Creating Luxurious, Water-Conscious Designs

Amid the controversy over the role of swimming pools in the water-conservation picture, Barefoot Pools and Custom Landscapes, a firm based in the wine country of California's central coastal region, is working to stay ahead of the curve by providing sensible water-saving solutions.

It's no secret California's drought has become a battleground issue for the pool industry. Both the trade and general consumer media are flush with coverage about how swimming pools fit or don't fit into the water conservation equation. It's an inevitable concern when droughts hit and one that our firm, Barefoot Pools and Custom Landscapes, is working to address.

In our area, the drought is a monumental concern. We largely serve affluent homeowners in and around Paso Robles, Calif. β€” a locale in the heart of the state's agriculture industry best known for its many vineyards and wineries. That said, it's an area that uses huge quantities of water, and is therefore one of the regions in the Golden State most impacted by the drought.

For as potentially disastrous as drought can be for pool and landscape professionals β€” we happen to be both β€” it might come as a surprise to some that we're having one of our best years. My hunch is that some homeowners are accelerating their plans in anticipation of stringent water restrictions, which are almost certainly inevitable if the dry weather persists into next year.

Last year, a temporary local measure required covers for all new pools. We also had to truck water in from outside the Paso Robles water basin. As of this writing, those requirements are not in place due to some brief periods of heavy rainfall last winter, but will very likely return as the drought deepens. Regardless of the regulations in effect, for those of us building pools, the entire situation begs a fundamental question: What does it mean to build water-smart pools?

Because we not only build pools, but also the entire outdoor environment, this question also extends into the landscape.

Our clients are, for the most part, genuinely concerned about saving water and often ask us to offer ideas about how you can have a beautiful setting that doesn't needlessly waste water.

Fortunately, we do have some good answers.


It may come as a surprise to some, but even the most lavish pool and spa designs can be created with water conservation in mind. - Click to enlargeIt may come as a surprise to some, but even the most lavish pool and spa designs can be created with water conservation in mind. - Click to enlarge

Starting with pools, there's no dodging the fact that solid covers are the best tools available for reducing evaporative loss. Whether you're required to use them or not, it's our opinion that builders working in drought-impacted areas should be installing covers, be they automatic or manually operated, on as many projects as possible.

That's not to say we should necessarily insist on a cover, unless of course it's required by law. Water conservation is ultimately up to the individual homeowner. We do try to convince them, however, by discussing the difference a cover makes, all of which is really a matter of basic logic.

Any open body of water will evaporate, which if you add it up over time can amount to a surprising volume. While it's true that pools without leaks will use a fraction of the water compared to an equivalent area of grass (we'll discuss turf later), that doesn't mean the evaporative loss is insignificant, especially in areas with warm, arid climates.

Photos by Image Paradigm Photography - Click to enlargePhotos by Image Paradigm Photography - Click to enlarge

With a cover, evaporation is cut to virtually nothing. That fact alone has pushed a number of my well-heeled clients toward automatic covers. In fact, one of the projects pictured here has an automatic cover on both the pool and the raised spa.

Certainly part of the reason for the automatic option is all about push-button convenience. It's common sense: The less effort required to remove and replace a cover, the more likely it is to be used. Beyond that, auto covers can be a plus in aesthetic terms as well. They're hidden when the pool is open and can be color matched to surrounding hardscape for when it's deployed.

As for the spa mentioned above, the clients who opted for the auto cover weren't happy with the way that thermal covers look and didn't want to manually move it on and off the spa.

For many of our clients, these are second homes, which further prompts the use of cover because it gives them peace of mind knowing that no on will drown when they're away. Plus, the water stays clean in the meantime. Added with the water-saving benefit, covering up makes practical, environmental and economic sense.

The only arguable downside is that covers, and especially automatic covers, all but necessitate rectangular designs. There are ways around that issue – the cantilevered deck or pool in a pool concept or even louvered covers – but those all come with hefty price tags that can make even our most affluent clients think twice.

