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Riverside Recreation

To win this backyard project in competition with three big Atlanta architecture firms, Shane LeBlanc had to call on his eye for grand-scale details in creating a delightfully asymmetrical poolscape -- one that looks polished, inviting and fun from every conceivable angle.
To win this backyard project in competition with three big Atlanta architecture firms, Shane LeBlanc had to call on his eye for grand-scale details in creating a delightfully asymmetrical poolscape -- one that looks polished, inviting and fun from every conceivable angle.
By Shane LeBlanc

Sometimes, things come together in just the right way.

I’d been called in to a multimillion-dollar property with a large, three-year-old house on it, right next to the Chattahoochee River on the northwestern fringe of Atlanta.  There was an existing pool, but the homeowners wanted something new – a composition that befitted the home’s elegance and said more about their lifestyle and personalities.

These folks had an entourage of assistants and lawyers who helped him manage his 20-odd companies and their portfolio of homes around the country.  He charged his team with identifying the top designers in the city for his pool project and they found four:  three prominent architecture firms and my company, Selective Designs, an Atlanta-based designer and builder of watershapes, landscapes and gardens.

It was a high-powered, thoroughly professional design competition, and we all came to it loaded with ideas.

A SUDDEN SHIFT

The architects went first, each doing conventional big-firm presentations with multiple people riffling through piles of plans and drawings.  The clients had offered zero by way of guidance, and the architects had all responded with grab bags of features, including waterfalls and plenty of drama.  One of these proposals was good enough that the clients had essentially settled on it by the time I was to make my presentation.

I sat down with my laptop, all alone, and did the usual by asking the gentleman if his wife would be joining us.  He indicated that she was not at home but that it was fine to proceed without her.  It didn’t go well at first, because my three-dimensional tour started inside the house and wasn’t getting outdoors fast enough to suit his growing impatience with the whole process.  In the nick of time, however, the video moved outside – and the atmosphere inside changed substantially.

All of a sudden, his wife was conveniently “home” and was called downstairs to join us.  They were both blown away and hired me on the spot without ever asking what anything would cost.  With that settled, they said they wanted to make “a few changes.”

The big advantage of working with flexible design software – in my case, with Pool Studio from Structure Studios of Las Vegas, Nev. – is that we were able to work through a whole bunch of their suggestions in a hurry, while they watched.  The disadvantage is that the process becomes open-ended, so we spent more than 90 minutes pulling everything apart and trying out all sorts of permutations and combinations that came and went in rapid order.

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As is discussed in the accompanying text, the soil we found ourselves in was a heavy, mucky mix – essentially an extended part of the nearby riverbed.  To avoid any problems, we closely followed the soils engineer’s recommendations and, after laying out abundant pipes, tons of steel and a huge volume of concrete, gradually saw the space take shape.

After all of the back and forth reached a bit of an impasse, I put the original proposal back up on the screen:  They both agreed that it was exactly what they wanted – no changes at all.  

Materials selections were all that remained.  Although cost had seemed to be no object, when it came to discussing the pools’ interior finishes he showed a tiny bit of price sensitivity.  But before long, his bolder inclinations regained control and we settled on the amazing surfaces now found inside the pool, including a custom glass tile as well as an iridescent black aggregate material – neither of which were anywhere on the suppliers’ color charts.

It all came together beautifully as a design.  Now it was time to deal with the realities of the job site and, as time passed, with the more assertive qualities of his outsized personality.

UP ON THE BANK

We began by breaking up and removing the old pool, which went quickly but revealed that the ground was mush – effectively part of the riverbed.  It was shot through with water that wasn’t exactly flowing, which would have been easy enough to deal with via a dewatering system.  No, this was part of the river’s bank system, a marshmallow-consistency mess that no water-removal program would ever address.

We brought in a geotechnical firm to get its recommendations, and it was decided that the only way to build what we wanted to build was to overdig the area and fill it with gravel to isolate the pool and deck areas from their liquefied surroundings.  All of this, of course, added time and cost to the project and began to impinge on the client’s sense of how he wanted things to move along – that is, quickly.   

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By design, the project was about managing perspectives in all directions, establishing destinations across the pool from within the home (left) or from within the pool (middle left) and then making certain the reciprocal views from the shade structure (middle right) and the firepit (right) back to the house were just as refined and attractive.

Once the foundation was set, we worked on the system’s various features, including a large, nine-inch-deep reflecting pool/lounging area on the upper level near the home; a large, relatively deep swimming pool/play area below the reflecting pool’s vanishing edge; a 42-foot-long swim lane on the far side of the pool, mostly behind the “floating” deck island; a “moat” leading off the swim lane for isolated relaxation (a feature he questioned but quickly came to love); a large fire feature adjacent to a sculpture; and a large, rolled-edge spa with a deep well for standing massages.

Things Happen

In the course of this project, we experienced the untimely death of one of our project managers – a long-time friend and extremely knowledgeable professional who happened to be running the project described in the accompanying text.  

As noted in that text, the homeowner was sensitive to any delays, but even he was sympathetic to what had happened and gave us some space to figure things out.  But after about two weeks of low heat, his burners came back on at full strength.

