Small space pools: great outdoor ideas for small backyards


Having a smaller outdoor space doesn’t mean you can’t have it all, as these small space pools prove

Nowadays, there is a tendency to build larger homes on smaller properties, so the outdoor space available is reduced compared to what was typical 10 years ago. However, homeowners still want to utilise their outdoor areas for living, relaxing and entertaining. This desire to fit everything in has put pressure on the amount of space available for traditional-sized swimming pools, hence the need to think creatively outside the box. We asked John Storch, principal of A Total Concept Landscape Architects & Swimming Pool Designers, a company that specialises in the design of residential pools, cabanas and gardens, for his tips on fitting all the outdoor essentials into one fabulous design.

What trends are you seeing in design for small space pools?

Smaller pools are coming into their own and becoming much more popular than the standard 4.5m x 9.5m swimming pool of yesterday. This is not always due to higher-density city living. We’ve seen many large-residence gardens being split into smaller components to create outdoor rooms. This forms spaces that are more human in scale rather than having one enormous garden.

A solution to fitting everything into a small outdoor space is using a compact family pool together with an integrated, covered outdoor living area (that incorporates dining and kitchenette facilities), as well as a lawn for play and gardens for aesthetics. A family-style pool design can include plunge pools, lap pools, courtyard pools, swim spas with swim jets and oversized spas.

How small is too small and what is the ideal size for a plunge pool?

There is no ideal size for a plunge pool. The size is determined by three considerations: first, the proposed use (swimming laps, family fun or entertaining); second, the size of the space in which it is to be placed; and third, what other functions are needed from the outdoor area.

In my own home, I reduced a 12m pool that took up the entire rear garden by half and created a plunge pool. This provided space for a lawn and timber decking area. Not only did this create outdoor surfaces for my young child to play on, it became more desirable for buyers and increased the value of the property when it came time to sell.

What is the ideal depth for a small pool?

Generally speaking, in designing small space pools, we flatten the base and extend the depth at one end to increase the volume of water, allowing a total submersion experience. Depending on the owners’ requirements and whether or not there will be young children frequently using the pool, the depth is usually set at 1500mm to 1800mm throughout, with a slight fall to a mid-point. In a normal pool, depths typically slope from 1000mm to a deep end of 1800mm, a variation that becomes too steep in a shorter, smaller pool.

What are the on-trend shapes and styles of small pools?

Small pools should always be a geometric shape. Circular or angular small pools work well to maximise valuable room in limited small areas, providing clean, simple lines that can look very dramatic. Freeform-shaped pools can take up too much room, limiting entertaining space.

There are numerous trending styles of small pools, including plunge pools, lap pools, courtyard pools, swim spas and oversized spas, many of which share the same features as traditional pools.
Lap pools are often selected by homeowners who plan on using the pool for exercise. A lap pool should be at least a traditional-lane-width wide (starting at 1m) and the length should be a standard recognised length (such as 12.5m, 15m or 25m). This is so swimming distance can be easily calculated.

Plunge pools are built for entertaining purposes and for cooling off in the summer months. The size is mostly determined by the available space and other use requirements of the outdoor area.

Typically, plunge pools start at 2m x 3m and can be as big as 6m x 3m. With effective heating, a plunge pool can often double as a giant spa so adults and teenage children can comfortably relax and entertain throughout the year. This is why seats and benches are often placed within the pool, typically on two sides or more. Swim jets or swimming harnesses can also be incorporated to allow a swimmer to remain in place while exercising, thus increasing the functionality aspect of the pool.

Swim jets generally aim water 1m down the pool. Add to this the length of a person swimming with arms outstretched (2.5m) plus an extra metre behind the feet of a swimming person for splash. This means the minimum length for swim jets to work effectively is 4.5m.

A Total Concept is working on another variation of the plunge pool, which has been inspired by the Japanese onsen (a natural hot spring) and adapted to suit the Australian lifestyle. These special plunge pools require no pool fence, can be either hot or cold and require no chemicals. They are perfect for tiny spaces as they’re sized from 1.2m x 1.2m to 1.8m x 1.8m and are up to 2m deep.

Swim spas and oversize spas are often prefabricated and are easy to install with a crane in tight spaces in a single day. The aesthetic nature of a swim and oversized spa is extremely important as they double as beautiful water features to create a visual delight from the home. There is a good range of sizes and shapes to fit most situations. A limiting factor of prefabricated design is the depth, which tends to be either 900mm or 1200mm throughout.

What are the on-trend pool colours and designs for this season?

This year, we’re seeing more pools that are either very dark or very light. Dark colours are used to make bold statements, and very washed-out colours are used to blend the pool into the overall garden. Mid-range blues that are very popular with traditional pools seem to lose effect and be out of place in small pools.

We have been doing some very interesting designs with large-format pool interior tiles, often 600mm x 900mm or larger. This size tile makes the pool look spectacular, but it requires very detailed design and construction to work well.

