Diving In: Integrating Pool & Landscape

Trends, materials, and space design tips from experts.

By Amy Willer
From the February 2023 Issue

Over the last three years, homeowners have come to appreciate their outdoor living space even more as working from home and staycations became the norm. The pool, spa, and hot tub industry did amazingly well during this time, with a 24% increase in inground residential pool construction in 2020 and another 22% increase in 2021, according to P.K. Data, Inc.

With so many homeowners adding a pool to their outdoor space, pool contractors and landscapers have had to work more closely together than ever before. In many cases, landscapers have been adding pool construction and design to their list of services to keep the entire project in-house.

GENESIS®, a company of the Pool & Hot Tub Alliance, provides technical education to pool builders, designers, and landscape professionals. Skip Phillips, GENESIS® Co-Founder and Certified Master Pool Builder and Design Professional, and Kate Wiseman, MLA, GENESIS® Design Faculty Chair, share their tips for how to harmonize the outdoor space and “wow” clients.

Pool Landscape
Designed by Kirk Bianchi, Bianchi Design. (Photo Credit: GENESIS® )

Current Pool Trends

One result of the pandemic is that people who originally thought their yard was too small for a pool are now desperate to install a pool of any size. Smaller “plunge pools” have become very popular in the last two years as homeowners are more willing to have pools for soaking rather than swimming.

From a design standpoint, the pool industry is in a bit of an “in-between” place right now, explains Wiseman, also principal landscape designer at Sage Outdoor Designs. The dominant trend for a long time has been modern farmhouse style. She says people are now ready to move on from that, but a new style has yet to rise to the top.


One result of the pandemic is that people who originally thought their yard was too small for a pool are now desperate to install a pool of any size.

Recently, she has been seeing more of a preference for neutral colors, such as grays, beiges, browns, and blacks, as well as natural materials. “People are looking for more handmade, handcrafted, or bespoke materials,” Wiseman says. They’re moving away from tiles or stones that look mass-produced and are instead opting for natural stone with a rough cut or unfinished wood.

Phillips, a former owner of Questar Pools, explains that no matter the design, pool builders should focus on not just the how, but more importantly, the why. “Design is not just a skill, but a philosophy,” he says. Why will one design work better than another in a particular yard? Does this feature enhance the surrounding landscape? There are important questions to consider.

Popular Materials

When it comes to pool design and landscape design, “there has always been a huge overlap in construction materials,” says Wiseman. But Wiseman and Phillips agree that material choices have become even more important as homeowners with smaller yards are opting to add pools.

In large yards, Wiseman explains, there are different “zones” available: a hardscaper is responsible for the patio and outdoor kitchen area; a landscaper is responsible for the green spaces; and a pool contractor is responsible for the pool area. There is space for buffers between the zones, so they don’t necessarily have to match perfectly.

But now, “people are integrating as much outdoor living into small spaces as they possibly can,” she says. “You can’t have that physical gap anymore between the living space and the pool when you’re working with a small yard.” This means cohesion of materials becomes even more important.

Phillips says the average number of hardscape materials used on a backyard project is six: decking, coping, waterline, interior surface finish, raised walls, and barbecue. “There is a potential for significant disconnect on those materials,” he says. “As a designer, it is your responsibility to not just minimize the number of materials, but to make sure the design is intentional.”

Wiseman emphasizes that just because there are different places that hardscape will be used, each place doesn’t need a different material. The same natural stone can be used around the barbecue as on the walls of the raised spa. “It’s probably possible to find eight materials that look great together, but it’s a lot easier to find three,” she says. “It takes an extremely skilled designer to make eight materials work together. The average homeowner is not a skilled designer.” As the project lead, it’s your responsibility to share design insights like this with your client.

In one of Phillips’ projects, pictured below, the same material was used for the coping, deck, floating stepping stones, top of the sun shelf, and vertical walls of the spa. It creates a more cohesive environment, which feels more like an oasis for the homeowners.

“Pick materials
for the pool first
and use them
everywhere else.”

— Kate Wiseman

An important detail for landscapers to keep in mind is the limitations of materials in regard to water. Can the material get wet? Is it slippery? Can it be fully submerged? Can it be near water? “The answers to those questions drive a lot of the material selections for the entire outdoor living space,” Wiseman says. “Pick materials for the pool first and use them everywhere else.”

