High-end Poolscapes Transform Backyards into Resorts

Taking the Plunge

A poolside patio built by RJM Landscaping.

A poolside patio built by RJM Landscaping.

When inground pools were at the height of their popularity in the ’70s and ’80s, most were classic rectangles, outfitted with a diving board and maybe a twisting slide, ringed with a four-foot-wide patio and a fence. Today, inground pools aren’t as common, but a growing contingent of customers are going beyond the rectangle and using odd shapes, elaborate hardscapes and waterfalls, and other amenities to turn their backyard into something resembling a resort. These poolscapes aren’t cheap, but the quality-of-life upgrade, designers say, make the cost worthwhile.

When does a vacation not feel like a vacation?

Actually, much of the time, Rick Miller said.

“Typically, when you go away, it’s really not like a vacation — you get home, and you’re beat,” he noted. “Many people feel it’s a lot more relaxing to stay around the house and have their own privacy and not have to mingle with everyone else who’s on vacation.”

Besides, he added, “travel is so expensive these days, and some people fear it a little bit on a security level — they feel they’re more secure staying around their home. So, instead of investing in a trip and going away, they put that money in their backyard.”

And sometimes, it’s a lot of money.

Miller, president of RJM Landscaping Inc. in Westfield, is one of a handful of area landscape designers who installs high-end poolscapes — not just inground pools, but the hardscapes, water features, and other elements around them that create the feel of a resort right in the customer’s backyard.

“The price range is all over the spectrum,” he said. “It can be a simple, rectangular pool, with a four-foot-wide swath of pavement, what they used to do in the old days,” he told BusinessWest, “but for many people, it’s gotten a lot bigger. For people who want to spend more time in the backyard, it’s worthwhile to make that kind of investment, and stay at home rather than going somewhere else.”

Ted Hebert, owner of Teddy Bear Pools & Spas, said a recent emphasis on elaborate poolscapes has led to a downturn in the sale of inground pools themselves, which have long been the domain of the middle class, a group that Hebert feels is shrinking in America.

Those who do purchase inground pools, by and large, don’t want a basic 18-by-36-foot rectangle with a diving board, he noted; they’re looking for a waterfall, LED lighting, ornamental fencing, and colored, stamped concrete or rock formations. “Now that $25,000 pool may be more like $45,000 or $50,000, and when you add landscaping and other things, it can get expensive.”

Brian Campedelli says many customers want natural-looking water features around their pools.

Brian Campedelli says many customers want natural-looking water features around their pools.

Often, that means well into the six figures, said Brian Campedelli, president of Pioneer Landscapes Inc. in Easthampton. The higher-end projects — full-yard transformations that center around a resort-like poolscape — may run between $80,000 and $150,000, and Campedelli may tackle only a couple of those a year, but there are wide variations in pricing depending on what features a customer needs to have.

“We design what you want; there are custom pool houses with full running water, beautiful kitchens, outdoor showers — you can spend a quarter-million on your backyard if you want to fully transform it,” he explained. “Most people don’t know what they want; they just know they want to beautify their backyard around their inground pool. They might have some ideas, and it becomes clearer when we show them the design process and some of our ideas and materials we use.”

Those might include elements of falling water, fire, and raised plant beds, as well as pergolas, outdoor kitchens, and even, in some cases, a small extension off the house for a bar, a flat-screen TV, and lights on dimmers.

In other words, many clients don’t have a specific vision for how their poolscape will fit into their yard — or they just imagine that basic rectangle, a ring of concrete, and fence — but Campedelli, and landscape designers like him, can help them develop a vision that encompasses the entire yard, turning it, essentially, into a permanent vacation space.

“Once we’re done, they understand the concept; they see the way it flows,” he said. “We want to create an outdoor room that uses the entire space.”

Young and Old

Some customers for high-end pools are families with young children, Campedelli noted, but more are middle-aged professionals who have navigated past a mortgage and college payments for their grown children, and are looking to invest more significantly in their homes and yards.

