By Brian Van Bower
Since time immemorial, humans have sought out warm water for purposes of pleasure, bathing, relaxation and healing.
That’s a great thing for modern watershapers, almost all of whom are steadily asked to design swimming pools with attached spas or to set up stand-alone inground spas or to find ways to make portable spas work as part of a landscape or deck setting. I’d argue that hot water is even more important to contemporary lifestyles than it was to the Assyrians, Greeks or Romans of antiquity, given the stresses of modern life and the fact that we seem to have more of the leisure time required to enjoy a good, long soak.
For all that, I’ve observed that watershapers don’t often invest as much creativity in designing the hot-water component of their projects as they do in setting up their pools, cascades or fountains. That’s a shame – and another case where giving our clients more options almost invariably inclines them to spend more money and derive greater enjoyment from the end product.
For many years now, the great majority of my own designs have included hot water of some kind, and in each case determining just what the customer wants represents an important, separate set of considerations within the overall scope of the project. How this all works is a big topic, so I’m going to spread this discussion out over a couple of issues. We’ll start here by covering some broad design issues – placement and materials, for example – before moving on next time to specific details and options including seating contours, jet configurations and more.
For purposes of this discussion – and despite the many virtues of portable spas – I’ll be limiting my coverage here to custom work and inground spas made of concrete, stainless steel or fiberglass. There are, of course, big differences among these three materials, but there’s also enough similarity that what I have to say encompasses them all.
One of the things I enjoy most in discussing spas with my clients is the opportunity it affords me to get to know them in what can only be described as a fairly personal way. I’ll resist the temptation to make a joke; let me point out instead that the aesthetic, therapeutic and lifestyle issues involved here add a whole different dimension to the art of watershaping. Not only must the spa fit in visually, but it must also function in ways that enable bathers to enjoy a peaceful and often sensual experience.
That in mind, I approach these client discussions with an awareness that the spa is a body of water that likely will be used by people bathing in the nude (or close to it). That’s important to remember because it directly influences the design – specifically, where you position the spa in the yard and how “private” the space should be.
The nature of the product also dictates that the setting and what you see from this very special vantage point should also be as aesthetically pleasing as possible. I suppose you could put a spa inside a garage for the ultimate in privacy, but who wants to look at pegboards and oilcans as they indulge in a hedonistic sensory experience?
Most spas I’ve seen have been placed relatively close to the home, and that often makes sense because it facilitates access from indoors and these close-in areas tend to be private and sheltered. And there’s no denying that many clients, particularly in colder climates, like the idea of being able to step outside a bedroom door and settle into the warm water with minimal exposure to the elements.
That’s fine, and I’ve placed spas near homes myself. What I consider every time, however, is that this doesn’t always need to be the case. In fact, one of the things I look for are ways to set the spa in locations where other elements of the setting come into play. This has everything to do with the specifics of the site, but given my preferences I always hope to find yards where the entire space is private and opens the design process to lots of possible spa placements.
And I don’t let the existing lay of the land warp my thinking. I’ll include structures, plants or grading, for example, if it means the spa will command a better view across the yard than it would from nearer the house – or if the clients express a need to get away from high-traffic areas or the noise of their children. Figuring this out takes a while and definitely calls on the designer to spend quality time finding out exactly what the clients want and expect from their spa before deciding where it should go.
So often when I’ve seen what I consider to be the “standard” spa treatment, I come away with the impression that the only question the watershaper asked the client was, “Do you want one?” There’s a lifelessness that radiates from every angle of these projects where instead the spa should be an amazingly dynamic component of the design and the overall environment.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been doing a great deal of work on the island of Bermuda. One of these projects is still in the design phase, but it looks as though it certainly will include a spa placed in a setting inspired by the clients’ interest in Japanese gardens.
Breaking the Plane
One of the keys to the functionality of a spa is elevation. It influences what you see when seated in the water, it affects access and the process of getting in and out of the water, and, in many cases, it defines the relationship between a spa and an adjacent or attached pool.
I was recently brought into a project in which an architect had already installed a spa and asked what I thought. It was set on a spot overlooking the ocean and offered a perfect opportunity to lift the vessel a bit above grade to take advantage of the view.
Unfortunately, however, the architect had set the spa at grade level – and even aggravated that questionable decision by designing the whole thing with the water level recessed another nine inches below grade, completely depriving the bathers of the ocean view. Had he raised the elevation even a foot, the entire experience would’ve been transformed. And if he had created a perimeter-overflow effect (to match the style of the pool), the connection between the bather and the spectacular environment would have been even further enhanced.