Phillips and Wiseman agree that porcelain is one of the most popular materials to use in pools right now. “Porcelains are durable,” Phillips explains. They are completely resistant to all of the elements, cannot stain, and are difficult to scratch. Especially important to the pool industry is that porcelain manufacturers figured out how to make the material not slippery when wet. “That was a huge breakthrough,” Wiseman says. The main downside of porcelain, she says, is that it looks like a mass-produced, machine-made product. Some may find it a little “too perfect” and “too matching” for their tastes.

Ceramic tile is also a popular material. The glazes allow for more color variation and can create a more handmade look. Wiseman says it’s important to check with the manufacturer before glaze selection because some can’t be water-submerged and some will react chemically with chlorine and bromine.

If the homeowner has the budget, natural stone can be a great option—especially for copings. It can be a difficult material for a number of reasons, though. “People are searching far and wide to find stones that are both physically appropriate to use from a building perspective and interesting to look at from a design perspective,” says Wiseman. Questions to consider are: is the stone is strong enough that the surface won’t scratch? Will the layers of the stone will bubble or pop when wet, which can happen with slate? Does the client have a budget to cover a potential need for custom-cut stone?

Suppliers, such as National Pool Tile, are specific to the pool industry. They supply materials known to work well in and around pools and water features. These suppliers are a good place to start when first learning about pool material selection. As you gain a deeper understanding of what materials work with pools, you can expand selections.

Pool Landscape
The same material was used for the coping, deck, stepping stones, sun shelf top, and vertical walls of the spa. (Photo Credit: Studio Carre Photographie; provided by GENESIS®)

Laying Out The Space

“No water vessel will look good without great landscaping,” Phillips says. “The water vessel’s responsibility is to reflect. If the landscaping isn’t taken into consideration, the primary purpose of the pool is gone.”

There is a common misconception that, because it is often the focal point of the yard, the pool should be designed first, and the rest of the elements be designed around it. Those truly in the know, though, understand that the pool should be designed last. Pools have a degree of flexibility that other elements of the outdoor living space do not. The size and shape of the pool can change depending on what surrounds it.


Those truly in the know understand that the pool
should be designed last.
Pools have a degree of flexibility that other elements of the outdoor living space do not.

A unique feature of water vessels is that “water follows you as you go through the backyard environment,” Phillips explains. In one design by Phillips, the spa was located at the highest level of a sloped yard, while a waterfall gave the illusion that water spilling from the spa was filling the pool at the lowest level. Phillips incorporated all parts of the water vessel with the elements of the backyard, taking into account elevation changes, architecture, and landscaping. Had the pool been designed first, the result would not have been as impactful.

It’s also important for landscapers moving into pool construction to be aware of all the equipment and utility demands of a water vessel. Designers mistakenly tend to think about where the pool equipment will go as a last step in the process, but there are too many parts to place for that to be a successful approach. Pipes, surge tanks, and other plumbing equipment all need somewhere to go, and that needs to be mapped out early in the design phase.

For the standard pool, Phillips recommends setting aside a space 4′ by 12′ for pool equipment. If there are water features or water-in-transit, that space will grow. “The key is to have enough room for the equipment to allow for efficiency and to have a dedicated system for each specific job description,” he says. Different elements may need their own filters, heaters, or pumps. If the pool has an overflow edge, there needs to be space for the surge tank or the trough.

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“Education is crucial to successful design,” says Wiseman. “There are always new trends emerging in design, as well as improved construction and engineering techniques.” Over the last year or two, “we’ve been seeing a dramatic influx of hardscape and landscape designers taking GENESIS® construction and design courses,” says Phillips. Any professional who creates outdoor living spaces will benefit from learning the fundamentals of each area—be it pool, patio, or plants.

PHTAWiller is associate director of marketing and communications for the Pool & Hot Tub Alliance (PHTA), the largest association representing the swimming pool, spa, and hot tub industry. PHTA offers pool construction, design, engineering, and business courses through GENESIS®. 

Do you have a comment? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below, or send an e-mail to the Editor at cmenapace@groupc.com.