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There’s a place in the world, says veteran watershaper Pete Cattano, for relatively modest swimming pools. Using a recently completed ‘garden pool’ to illustrate that point, he describes how great clients, an integrated landscape design, professional cooperation and careful construction can come together to deliver the best of everything swimming pools have to offer, even in a situation where the project’s scope and scale are quite down to earth.
There’s a place in the world, says veteran watershaper Pete Cattano, for relatively modest swimming pools.  Using a recently completed ‘garden pool’ to illustrate that point, he describes how great clients, an integrated landscape design, professional cooperation and careful construction can come together to deliver the best of everything swimming pools have to offer, even in a situation where the project’s scope and scale are quite down to earth.
By Peter Cattano

Swimming pools don’t always need to be complex or innovative to be beautiful.  In fact, I’d like to suggest that even the simplest of design programs, when handled well by the watershaper, can lead to outstanding results.

The reasons are obvious and well known:  With water, we manage the world’s most beautiful and alluring design material.  If we do a good job, put that water in the right place and build our structures well, the potential for achieving gorgeous results is almost always within reach and we organize reflections, flows, sounds, hardscape and plants.  

If all of those elements are in control and integrated into the same thoughtful program, in other words, even the most basic of projects can be so aesthetically on target that it will elicit strong emotional responses.

All of these factors were in play with the small pool discussed here:  With just 800 square feet of surface area, it sits in the front yard of a modest but attractive home in the Five Towns area of New York’s Long Island and is distinguished by a compact, raised island, some lovely detailing – and one of the most beautiful planting plans I’ve ever seen.

When we at Paco Pools & Spas (Bladwin, N.Y.) were approached about the project, I knew right away that what we were being asked to do wouldn’t pose much by way of technical difficulty.  Even so, I recognized immediately that this apparently simple structure was to become a key part of an overall work of spatial artistry.


For want of a better term, we came to describe this as a “garden pool” – that is, a fully functional swimming pool integrated into a garden setting rather than standing alone as an artistic statement or serving as an architectural element associated with a home.  Basically, a pool of this sort is there to complement a beautiful landscape, providing a destination within the space without dominating its tranquil surroundings.

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The front yard presented us with a clean slate, and the design team collaborated closely in deciding where major elements would be placed and how they’d relate to one another within the available space.  With those issues settled, we built a fairly straightforward pool with sweeping, naturalistic lines – but made no attempt to make it look like a pond.

Our firm specializes in just this type of project – tasteful watershapes for mostly modest spaces and clients of middle-class means who want to enjoy the beauty of water and the pride in owning a well-crafted watershape.

In this case, we were brought into the project by a local landscape firm, Schlick Design Group of Green Lawn, N.Y.  We’ve worked with them on several previous projects and have always enjoyed both the collaboration and the outstanding results.  Ours is a relationship marked by mutual respect and appreciation for each others’ expertise, and out contact this time was Manoli Galanakis, a truly gifted landscape designer with a genius for organizing spaces and selecting great plants.  

The project was somewhat unusual in a couple of respects.  First (and as was mentioned in passing just above), it’s located in the front yard.  The property had been shaved off a larger estate, and the way things worked out the home had almost no backyard but a substantial area to work with out front.  This presented us with a need to develop the space as a private haven sheltered from the street.

(As a side note, we had to apply for a variance from the local township to build the pool in the front.  This slowed us down a bit in the project’s early stages, but as it turned out, this was just about the only obstacle in the way of an otherwise smooth process.)  


The side of the pool close to the home is manifestly artificial, but across the water, the edges are softened by a lush intrusion of plants that overhang the water and occasionally sweep its surface.

Second, the homeowners are avid travelers – expert scuba divers who have spent a great deal of time under the water in warmer climes.  One of their desires was to create a space that would give them the feeling of being in the tropics.  It was something of a tall order in our area, but they insisted that they wanted lush foliage, sheltering trees, spaces loaded with flowers, areas marked by varied textures, fragrances and colors and an overall design that would change from place to place with little surprises offered at every turn.

