools, usually no more than 12 a year, and offer customized extras.

Trendy options are an important consideration for many who are in the market for a pool. Today’s upscale homeowners are choosing waterscapes--total aquatic environments--rather than mere pools. A leading look is the “natural” lagoon, created with a free-form pool surrounded by real or man-made rocks, sometimes with waterfalls, water slides and recirculating streams that meander through the rocks before spilling into the pool.


Ten years ago, the height of fashion was the black-bottom pool, touted for its energy-saving potential (actually, such savings are minimal) and dramatic, reflective quality. But many homeowners now choose lighter shades of gray that make the water an inviting deep blue--less foreboding than the seemingly fathomless black-bottom look, especially for serious lap swimmers.

Families with small children often opt for wading areas and “beaches"--edges of the pool that slope gradually for walk-in entry. Probably the year’s most in-demand options are wet walls and other recirculating-water features that create soothing, trickling sounds; surprisingly, these are among the least expensive options. Other homeowners want to enhance their pools with bridges, steppingstones and sunning and diving decks. One contractor builds spas with deep wells measured to the owner’s height so that he or she can stand with jets aimed at specific areas of the back.

Newly improved remote controls that operate spa jets and heaters, pool lights and landscape lighting are also popular options. The same equipment can be operated from inside the house via programmed gauges (similar to a thermostat) installed on an interior wall. Even pool lighting is entering a new era: Fiber optic strips that use no electricity can be installed around the pool’s perimeter, or even underwater, to accent steps.

Since the early ‘60s, pool and car prices have remained comparable. Today, you can buy a small, basic BMW for about the same price as an average standard pool and spa from a large company. Likewise, a custom waterscape by an independent designer will set you back about as much as an option-loaded prestige car.