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A Full Day’s Delight
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A Full Day’s Delight

A crucial part of the backyard design process these days, writes Glen MacGillivray, is motivating homeowners to venture outside after dark. Here's a look at how he approaches this day-to-night transition, from keeping the water moving to making it glow.

A crucial part of the backyard design process these days, writes Glen MacGillivray, is motivating homeowners to venture outside after dark.  Here's a look at how he approaches this day-to-night transition, from keeping the water moving to making it glow.

With increasing frequency, I’m running into higher-end clients who lead hectic 9-to-5 lives – too packed for them to be able to enjoy the swimming pool we’re proposing to build with much more than holiday-weekend frequency. Obviously, the key with these homeowners is making certain the pool we’re discussing is something they can appreciate and enjoy 24 hours a day – whenever they happen to be home and can be drawn out into a great backyard oasis.

This typically makes a project more elaborate and costly, so the process requires a higher level of rapport as we offer ideas, move past objections and gain their confidence. The key here, we’ve found, has to do with light and motion – that is, with setting things up in such a way that the water moves, that it can be effectively lit, and that reflections off its surface make the outdoors irresistibly inviting once the sun goes down.

Here’s a look at a few of the approaches we use – and at the kind of thought processes that go into making it all happen.


Oftentimes, pool designers and builders will work with and talk to homeowners about their pool projects during the day. We’ll all stand outside and look at the backyard with the sun high in the sky and plan the shape of the pool and the surrounding features and vegetation under near-blinding conditions.

It takes some finesse to fill these sun-struck clients with a vision that covers the entirety of a day, and we’ve found that it works best if we start by putting some of the water in motion.

This can mean discussing possibilities as elaborate as a reverse vanishing-edge system with the cascade falling down a wall facing our clients inside their homes – something compelling for them to see as soon as they walk in the door. It can also involve simpler measures, such as waterfalls, spa spillways, raised-wall-penetrating scuppers, laminar fountain jets, bubblers and any of a host of other possibilities that bring soft sounds and engaging visuals to a setting.


It’s an engaging pool by day, but at night the moving water and the lighting inside and outside the watershape make it exotic and mysterious – just the sort of space that’s an irresistible draw when seen from inside the house after dark.

For our purposes, the nature of the sound is a key factor: In lower light, the subtle noises made by a small waterfall, for instance, can fill a space wonderfully well and conjure memories of streams and waterways the homeowners have experienced through their lifetimes.

Whatever we do along these lines, we strive to avoid monotony – the sort of steady ripping or thrumming noise that can be created by poorly conceived spa spillways or waterfeatures. A lack of sonic variety, depth, tonality and resonance can put people in the vicinity on edge and make them uncomfortable, which is exactly the opposite of the mood we’re trying to conjure.

The second major factor for evening and nighttime appreciation of a poolscape is, of course, how we illuminate it. In days gone by, pools tended to be lit with one or two big incandescent lights. Never prized for subtlety, this technology has been supplanted these days by a broad array of LED systems that do a much better job of lighting the water and its surroundings.


The same day/night design principles used outdoors apply to indoor pools, the one distinction being the need for restraint and subtlety when it comes to the noise level of the moving water and the intensity of the lighting.

Here again, we must be thoughtful and bring our experience to bear in creating lighting effects that are soft, easy and – most important of all – adjustable to help our clients in producing a range of ambiances.

Fortunately, lighting the water, and particularly lighting moving water, has never been easier to do; just the same, it’s actually a bit harder to do well because the new, much more compact LED fittings and fixtures make it easy to step into the realm of overkill. The aim in our projects is to highlight and play with textures rather than rival the sun and its ability to illuminate every nook and cranny in an even wash of light.

Simply put, we want to make the area attractive in different ways in the evening and in darkness rather than recreate daytime levels of definition and shadow-free detail. In this scheme of things, lighting water in motion is the easy part, so I’ll leave that for a different article on nighttime aquatic dynamics. By contrast, lighting selected fixed features effectively can be a challenge, with some solutions we’ll discuss below.


In our backyard poolscapes, we typically approach the lighting component of the project on three levels: in the water, immediately adjacent to the water and in the surrounding space. These days, we also consider fire as a source of both light and welcomed warmth – a real game-changer when it comes to make our clients happy to step outside.

Let’s start there, because there’s something mesmerizing about fire. It brings a sense of inner peace and tranquility in much the same way moving or highly reflective water does and helps build and extend a strongly positive mood – serene and relaxing.

There’s also the fact that fire functions beautifully in all three of the zones mentioned above, with the possibility of in-pool fire features added to fire bowls atop the bond beam, whether on the coping or on a raised-wall detail. We’ll work them into rockwork (often artificial) around and within waterfalls. And there are fire pits, fire tables and fireplaces that create beyond-the-pool gathering spaces.