Compared to the challenges laid at Galanakis’ feet, our task list was far simpler:  We were to work on the pool, fitting it in among an outdoor dining area, a detached spa space and an outdoor shower – all of which were encompassed within the landscape designer’s vision.


Working with Galanakis was a true pleasure:  He conducted the orchestra when it came to the plants and surrounding spaces, while we, as a sort of chorus, took care of the pool and associated details.  Although these functions were well-defined and distinct, we constantly interacted with each other to make sure everything harmonized.

The clients played a part as well, on the one hand offering us their ideas but on the other giving the design team the latitude it needed to exercise its creativity.  This made for one of those situations in which the job was a pleasure from start to finish:  No significant problems, no major changes along the way, everyone showing up on time for meetings and a work process marked by seamlessness from beginning to end.

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The yard features a number of nice touches, including a shower placed between the pool and a spa tucked into a corner alongside the house.  Several nice spaces were set up by the pool’s irregular contours, which helped divide the space and allowed the landscape designer to create a number of hidden destinations, including a secluded seating area at the end of a winding path.  

In the design phase, we considered a number of possibilities, placements and configurations before settling on an elegant naturalistic pool.  It makes no pretense of being a pond, but it is so well placed amid planted spaces that its artificiality isn’t an issue – especially give that its edges are softened by various plants that moderate transitions from the water to the surrounding spaces and that the overall impression is tempered by three sheeting waterfalls that spill into the pool.

As a result, we felt no need to make a “naturalistic statement” by strewing the area with boulders.  In fact, we went the other way and crafted an architectural look by stacking pavers on the edges as a coping treatment and finishing the pool’s interior with a gray plaster.  Basically, we left the “natural” part of the design to the surrounding landscape, making the pool a foil for stronger impressions made by the plants.

As we saw it, this was basically the opposite of what might be called the standard approach to pool construction, where little or no thought goes into the surrounding landscape.  Certainly plantings don’t need to be this lush to be beautiful, but there are such rich aesthetic opportunities available when we combine plants and water that projects in which pools are designed without integrated planting plans simply seem incomplete.

The Technical Side

Just because the project described in the accompanying text is relatively simple doesn’t mean we could ease up on our standards for technical excellence.  Indeed, all of the aesthetic considerations for the project are supported by a pool system that meets elevated standards for hydraulic design, energy efficiency and safety.

The clients use the pool often and, as is true of many homeowners these days, are concerned about water quality.  To maintain excellence on this front, we installed an AutoPilot saltwater chlorinating system from Team Horner (Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.) including an ORP controller and a pH-management system.  We also used a 30-inch high-rate sand filter from Pentair Water Pool & Spa (Sanford, N.C.) along with pumps and a control system from Jandy (Vista, Calif.).

To extend the swimming season – very important to our clients – we installed an AquaCal heat pump, also from Team Horner.  Although fossil-fuel heating is still a more popular choice in the industry locally, we’ve had terrific success with heat pumps’ ability to maintain comfortable water temperatures while conserving energy.

Finally, the pool is fully compliant with provisions of the Virginia Graeme Baker Act, with split main drains, compliant drain covers and a vacuum release.

-- P.C.

That’s the beauty of working with a terrific landscape designer such as Galanakis – especially in a case where it’s so clear that the clients want the space to look and feel like a tropical garden.  Frankly, if we’d built this pool and the plantings weren’t a part of the integrated picture, the results wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying.

In this case, the clients were so dedicated to the program that they committed themselves to a scheme in which some of the plants will need to be replaced every year:  Some of the key selections just can’t withstand Long Island’s winters.  To balance that annual exercise, the rest of the plants are perfect for the climate, including the various hedges and conifers that provide primary screening from the street and create the space’s permanent canopy.

Their willingness to stay involved gave Galanakis tremendous flexibility, opened his palette to include a wide variety of flowering plants and enabled him to exploit the fragrances the exotic plants release on warm summer nights.


