Greg Alexander

Backyard resort

Baltimore Sun, May 6, 2007

Each year, my friends and I escape Maryland’s sometimes rough winter and rent a house in the Caribbean or Central America, and, although we usually rent a house on the beach a couple of steps from the surf, we always book a house that has a fabulous pool. Not a simple round pool to cool off in, but rather a pool that exudes relaxation, one that goes on endlessly, a pool that is so wonderful that guests end up spending most of their time poolside instead of on the beach.

But what if you were lucky enough to create a tropical escape in your own backyard? Not a simple “cement pond,” famously coined by The Beverly Hillbillies, but an oasis, a retreat, a summer-long vacation – without the expensive flight to the islands.

No passport required

Almost anyone can have a pool. If you have a decent size backyard and the ability to squirrel away some money, you can have a pool installed without breaking the bank. But for some Maryland homeowners, a standard pool to jump into was not the goal. “I’m not a fan of the typical backyard pool,” says a homeowner in Phoenix, Md. “I’m a swimmer, but you can’t really do laps in a backyard pool, so I wanted to have a lagoon feel to it, not the standard pool look.” The homeowner, who has a home in the West Indies and in Florida, says he saw a friend’s pool in Florida that had a natural, freeform look. “I wanted mine to be more than just a pool and to be incorporated into the landscape,” he says. So, he turned to Maryland Pools (, which has been creating award-winning pools since 1949. “We’ve been around for 58 years, and we like to create what I call the ‘Wow factor.’ We purposely create a blending effect so that the pool looks like it’s been there for 20 years,” says Bob Spero of Maryland Pools, which installs pools in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia and Washington, D.C.

Due to the homeowner’s love of the tropics, Maryland Pools created a lush environment that makes you feel as though you’re a cast member of the show Lost who has just stumbled on a hidden lagoon on the remote island. Tropical plants, a water feature and rock formations flow with the landscaping to create a seamless transition. “Every year, I add something from my travels to give it that tropical island look,” says the homeowner. The highlight, however, may be the miniature “Rum Shack” adjacent to the pool. “It’s very authentic. In fact, if you sit there, you really feel like you’re in the Caribbean. I have a ‘rum party’ each year for about 100 people, complete with a steel drum band.”

One of the other eye-catching elements is the ample use of enormous palm trees, definitely not something one is used to seeing in the mid-Atlantic. “I have eight of them, but, of course, they won’t survive the winters up here, so I had a two-story atrium built in my house so that they can be taken inside at the end of September.”

Entertainment at its finest

For a home in Ellicott City, the grade of the backyard practically necessitated a natural look and design to the pool. “We have a sloped backyard from right to left, and if we would have gone with a standard pool, Maryland Pools would have had to excavate the land. Fortunately, we wanted a natural design with rock formations, so they were able to work with the land. My husband travels a lot, so we wanted a resort-like feel at home that would be inviting and very tranquil,” says the homeowner. The couple’s pool is just that – natural stonework around the pool, combined with a gentle large waterfall create a retreat for the couple, who is expecting their first child in August. “The waterfall is very relaxing to listen to,” she adds.

To achieve the resort feel, the couple opted for a dark pebble surface for the bottom of the pool, creating the lagoon look they desired. “It’s like a pond … but clean,” she laughs. The grayish-brown flagstone for the decking adds to the natural look, while integrated landscaping provides privacy.

Since the couple loves to entertain, an outdoor fireplace, outdoor bar and grilling area and a pool house were added to the design. “The outdoor fireplace is a nice gathering place and the perfect place to roast marshmallows. The pool house is very handy during parties, as we use it as a catering kitchen. In the pool house, we have a Subzero refrigerator, farm sink, lots of counter space, a bathroom, even a loft for quick naps. For five years – even before we had the pool – we have had an annual party. Now, with the pool house, we don’t have to go in and out of the house for food and drinks and clean up couldn’t be easier,” she says.

A surprising move

“We had no intention whatsoever of putting in a pool,” so says a northern Baltimore County homeowner. However, what started as an addition over the garage for a home gym turned into a much bigger project. “The builder who did the garage addition recommended that we add a pool in the backyard. I had no desire for a pool and conveyed this to my wife, but when I mentioned the builder’s pool idea, she lit up and said, ‘I want a pool.’ “ So, the couple turned to Mike Patterson at Broadview Manor (, a landscape design company. “I didn’t think that we had the room until Mike brought back sketches. Because of his landscaping background, he has amazing vision and is very astute at managing the site.” “It was definitely a bigger pool that they had first envisioned,” adds Patterson.

A stone retaining wall was built in between the house and the pool, and Patterson says that he took advantage of the grade to push the pool away from the house. “I wanted to put the pool at the far end of the slope instead of having an elevated deck. By taking advantage of the grade, you’re able to create a cascading effect and create transitions between the house, pool and the landscaping,” says Patterson. “When you are down by the pool, it feels like you’re away for the weekend because it’s so far removed from the house,” says the homeowner.

For the decking, Patterson utilized one of his favorite materials – bluestone. “I use bluestone a lot. There is a certain uniqueness and natural feel to it,” he says. To tie everything together, the adjacent spa matches the stone retaining wall, while a gentle waterfall flows underneath the spa into the pool. An enormous rock formation was placed at the far end, opposite the new pool house, creating an eye-catching element and adding a rustic look to the deck area.

“The couple also wanted the pool house to blend with the main house,” says Patterson. “The pool house was not originally planned,” says the homeowner. “We are big skiers and have a home in Utah. The pool house is like a vacation destination in itself and reflects our tastes. My wife and I can come down here for dinner, and it feels like we’re on vacation.” A railroad station in Monkton provided the inspiration for the post-and-beam design of the spacious pool house’s interiors.

To help extend the pool season, the couple is able to strategically heat the pool to allow for a longer season, while not allowing the energy bills to skyrocket. “We open the pool on April 1 each year. If I check the water temperature Friday morning and it’s 68 degrees, I can use the automatic cover to cover the pool and turn on the heat. It will rise 1 degree per hour, so by Friday night, it’s 76 degrees in the pool. We can then keep it warm all weekend without having to run the heat all the time. It took us a year to figure this system out, but now we’ve got it down pat.” If the pool is still a bit too cool, the couple can always take advantage of the spa, which can be heated to 98 degrees in less than an hour.

Endless beauty

Ever been to a five-star resort that boasts an “infinity pool,” one that seems to just go on and on? Well, for a couple in Ijamsville in Frederick County, there is no need to call the travel agent when they want to enjoy an infinity pool.

“Our backyard had a gentle slope leading to woods. My wife and I had a general idea of what we wanted, but Maryland Pools came up with the design and the idea to chop into the hill,” says the homeowner. The result is a dramatic drop off where the pool water cascades off, and the edge vanishes into the landscape. “It just seems to go on and on,” says Spero of Maryland Pools.

“We saw a negative-edge-style pool in Cancun while on vacation, which was our inspiration. When you are in our pool and you look at the edge, it’s hard to tell where it ends; it looks like it flows right into the woods. The drop off is only 3 feet, but because of the slope, it looks like 30 feet,” says the homeowner. The clean, sleek look is furthered by stones from Pennsylvania, which the homeowner says are gorgeous in that they are joined together with the cement on the back, out of sight. Mature landscaping surrounds the pool, creating the blending effect the homeowners desired.

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