The materials surrounding the pool should be visually strong in a small space. Good-quality paving should be selected (part-filled travertine, basalt, granites, local sandstone in 500mm x 500mm sizes or larger) and premium-quality timber in large-dimension 200mm x 50mm sizes.

Would you recommend an above-ground pool for a compact area?

Above-ground pools are hard to incorporate in a small level space due to pool fencing regulations in many states and territories. This is because a 1200mm pool fence needs to be installed around the pool, so the available space tends to get eaten up quickly. The elevated shapes also visually divide and shrink the space.

However, above-ground pools can work really well on sloping blocks where the house and the top of the pool are level. A wet edge can be incorporated into this design, with water visually falling away into a tall garden screen behind. Above-ground pools can also work well on properties that slope across the block as the main garden and lawn areas can be levelled, with access to the pool provided from both the ground and second floors of the home.

We are seeing a comeback of the round pool. Is it possible to incorporate such a design in a compact area?

A circular-shaped pool can work well in a small space, creating a dramatic look. The area left around a circular pool can create some interesting garden zones to really showcase the spot. The pool itself, especially in a courtyard situation, may be used as a feature and may incorporate falling water over textured surfaces or an infinity edge at the rear.

I believe it is always more aesthetically pleasing and safer from a supervision point of view to be able to see the pool water from the main living areas of the home or from the outside entertaining spaces. This limits the pool to no higher than 0.5m above the floor level or external entertaining level.

What are some tricks of the trade for making a small space feel bigger?

It is not always desirable to make a small space bigger but if that’s the brief, it’s all about simplification, straight, clean design lines and fewer monochromatic colours rather than busy shapes, textures and colour mixes.

We’ve been doing a lot with chunky square edges to create steps to delineate level changes and to create shadow lines around small pools. This makes a space feel and look bigger. Some clever ways to visually maximise a space are:

• Mirrors
• Simple-style planting of hedges and borders
• Lack of detail (bold monolithic structures)
• Unification of materials and colours with the home itself
• Ensuring spaces have numerous functions (such as being able to close in the entertaining area with sliding walls and doors so an outdoor room is created in winter)

What are some good ways to hide pool equipment in a small backyard?

Whether it is a small or large space, we always attempt to conceal pool equipment. Some good options are:
• In an adjacent utility/clothes drying area behind a fence
• Beneath a timber deck
• Beneath the subfloor of the home in an acoustic control structure
• If the side pathway is 1200mm wide, it could even be placed along one side of the home
• Dropped down and integrated into a barbecue or kitchenette structure

Failing availability of any of the above, the pool equipment should be designed to be screened by a vine or hedge or even placed in a feature box. The equipment should be placed within 12m of the skimmer box to reduce wear and tear.

Talk us through the approval process, particularly when it comes to positioning the pool close to the property boundary.

Each state and territory has different local requirements and restrictions that should be confirmed prior to designing or building your pool. In NSW, there are two possible approval processes: Complying Development Approval through state law; and Development Approval through local council. Both have different rules and requirements and not all properties can do both processes.

Complying Development Approval near boundaries allows for a pool to be placed 1m off a side or rear boundary, but not in the front garden area. It can be up to 1.5m above ground level, but the paving can only be 0.5m above ground level. So on a sloping site, this approval may not be desirable. A Development Application through local council allows for a pool to be set at any height, but requires greater setback requirements to the boundaries.

What are the design and technical considerations when designing a pool close to the home or boundary?

The considerations for each are similar. When excavating anywhere near structures, it is imperative that the adjacent structure, home, fence or neighbour’s residence doesn’t get undermined or destabilised. At worst, you could have your neighbour’s property and land end up in the pool hole if the soil is unstable or torrential rain causes the soil to slump and shift. Additionally, the pool itself may crack or shift if the extra loading caused by any adjacent structures isn’t taken into account during the design and engineering stages.

Often building close to a structure requires additional steel or greater concrete thickness in the pool and a fast-drying or stronger-than-normal concrete. Shoring may be required as excavation proceeds, or contiguous piers may need to be installed prior to excavation to stop the soil falling into the excavated hole or to stop a pool from cracking under long-term weight.

Pools that are positioned right up against the house, with no coping between the pool and home, are designed and built at the same time as the new house. They’re often excavated and poured by the house builder to create a flush infinity edge.

It is very important to have the boundary surveyed. In older suburbs, the boundary line isn’t necessarily on the fence line. Fences shift or can be placed incorrectly. Even surveyors can disagree on where the boundary occurs due to how property lines were originally measured. Before lasers and accurate light tape measures, chains were used — uphill and downhill, through bushes, over rock faces — it’s no wonder human error occurred!

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A Total Concept

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A young family of four commissioned John Storch, principal of A Total Concept Landscape Architects, to design their swimming pool, cabana, outdoor entertaining room and gardens for their lower north shore Sydney property. The result is a beautifully integrated external space including swimming pool and outdoor rooms that adds enormously to the quality of life for the owners and their children.