Trouble was, the project manager’s cell phone and all of its contents were locked, as was his laptop, which had all of the information pertinent to the project at hand.  The upshot was that, through all the grief and difficulties, I had to step in personally and take control on site.  We made it work, and we also learned some lessons about personal loss (as well as our reliance on secure technology) that we’ll never forget.

-- S.LeB.

The play pool was an important component for the homeowners’ teenaged children.  They wanted a diving board – which is something I don’t do mainly because I see them as visually intrusive.  (There is also the fact that they would eventually grow up and lose interest in it.)  As an alternative, I included a large waterfeature that adds a nice sound easily heard from within the home while also providing a jumping platform that lets the kids do cannonballs into the deep water.

As mentioned above, the interior finishes are unusual and exquisite.  The tile is a custom black iridescent glass made by Oceanside Glasstile (Carlsbad, Calif.) – a sufficient challenge that I’m told it won’t be offered again.  The aggregate is a dark iridescent BeadCrete from Pebble Technology (Scottsdale, Ariz.) – again a custom color not found on any chart.  The dark colors were chosen for one huge reason:  We wanted the water to be as reflective as possible.

In fact, the entire design was driven by reflections and their ability in this particular setting to draw the sky and the surrounding trees into the composition in ever-changing patterns.

This was the key, for example, to placing the reflecting pools just outside the big sliding-glass doors:  For anyone sitting or standing inside, the outdoor space now opens up in all sorts of fascinating ways.  And we ensured this by carefully designing the hydraulic system for the upper-level pools so there are no ripples, not even the suggestion of flow on the water’s surface despite the intrusion of the string of stepping pads and the presence of the vanishing edge.

MADE IN THE SHADE

This is where I must mention the homeowner’s personality once again:  In my vision of the project, I wanted him to see the reflecting pools the moment he arrived home and parked his car in the center of the big, three-lane, six-car garage.  To that end, our design called for inserting a large window overlooking the watershapes.

He resisted at first, saying it was a silly idea, but I insisted and we made it happen.  Instantly, this became one of his favorite details for the reflections’ ability to change his gears immediately upon arrival at home.

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This project truly is about focusing on the appeal of the watershapes and the area’s other features from every working angle, starting with what the homeowners see from their garage upon getting home (top left).  As they move through the house or around the upper deck, they look across various reflective surfaces that entice them outward (top middle left and middle right).  Then, once they’ve moved all the way through the poolscape and out into the yard (right, bottom left and bottom middle left), the sounds and comforts of the pool, firepit, shade structure, spa and moving water lure them back for more.

But these conversations and debates involved delays in our progress that, coupled with an extended bout of torrential rain, put him in a difficult space:  This wasn’t a guy who was accustomed to being told to wait.  And so all of a sudden he announced that he was planning a party and that the pool had to be done by that date certain, or else.

The rigor of the deadline wasn’t the issue for me, because I figured we could meet it with a run of good weather.  But the tension these confrontations produced almost led to him escort us from the job site – an action that would have hopelessly delayed the job as he figured out who could complete it to plan.

A Gurgling Distraction

In setting up perimeter overflows, we always include snorkel lines to avoid the kind of gurgling sounds that can result when these systems are in operation.

A few days after completion, however, the homeowner called to complain about an unpleasant sound right in the vicinity of the spa – that is, very close to the house, where the noise would be at its most pronounced.

As it turned out, when the crew came to set the decking around the spa, one of the snorkels was apparently in the way, so they cut it down and capped it – thereby defeating its purpose and triggering the gurgling noise.

The solution:  inserting a chain of small balls into the affected part of the trough to alter the flow, increase the turbulence and minimize any sounds that might result.  A weird solution – and we didn’t have to pull up the deck to make it work!

-- S.LeB.

He eventually cooled down, but it was clear that his tolerance for and interest in the process had come to an end:  It was time, I knew, to move as deliberately as we could toward completion.

The final stages saw construction of the shade structure on the island; the landscaping beside the house and near the fire feature; the addition of the pads leading to the fire feature and the stepping stones leading into the yard; and the addition of turf grass near the pool.  I had opposed this last detail, even though we’d installed an ozone system (from ClearWater Tech, San Luis Obispo, Calif.) that wouldn’t harm the grass.

As it turned out, one of his companies is in the landscape business, so he wanted real grass instead of the synthetic turf I’d recommended.  I gave in because I figured he was uniquely positioned to have these small patches of lawn maintained at a level far exceeding the norm.

Overall, the project is all about a carefully considered asymmetry:  The space is essentially a square into which features and details have been inserted in ways that are balanced, geometric and functional without being overly formal – a Mondrian-style composition, but in three dimensions with an earthier palette.  The light-colored stepping pads offer guidance through the space’s two dark-colored levels and, where there’s access to the space beyond and the fire feature, widen out to open perspectives of the lawn, trees and river beyond.

Getting here involved some butting of heads for me and my client, but the result is just what he wanted – so much so that, despite our various differences, he’s invited me to work on the exterior of his estate in Colorado.  

We survived this first experience:  Could it be the start of a beautiful working relationship?

 

Shane LeBlanc has owned and operated Selective Designs, an Atlanta-based design/build firm specializing in custom pools, landscapes and gardens, since founding it in 2002.  Building on a foundation of experience in landscape design, turf care, tree farming and nursery management, he has a degree in business administration and participates in the Genesis 3 educational system.  He may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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