For us it hasn't been much of a problem; we're simply building a lot of rectangle pools, which from a design standpoint is a reliable choice since rectangles can look great across a range of styles.

Beyond the cover we also use cartridge filters, which consume far less water than sand or D.E. because they don't require backwashing. And we do everything we can, such as pressure testing, to be sure our pools don't leak. We're fortunate to have plumber John Stapleton on our team. He does all our plumbing and painstakingly ensures we don't have leaks, which can be potentially disastrous for a variety of reasons, including water conservation.

Finally, we're using the Zodiac Auto Levolor on our vanishing edge pools. We use it to automatically activate the edge pump in situations where the edge circulation isn't running but the pool is being used. The same is true for high winds, which can send water lapping over the edge and possibly overfill the basin, creating water loss.


Photos by Image Paradigm Photography - Click to enlargePhotos by Image Paradigm Photography - Click to enlarge

Some of you reading this might reasonably question why we're discussing water conversation in pools while sharing images of a pool that has a vanishing edge and multiple scuppers on the pilasters.

Don't features that send water over an edge increase evaporation?

Well, the answer is a definitive, yes they do! Many types of features run directly counter to the cause of water conservation and would seemingly defeat the purpose of having a cover. What could we possibly be thinking?

Vanishing edges and sheeting waterfalls may not be favorable in terms of minimizing evaporative loss. But for these clients, rather than forgoing luxury they've simply decided to avoid using those features during times of drought. - Click to enlargeVanishing edges and sheeting waterfalls may not be favorable in terms of minimizing evaporative loss. But for these clients, rather than forgoing luxury they've simply decided to avoid using those features during times of drought. - Click to enlarge

It's certainly not because using a cover makes up for the added loss of water-in-transit features. That would be a rather thin rationalization. No, the point here is that each and every homeowner decides for himself or herself how big a priority they place on saving water.

In case of the aforementioned project, the clients happen to be extremely concerned about the drought, as evidenced both by their investment in auto covers and also in the measures we took in the landscape, which we'll discuss below. They also happen to really enjoy the sights and sounds of moving water.

As we were discussing these issues, they made it clear that so long as the drought is ongoing, they'll probably not use those features at all, or at most during hours when they're entertaining. That certainly makes sense β€” as potentially devastating as droughts can be, they also don't last forever. In years when there's more than enough water, which do also happen, water evaporating from edges or fountain-like features isn't a concern.

Clients like these are wise enough to see that they should moderate their enjoyment for now and later on, let it flow. It's entirely up to them and not our job to tell them otherwise.

That said, we do our part to help out by setting up the systems so that the different features are isolated and can run (or not run) independently of the primary circulation system. Even though we'd do that anyway, we do make sure it's all easy as possible via remote control and making sure the clients know how to use it.

Also, variable speed pumps play an indirect role in that they make it easy to accommodate different operating scenarios, particularly in how you can set the pumps to deliver water to the various features at various preset flow rates.


From artificial turf, to drought-resistant plant species to expanded hardscape areas – conservation does not have to mean sacrificing beauty. - Click to enlargeFrom artificial turf, to drought-resistant plant species to expanded hardscape areas – conservation does not have to mean sacrificing beauty. - Click to enlarge

As we move away from the water's edge and into the landscape, the palette of potential conservation measures broaden considerably.

For starters, lawns are one of the thirstiest types of landscape, not to mention among the most labor intensive to maintain. That's why we're working with a growing number of clients who want to replace existing lawns with something that makes more sense in a parched environment.

Our lead designer and office manager, Tami Charnley, always strives to produce designs for the outdoor living spaces that cut down on higher water usage softscape. When it comes to grass, we are using varieties of sedge for lawn replacement such as Carex pansa and Carex praegracilis.

We do also try to minimize lawn to whatever extent our clients find acceptable. There are a number of ways to nudge customers toward less or no lawns. One of those is to develop attractive hardscape spaces that are both useable and beautiful. Of course, it's one thing to design great hardscape, it's quite another to install it correctly. Our lead mason Franko Campos does a fantastic job installing our designs with the care and skill of a true artisan.