It’s important to note that this pool was built exclusively with adults in mind:  It’s definitely not for play.  There are, for example, no convenient spots for diving; in fact, the edge treatments discourage diving by offering no convenient access.  Instead, the entire setting focuses on tranquility, intimacy and a sense of calm repose.

The pool fits this picture with its freeform shape (a modified kidney), its raised walls (around the deep end) clad with Carney Stone ledging and the small, heavily planted island that marks the transition between the shallow and deep ends.  

We used the pool’s irregular contours to help Galanakis create a variety of lovely vignettes, one of my favorites of which is a small seating area adjacent to the deep end of the pool:  It’s a little alcove you approach using a path made of natural stones, and in reaching it you feel as though you’ve entered a different world, very tranquil and romantic.

Other special spaces include a sunning area set off to one side of the pool, a lawn and the abovementioned spa patio – each of them offering their own sensations of seclusion and intimacy.  To sum things up, there’s quite a lot going on in a relative small space.

To link these areas, we used combinations of eight-inch gray pavers and flat, natural stones to establish meandering pathways.  In many instances, the plantings at least partly conceal one area from the next, lending elements of surprise and discovery to passage through the space.

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We love the way the pool turned out and the degree to which it complements and enhances the space without dominating the view.  It all works because of the planting plan, which softens edges, brings color and texture to the setting and creates fascinating vignettes that make the yard a pleasure to visit, day and night.

We also used lighting as part of the overall program to bring mystery and subtlety to the various settings after dark, enhancing those potent sensations by placing small niches for candles in the pool’s raised wall.  Within the pool, we gave the homeowners flexibility in managing moods by installing a multi-hued LED lighting system from Jandy (Vista, Calif.).

The clients had no interest in linking any of this space to the street, visually or otherwise, so the garden features walls of greenery that create a strong sense of enclosure and privacy.  Accentuating this sense of isolation, the three waterfalls in the pool’s raised wall generate a gentle white noise that masks the sounds of traffic – a complete retreat in the midst of a busy suburban environment.

If you’ll recall, the homeowners are scuba enthusiasts, and they asked us to make one end of the pool eight feet deep.  Generally, I’m not a fan of “deep ends,” especially in cases such as this where no provision has been made for diving.  Here, however, I went along with it happily because they wanted water deep enough to let them test out new diving equipment.

The shallow end is wide with generous steps that fan out into the pool and offer space for lounging.  We set pavers around this half of the pool, providing plenty of spots from which bathers can sit and look across the water to the planted areas.  That’s all there is to it:  No single element in the pool or the surrounding landscape dominates attention.  Instead, it’s a set of tasteful elements that complement each other and combine to form a complete, harmonious composition.


As mentioned above, the technical program for this pool was fairly simple.  Yes, the equipment and approaches are state of the art, but for the most part it’s the sort of basic pool that could be installed in just about any backyard for clients with an eye for quality design and construction.   

What makes this project special is the way this pool became part of an overall program through processes of collaboration, communication and cooperation between the design team and the homeowners.  I like to think of this process as a three-legged stool in which a beautiful design, quality construction and great clients stand as a sturdy foundation for a setting that will give joy and pleasure for years to come.

This project had the best of all three of these elements, and it’s a case where we’re already looking back on it with the type of craftsperson’s pride that only comes from a project well done on all levels.  Best of all, the clients love their new garden and salute our collective efforts by using it regularly and maintaining it diligently – not bad for an ordinary suburban yard!


Peter Cattano is president and owner of Paco Pools & Spas, a design, installation and service firm for residential and commercial watershapes in Baldwin, N.Y. His career in the swimming pool industry spans 50 years, beginning with work as a student for various contractors associated with his father, Peter Cattano Sr., who invented and manufactured Hi Perm swimming pool filters. Cattano opened Paco Pools & Spas in 1980 following his father’s death. Active in the industry through the years, he has been president of the Long Island Chapter of the National Spa & Pool Institute and is a past president of NSPI Region I. He is also a graduate of the Genesis 3 Design Schools.


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