Fire bowls placed directly atop or above the bond beam make strong visual statements when the sun goes down, bringing warmth, flickering light and beautiful reflections to any setting. The same is true of fire features added to rockwork, whether placed atop the structure or on intermediate levels.

In all cases, we do what we can to double the clients’ pleasure by thinking through the glory that occurs when fire reflects off the surface of the water from as many of the property’s key vantage points as possible, from inside the home or out on the patio or even at poolside. This combination of fire and water is powerful on all sorts of levels – well worth recommending!

As for after-hours lighting, the newer LEDs come in white and color versions; throw off high quality, intense light (which is something they didn’t do so well in the past); and are capably dimmable, which gives us an incredible tool in mood management, from bright, raucous fun to the most romantic and intimate occasions.

The thing about LED systems is that they’re so much more compact than their incandescent forebears that, as mentioned above, there’s a temptation to go a bit crazy, especially within a pool. But the enduring fact is that what you want inside a pool is a cool, consistent glow that illuminates all areas of the pool – especially steps and other spaces where safe movement is important. In that context, less is sometimes more, and we carefully evaluate spread patterns and positions to keep the count of fixtures to a minimum.

Of course, there are applications where some lighting drama is the order of the day. With the toe-kick approaches that are becoming popular, for example, the rules about numbers of fixtures often go out the window to enhance the special effects that come with directed, floor-level lighting.


The use of color in nighttime lighting displays (assisted in this case by fiberoptic lighting around the pool’s perimeter) can turn up the volume on a pool’s nocturnal attractiveness – a key possibility to consider in figuring out ways to make a poolscape the focus of a family’s evenings together.

Beyond internally lighting waterfeatures to highlight or color their outflow, we tend to leave lighting right at the perimeter of the pool to well-chosen fire features. Beyond the coping, we’ll step away from the water and work within the landscape and with surrounding trees, plants, sculptures, hardscape and architectural features to set up focal points, ease navigation through the space and establish points of illumination that will be reflected on the pool’s surface.

We make some exceptions, of course, when there’s a waterfall, a rockwork structure or a grotto at the pool’s edge. In these cases, we sometimes use strings of light to get the job done.

To avoid big surcharges relative to the bond beam, we often work with artificial rock in our projects and will, for instance, cut channels in the surface into which we’ll embed long lighting strips to create a glow that illuminates a waterfall or cascade, sets the mood in a grotto and defines surfaces and textures at night. (We typically use systems from RicoRock of Orlando, Fla., which have enough material in them to make this possible without compromising the structure.)

Our objective here most times is to hide the source of the light within the grotto or waterfall, creating a glow – another source of light that will beckon the homeowners outside once the sun goes down.


There are practicalities involved with extending admiration and use of poolscapes beyond daylight hours, and as suggested above, they tend to make these projects rise in cost.

With fire systems, for example, there’s the cost of the burners as well as expense related to setting up a gas supply – even if all it involves is setting up a smallish propane tank as the best solution. There are obvious safety issues involved as well, meaning care must be taken in placing these features to keep them beyond the easy reach of toddlers and away from combustible material.

Assisted Viewing

When we do presentations with our clients – especially when we know they lead busy lives and will have a hard time finding ways to enjoy their watershapes while the sun is shining – we use design software to help them visualize the setting’s potential.

In our case, we accomplish this with Pool Studio (a design-software package from Structure Studios, Las Vegas, Nev.). The program’s animation conveys impressions of water in motion, flickering fire and all sorts of lighting – the kind of visual immersion that captures our clients’ attention and gets them excited about a whole array of day- and nighttime possibilities.

— G.M.

In addition, there are capabilities with modern lighting that require use of competent control systems. What’s the good of having dimmable lights if you can’t change their outputs? What’s the use of having millions of available colors if there’s no easy way to access them? Setting up even a basic system involves some expense, and costs rise with remote controls that make everything more convenient.

There are safety issues here, too, because water and electricity don’t go well together. Many LED system are low voltage, which takes care of most such concerns, but that’s no reason not to make certain that the systems you work with are certified for use around or in water and are compliant with all applicable codes.

Bottom line: With water movement, fire and light, it’s possible to keep homeowners as happy with their pools at night as they are in the light of day. When it’s light, moving water provides soothing sounds and seems to inspire children to play nearby. By night, the same waterfeatures create focal points when appropriately lit, whether they are by a flickering fire or result from a steady source of illumination.

Thoughtfully designed and completed, these projects can be stunning – perfect settings for 24/7 family fun.

Glen MacGillivray is the owner of Aqua Tech Pool, Spa and Bath in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, and has been building pools and water features for more than 30 years. He may be reached at [email protected]

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