This putting green uses artificial grass to cut down on both water use and maintenance. - Click to enlargeThis putting green uses artificial grass to cut down on both water use and maintenance. - Click to enlarge

Beyond that, we've seen a sharp rise in the number of customers who are open to artificial grass. Yes, it is initially expensive, but the return on investment is relatively rapid because artificial turf completely eliminates the need to mow, weed, fertilize and, of course, water.

Over the years, the primary objection to artificial turf has been that it doesn't look real, more like a giant green carpet than living grass. That's changed in a big way as artificial turf manufacturers have developed surfaces that can be extremely convincing. When watching football and other sports played on modern artificial turf, for example, it can be hard to tell it's not real.

In one of our recent projects, seen above, the clients wanted a putting green in artificial turf.

Because natural putting green grass is among the very most labor-intensive and difficult to maintain, the benefits of going the artificial route are dramatically increased.

Decomposed granite is another fantastic turf alternative. It's perfect for Mediterranean to desert climates because it looks natural, especially in those settings, and DG uses no water. It has a soft look, is easy to walk on and requires almost no upkeep.


For several years now, the term "sustainable landscape" has stood as one of the most oft-heard buzzwords in the landscape design and architecture community. In the broadest context, it means creating landscapes that require minimal or even no maintenance and benefit the local environment by providing habitat for insects, birds and terrestrial animals. Sustainable landscapes consume fewer resources, such as water, fertilizer and insecticides.

The specifics of sustainable landscaping are determined by climate zone. In areas like ours where water conservation is a primary concern, the No. 1 line item on the sustainability registry is the use of indigenous plants and/or selecting plant species from other places that have similarly arid climactic conditions. Such plant types will not only thrive more readily on comparatively less water than others, they'll also look better, longer, which makes for happy homeowners.

With that in mind, succulents lead the way for us. There are literally hundreds of succulent types and most have what many view as a distinctly unusual appearance. Some people love them, while others not at all. We happen to admire their almost otherworldly appearance and especially the spectacular blooms many varieties produce. And they are right there with their cousins the cacti in terms of water consumption.

Technically speaking, succulents are supposed to be watered, although far less often than other plant types, but in practice, many can go for months or even years using nothing more than natural precipitation.

Because they come in such a wide variety, succulents are fun to work with from a design perspective. Tami uses some succulents as role players, suitable for ground cover or as alternatives to hedges and bushes. Others take the leading parts with their eye-catching blooms and sculptural forms.

In the same respect, we encourage clients to select trees that require little or no irrigation. For example, we are starting to use tree species found in Arizona like desert willows and palo verde trees. We also use blue oaks and olive trees, which also require very little water. Palms indigenous to dry climates are another wonderful option. They too come in a wide range of varieties and require little maintenance other than trimming their dead fronds.

On most projects, clients will opt for a mix of plant types in terms of water consumption, although we do try to guide them toward the water-wise species. It's not unusual for planting plans to include 80 to 90 percent drought-tolerant types.

Finally, for those plantings that do require regular irrigation, we encourage homeowners to use either drip or subsurface irrigation to minimize evaporative loss. These irrigation water techniques are also more beneficial to plants compared to less precise methods.

There are a number of water-wise irrigation techniques, many of which are based simply on when you choose to water, such as at night or only during certain times of year, or even only when there hasn't been rain for a time. This is another area where remote control and automation vastly enhance the clients' ability to wisely water their landscapes.


As we mentioned above, droughts always eventually come to an end. And in areas like ours, at some point, they always come again.

As obvious as that is, or at least should be, there's nonetheless a natural tendency to either become lax or even forget water conservation altogether when rains return. It's human nature. People tend to respond to conditions at hand.

We believe if you're working in an area with a history of drought, you should always design as though currently experiencing one. There's never a downside to conserving water, it just seems more immediately necessary at some times compared to others.

At a minimum, it should be a topic for discussion with existing and prospective clients so they know that when the time comes, they'll be able strike the right balance.

Comments or thoughts on this article? Please e-mail [email protected].

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