The homeowners asked us to help, but all we could do short of starting over was to raise the seating level to lift bathers’ eyes just above grade. Not much of a solution, but a caution that what you see from inside the spa is absolutely crucial to the success of any good spa design.
The setting will be about as idyllic as can be – private and languid. The fact that the entire space is enclosed gives us a great deal of freedom with respect to spa placement and the opportunity to put it where it offers bathers the best possible view of the gardens. This nicely mirrors the approach being taken with the home’s interior design, which features several carefully planned, exquisitely framed garden views.
This project also provides good example of another important design issue that calls for early attention: size.
The spa’s size is indeed very important, and experience has taught me that the phrase “less is more” often holds true here. Spas that seat four to six people are ample for a great many situations. Spas larger than that can be fine, too, but the customer needs to know that there will be extra costs involved in heating all that water and that it’s more difficult (and costly) to create a satisfying hydrotherapy experience in a large vessel.
I’ve seen some spas so large that they make no practical sense – bodies of water large enough to swim across that can hold a dozen or more people. Certainly, if the client means to have parties where they want a whole bunch of people to bump around together in the water all at once, or if they have a passion for being able to do some specific warm-water exercise routine that requires lots of room, then a behemoth spa may be in order.
For most applications, however – and including the one we’re working on in Bermuda – a smallish spa is generally a good choice.
In this case, the spa will have a circular form with an outside diameter of eight feet. We chose a circle in keeping with the elegant simplicity of structures in Japanese gardens, but I also work with circles (as well as squares and hexagons) in more architectural designs. Free-form spas have their place as well, given an appropriate context in a free-flowing landscape or pool design.
Again, it’s all about context and selecting a spa configuration that works with the setting.
If you’ve been following this column for any length of time, you’re aware that I am passionate about materials. As is the case with so many aspects of design, I’m a firm believer that materials selected by clients can and should have a tremendous influence on the design and on the overall experience they have in their watershape once my work is done.
With spas, however, the usual materials considerations should be joined by an awareness of the fact that clients will spend a great deal of time in close physical contact with the materials you decide to use.
You can finish spa interiors in any number of ways – with tile or plaster, for example, or with exposed- or polished-aggregate finishes or even certain types of stone or marble (if the material is suitable for constant submersion in heated, chemically treated water).
For the Japanese-garden spa in Bermuda, we’ll be using a deep-gray slate on the perimeter beam as well as some loose-set walkways, a wide band of black absolute granite on a ledge just beneath the slate that I call the “neck-saver” detail (a feature I now include on every spa I design these days and an idea I must credit to my Genesis 3 partner, David Tisherman) and, for the interior, a black polished-aggregate finish.
These materials have been chosen for their compatibility with each other and for the way they harmonize with the plantings and wooden features of the surrounding garden. They also found favor because they provide an awesome tactile experience for the clients and any guest who might be lucky enough to enjoy the spa.
The same set of requirements works across the boards here: Basically, anything we work with must look good, feel good and hold up in the hot-water environment.
The finish materials selected for a spa have a lot to say about how the vessel itself is formed. Gunite or any concrete vessels are certainly the most flexible in that you can finish them with almost anything and they can be built to dimensions and with contours that accommodate factors such as the size of tile you might be using.
For their part, stainless steel spas can be made to order in custom sizes and configurations and can also be finished with a range of masonry materials. Fiberglass spa shells are less adaptable in the sense that the factory provides the finish in the form of the topcoat on the shell’s interior. In many cases, however, shell manufacturers set up areas in the shell that are designed to accept tile or stone elements for decorative purposes.
When things work out exactly the way I’d like them to, I prefer to finish my spas, which are usually gunite, with tile or exposed-aggregate finishes. I still like plaster, however, and find that it can be truly beautiful in a spa – especially when it is applied alongside a plaster pool or associated waterfeature – but while I see beauty as a dominant consideration, I can’t get away from the fact that tile and polished exposed-aggregate finishes feel great to the touch.
Whatever finish is chosen, the ultimate call belongs to the clients. If I do my job and present them with all of their options not just in the finish but also with respect to location, size, shape and elevation, then they’ll be primed to enjoy all the benefits of warm water for years to come.
Next: Completing the spa-design process with decisions about seating configurations and hydrotherapy action.