Small pools for small spaces

A Total Concept

By John Storch
Wednesday, 28 August, 2013

Small pools for small spaces

Outside living is a great focus of our Australian lifestyle - we all love entertaining outside. With more people living in urban environments and a tendency towards higher density living, residential outdoor garden spaces are becoming smaller. Owners still want these spaces to accommodate multipurpose uses - incorporating both functional and aesthetic needs. The homeowner’s desire to fit everything in has put pressure on the amount of space available for traditional-sized swimming pools, so small pools are becoming more popular. Small pools incorporate plunge pools, lapping pools, courtyard pools, swim spas and oversized spas. John Storch, of A Total Concept Landscape Architects + Swimming Pool Designers, discusses the rise of the small pool in Australian backyards.

As residential blocks become smaller and smaller, council rules are becoming more stringent on the amount of space able to be developed on each residential property. The function of pools is changing - there is a trend to use garden spaces as a fusion for indoor and outdoor entertainment. All of this combined with environmental considerations in regards to water and chemical use mean smaller pools are coming into their own and becoming much more popular than the standard 4.5 x 9.5 metre swimming pool of yesterday.

What people are starting to become aware of is that the length or size of the pool is not important for the average family’s backyard pool. When children are young, say up to the age of six, they tend to be limited to the pool steps and pool benches or on mum’s lap, so the size of the pool is irrelevant. Children between six and teenage tend to swim, racing each other up and down a pool, and play pool games, so the size of the pool may have importance at this time. Adults and families with teenage children tend to utilise the benches and seats for relaxing, having a drink and socialising or simply jumping into the pool to cool off on a hot summer’s day. So a larger size of pool is only really used by children for a limited time.

The function of swimming pools is also changing. This is because there is a trend to use the garden spaces as a fusion for indoor and outdoor entertainment and activities with the swimming pool being only one aspect of the space to be integrated with all the other uses. Other very popular inclusions are outdoor rooms that may be centred around the pool and be integrated with a spa, sauna, water feature, cabana, barbecues/pizza ovens, daybeds, fire pits for night use, paved (or timber deck) entertaining area, lawns and gardens.

Today’s modern pools may be small in size but can be packed with lots of trends and functions to accommodate the whole family.

Small pool design

Good design for small pools is even more important than for their larger counterparts.

  • Everything must be perfect. Large spaces are more forgiving with design that is not up to scratch; small space design must be 100% correct. Flaws and imperfections can’t be hidden in small spaces or in plunge pool design.
  • Clean simple lines and functions will work best; cluttered designs don’t work well for small spaces nor for plunge pool designs.
  • A pool in small spaces can be designed to double as a water feature to act as the focal point of the backyard - especially at night with the addition of lights.
  • Use either very dark colours in small pools to make bold statements or very washed out colours 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 spaces.

A trend for simplification is occurring. Small pool design is becoming less complicated utilising straight, clean lines and monochromatic colours rather than multiple shapes and mixes. People are looking for value and quality, the ‘wow’ factor in the finer detail rather than in the size of the project. We’ve been doing a lot with chunky square edges to create shadow lines around small pools, using some unusual coloured, micrograin interiors and creating entertaining and relaxation areas around pools with paving alternatives. A lot of thinking outside of the square to produce a high-quality product, which is more cost-efficient for the small space.

Trends for small pools

  • Traditionally, pool depths range from 1000 to 1800 mm. In smaller pools we often flatten the base and increase the depth of the shallow end to increase the volume of water, allowing total submersion and a cooler plunging summer experience. The depth of the pool may be set at 1500 mm throughout.
  • Tiles are often used in small pools as the surface area is reduced from a normal pool so the cost of using a more expensive finish lessens proportionally.
  • Wet edges are popular, bringing the water level of the pool up to the same level of the coping and allowing the water to flow out of the pool to be recirculated through grates.
  • The trend for the colour of small pools tends to be either darker or lighter than for normal pools, to create more of a feature of the pool.
  • The small pool itself, especially in a courtyard situation, is often used as a feature and may incorporate falling water over textured rock surfaces, stacked slates or stainless steel.
  • Good quality stone and local sandstone is on trend for paving, as well as part filled travertine, basalts and granites.
  • High-quality timber surrounds and large-dimension timber look great.
  • Pool design is often led by house design, allowing the pool to integrate with the house.
  • Textured float glass water features, unusually textured stone in water features and stainless steel components have become more popular.
  • Seats and benches in more traditional pools tend to run along one side. In smaller plunge pools we like to make them turn the corner to create an entertainment nook where people using the pool can sit facing each other. We find this to be a great social configuration for the pools.

