Landscape Lessons

The award-winning backyard designs featured in the pages of AQUA are often the result of highend builders paying as much attention to what surrounds the watershapes as they do the pools and spas themselves. Some builders may feel that creating these beautiful and botanically balanced backyards is beyond their ability, but at least one landscape designer says that's not the case. All they need is a little professional help, and it won't cost their customers as much as they probably think.

Maria von Brincken, APLD, owner of the Sudbury, Mass., landscape design firm that bears her name, has a few suggestions for pool builders looking to improve the overall look of their projects, and, as a result, make happier homeowners.


The first thing von Brincken suggests is getting an early start. In fact, it's never too early.

"I know as a landscape designer it is so much easier to talk to people before [they build the pool]," she says. "Sometimes it's just a matter of feet that can make a huge difference."

To illustrate this point she cites a recent customer that called her in after they'd made some big decisions without landscape design input. "So they called me and the pool was sitting there, and the pool contractor was going to put in a hardscape and a wall, and at some point they thought, maybe we should talk to a landscape designer..."

Von Brincken was able to help the homeowners, but says the results weren't as good as they could have been.

"That was a clear case where if they'd called me in sooner we could have talked about some circulation issues, it would have helped, because it was a little awkward between their deck and the yard," she says. "I proposed a way of using the side yard that had never occurred to them or to the pool builder. I planned to put a pergola there and make that an area that could become an entertaining area instead of a wasted space.

"We worked it through, but it was very difficult to give them what they wanted to plant because the pool really should have been out another five feet. It didn't leave enough room for passage."

Despite the potential benefits, cost considerations keep many builders from even suggesting a homeowner bring in a landscape designer. But those objections can be easily overcome, she says.

"The folks end up landscaping the project anyway, and if the landscaping doesn't work then they have to redo it, and that's certainly an expense," she says. "The design is a small fraction of the overall cost of the pool. Sometimes I act purely in a consultation basis where I may be talking about the site and helping them understand what the issues are that they haven't thought about, and suggesting ideas."

In cases like these, the homeowners design/build Landscape Design Landscape Lessons The hidden benefits of working with landscape designers By Barrett Kilmer Budget-conscious customers can delay some landscaping until the following year.

can elect to defer all or some of the landscaping in order to save money.

"They may decide in the shortterm, 'OK, I've talked to this person and I have an understanding of our possibilities. Maybe we don't want to do a pergola yet,' or 'Maybe we'll put off some of the landscaping until next season,'" she says.


Even if cost isn't a consideration for the homeowner, some builders may hesitate to get a landscape designer or architect involved for fear of delaying the project, or worse, losing the deal.

"They may have the attitude that, 'Well, the homeowner wants to do it. Let's do it now. Let's get it done!'" von Brincken says.

Of course, when a homeowner decides to get a pool, time is a consideration, and pool people know better than anyone that the fewer obstacles, the better. That's why they're reluctant to bring up any issues they may not have quick answers for, according to von Brincken.

"I've been to some of the water conferences and met lots of pool guys — and they're great guys — but I get the feeling from them and from people I've worked with locally that they really don't want to do anything that's going to kill the deal or slow it down," she says. "They're more likely to put the pool in and let the homeowner deal with that later."

Von Brincken, who's careful to point out that many pool builders often have very good backyard design sense, and are especially good at considering sun in siting decisions, says a little help can go a long way toward everyone's goal of a beautiful — and functional — backyard.

"I'm looking at it from the perspective of how it's going to work in five years, or 10 years," she explains. "How's the circulation [for people]. Where do you want to do your entertaining.

"A lot of people want their pools in sunshine, but they don't want to sit in it. The teenagers want to be out sunning themselves, but most people are aware of sun damage and they want to have some shady areas. So that brings in the fact, if there aren't trees that provide that already, how do you provide that?"


Another factor to consider — whether you're working with a designer or architect or doing it yourself — is proper placement of the equipment pad. This is another instance where once you've made decisions, whether or not you've done the work, it's a little late to make changes and, as a result, the overall look can suffer.

"Hiding the mechanicals successfully as an afterthought is much more difficult than if it's part of an ongoing process where someone like me has a chance to get involved," she says. "Because you just can't stick bushes in front of the equipment, you want to work it into a whole situation.

"So those two elements, the circulation to and from and where the mechanicals are going to go should be part of an overall plan."

Von Brincken says she's been contacted by people who've spent a lot of money on their pools and spas and want her to come in and complete the projects. Then perhaps they'll pull out a page from a magazine, show it to her, and ask her to make their backyard look just as good.

"Sometimes they'll even have a shed that they've stuck in because they were trying to cover the pool mechanicals," she says. "They'll say, 'OK, we want this incredible spread.' But there's a shed right in the wrong place."

Again, the time to get a landscape designer to help would have been earlier — before the equipment was put in. Moving a gas or electrical line 10 or 15 feet is not really a huge deal if it's done while the pool is being built, she explains. But once the equipment pad is placed, it becomes a really big deal. As von Brincken puts it, "It just doesn't happen."

Some builders may already be aware of these and the many other factors von Brincken will discuss with clients, but those who aren't shouldn't be afraid to get someone like her involved from the initial planning stages in the project.

"The designer is helpful in having the clients understand the elements that will make a success of their vision," she says. "So the designer is asking the questions and trying to figure out what they really want — the things they have not even thought about before. And pool builders may not be considering all of these issues because they're not landscape designers that look at all these kinds of things.

"Everybody's out to do the best that they can, I just think that sometimes the larger ramifications aren't always apparent."

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