“What they can get in a pool depends on a lot of things, but we try to work within their budget and do the best we can with what they have,” he said. “We try to give them the most we can from their landscaping dollar. It’s my passion, so I’ll usually throw a lot of things in. It’s not always the best business practice, but I’d rather give them then ultimate experience and maximize the potential of their backyard than walk away feeling like they missed out.”

Some elements, like artistic landscape lighting, aren’t on a customer’s radar until Campedelli brings up the options, and demonstrates how well-placed lights can create a soft, meditative glow. “It can change the entire feel of the backyard, as opposed to having a powerful light off the house. I’ll nudge them toward something like that, and they appreciate it.”

Such high-end poolscapes do price a wide range of people out of the market, Hebert said, and the retail pool industry has seen a decline in basic, no-frills inground pools. “Going back to the ’70s, ’80s, early ’90s, there’s no comparison. In the mid- to late ’80s, there was a lot of easy money around, and anyone could get a mortgage. You’d buy a house for $100,000, and in five years, it was worth $150,000 to $200,000.”

This Pioneer Landscapes project reflects another popular feature, the poolside bar.

This Pioneer Landscapes project reflects another popular feature, the poolside bar.

People would think nothing, he said, of spending that equity on an inground pool. In the years following the housing-market crash, however, that kind of equity is much tougher to come by, and homeowners are just as likely to find themselves upside-down on their mortgage. “That has taken money away from people, taken away their purchasing power.”

At the same time, he said, kids don’t play in their own yards as much as they used to; if they’re not tied up in organized sports, camps, and otherwise heavily structured summers, they’re indoors, communicating with virtual friends — and often comfortably air-conditioned.

People would think nothing, he said, of spending that equity on an inground pool. In the years following the housing-market crash, however, that kind of equity is much tougher to come by, and homeowners are just as likely to find themselves upside-down on their mortgage. “That has taken money away from people, taken away their purchasing power.”

“The people who are in a position to afford an inground pool may have central air,” he noted. “If you think back to the ’60s and ’70s, that wasn’t the case; it was hot, and your kids played outside and came in when the streetlights came on.” It’s a different world today, he added, one that values comfort and hypersecurity over free play.

Even families who might enjoy an inground pool but think they can’t afford it may simply be prioritizing their spending in a way that squeezes a pool out of the equation, Hebert explained.

A week-long vacation, for example, may cost $5,000 to $6,000, money that would easily cover a year’s worth of payments on a 10-year loan for a $50,000 poolscape that can be enjoyed every day, from May to September. Meanwhile, families spend hundreds of dollars each month on TV services, smartphones, and Internet — line items that could also easily be reduced and earmarked for an investment in the backyard, where a family can enjoy cooking out, hosting parties, and just relaxing in the water.

Lifestyle Adjustment

Instead, people who buy inground pools today tend to want more than the basics, said Miller, noting that customers’ average age tends to be in the 40s and up. But for landscape designers who can handle these jobs, they pose uniquely creative opportunities.

“It’s definitely a niche; I don’t think this is something that your basic landscape contractor can do,” he said. “The trend right now is very unique shapes, and water jets and waterfalls are popular items. As far as pavers go, the biggest trend is paver slabs, which are larger pieces of paving stones, with fewer joints to be seen by the customer. With each of these things, there’s a higher cost.”

But it’s worth it, he added, for people who want to turn their backyards into a true quality-of-life enhancer.

“We’re trying to get the whole mixture of elements out there — not just a pool and a patio, but maybe a fireplace, water features, and outdoor kitchens as well. When people have big get-togethers, it’s not just swimming; it’s cooking out and serving food.”

People with the means to spend plenty of money on travel — CEOs and business owners, for example — will still do that, Campedelli said, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to create a vacation-like environment at home, too.

“These are people with stressful jobs, and there’s no better feeling than to kick off the suit and tie, put on a bathing suit and flip-flops, go out back, and feel like you’re in the Bahamas,” he said. “Once people see how they can use their backyard, they want something like this.”


Joseph Bednar can be reached at bednar@businesswest.com

Website Developed by DIF Design