Functions for small pools

  • Swim jets are used more often to increase the useability of the smaller pool, allowing for endless swimming exercise.
  • Spa jets and blowers are often used in smaller pools. Spa jets are placed in the benches and seats of the smaller pool to provide relaxation for adults and water movement for younger children.
  • Heated water may be returned through the spa jets in the pool benches and seats. This makes for a more comfortable area for adults supervising young children and for teenagers to relax and socialise with their friends.
  • Often plunge pools can be super-heated to spa-like temperatures so that the pool has a regular viable use throughout the year!

Styles for small pools

There are numerous styles for small pools and many of them tend to fuse between their styles. These include plunge pools, lapping pools, courtyard pools, swim spas with swim jets and oversized spas.

Lap pools are installed where an owner is a serious swimmer or for those who enjoy swimming as their exercise. Generally a lap pool should be in increments of standard recognised lane widths and lengths. Lap pools may also be incorporated as an extended laneway within a standard family pool. Common lengths for domestic lap pools are 12.5, 15 and 25 metres. Common lengths for public/commercial lap pools are 25 and 50 metres. Laneway widths can start at one metre wide.

Often laneways within a pool are separated with floating lane dividers, laneway markings on the pool base or both. Lane dividers are readily available through local pool shops and pool bottom laneway markings are usually installed at the time of pool construction in either tiles or paint.

Plunge pools are built for entertaining purposes and for cooling off in the summer months, the size mostly being determined by the available space and other use requirements of the outdoor areas. By installing a smaller-than-usual pool, a plunge pool can free up space for other uses such as informal cricket pitches and football fields in the non-swimming months.

I generally consider plunge pools to be from 3 x 6 metres down to 2 x 3 metres. Plunge pools are suitable for small, regular-shaped spaces like courtyards and small yards where only a small portion of the yard is designated for the pool. Plunge pools are often used for families to jump in and cool off in summer and are often treated as giant spas, being heated so that teenage children can comfortably sit and entertain in the pool. For entertaining purposes, seats and benches are often placed within the pool around all sides. The swimmable length of the pool becomes irrelevant.

Plunge pools are often the pool placed in courtyard areas as they are compact and are best suited to small regular spaces. Often the aesthetic nature of them is extremely important and they double as beautiful water features to create a visual delight from the home.

Plunge pools often incorporate swim jets that allow a swimmer to remain in place while exercising and so increase the functionality of the pool. Often plunge pools incorporate swimming harnesses. Swimming harnesses are attached to one end of the pool with an eyelet and are worn by the swimmer. The swimming harness leaves both the arms and legs free for a person to swim, while being stationary in the pool.

Swim spas and oversize spas

Swim spas and oversize spas are often prefabricated, and due to their ease of installation in tight, small spaces, they are often the ideal pool solution for a family. There are several reputable companies that specialise in these products. The overall sizes available are similar to those for plunge pools. There is a good range of sizes and shapes to fit most situations.

One main limitation of the swim spa is the available depth, which tends to be either 900 or 1200 mm throughout. One beauty of these products is the ease and speed of installation. Being prefabricated they can effectively be installed in a day and you can be swimming with bubbly in hand the next!

Hints and pitfalls

  • Lap pools can take up a lot of the garden space if not designed correctly. It is important to ensure that other garden uses are catered for and, as always, it is best to consult a garden and swimming pool designer who can help you integrate the lap pool with the overall area.
  • Swimming harnesses and swim jets do not suit everyone. It is important to try all types prior to purchasing, especially if this is a make-or-break decision between a smaller style pool or a larger pool.
  • Swim jets generally aim water 1000 mm down the pool. Add to this the length of a person swimming with arms outstretched (2500 mm) plus an extra metre behind the feet of a swimming person for splash and you get a minimum 4500 mm for the length of the pool for swim jets to work effectively.
  • It is imperative to integrate and unify the swimming pool and pool components into the garden of the overall property. Take into account your client’s lifestyle, the style of the house and all aesthetic and functional considerations that need to be incorporated to create a beautiful, finished product to enhance their lifestyle and add immeasurable resale value to the home. Designing these tight spaces needs quality and accurate design, and is often best left to the professionals.

A Total Concept Landscape Architects + Swimming Pool Designers

A Total Concept is a long-established, award-winning practice specialising in the integration of internal and external areas with beautiful and functional swimming pools, gardens and cabanas for projects ranging from plunge pools, simple family homes, elaborate residential properties to boutique and resort-style developments.

A Total Concept provides services extending from consultations, designs and specifications, council approvals, builder recommendations to the total management of the project and contract administration.

For more information, visit:

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