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New Shelf Life for Pools

Never mind swimming. The latest in pools is a ledge just for lounging.


Life has taken on a shallowness that suits Mary Kay Jordan just fine. Sunk in a low-slung beach chair, knee-deep in water, she watches over her world with languid blue ripples reflecting in her sunglasses.

"Sometimes nothing is going through my mind," whispers Jordan, iced tea and an unopened Tom Clancy thriller within reach, "when I'm sitting on my Baja step."

The self-employed bookkeeper and mother of three isn't vacationing at a Mexican resort but chilling in her Carlsbad backyard pool, taking full advantage of its first step, which is really a shelf as wide and long as an oversized beach towel. It is the ultimate pool: You can go in the water ... and yet stay dry. Well, almost.

A third of the in-ground pools made by California's largest builders this year will have such a shelf, an entry area that's about a foot deep and as broad as the homeowner's imagination. There are as many names for them as there are uses: tanning bench, kiddie play platform, grandparents' step, thermal ledge, Shamu shelf (picture SeaWorld's killer whale belly-up in shallow water).

But the idea is the same: In pools, there's a lot less swimming and a lot more lounging going on.

It's all part of the trend of transforming ever smaller backyards into social oases "where people can group together as families and neighbors," says Bil Kennedy of P.K. Data, an Atlanta-based market research firm that has been tracking the swimming pool industry for a decade.

And shallow waters make that possible, whereas deep ends are empty space, says Brian Van Bower of Aquatic Consultants in Miami. "With deeper pools you have a whole section that you can only swim or float through, but you can't stand around and have fun."

To create an oasis, more often the distinction between home and backyard is blurred. The old-fashioned pool entry with three little steps clustered in one corner compared with an expanded entry is "like the difference between having a skinny front door and an inviting large one," says Skip Phillips of Questar Pools and Spas in Escondido.

And builders such as Frank Berry of Southwinds Landscaping in Irvine have been scrambling to keep up with demand for counters, stools and even speakers in pools.

To add more of the feeling of a resort, some owners are having holes carved into the concrete steps to hold umbrellas, which shade waders during the day and can also be used as tiki torch holders at night, creating a dramatic reflection of fire on water.

Questar client Marilee Breeding of Fallbrook says her shallow area is more like a reflecting pool. "We had our daughter's wedding reception at the house and the photographer took photos with the water in the foreground."

The Next Wave

Pool styles come in waves. Few people long for the big blue rectangular tanks of the past. Instead they want pools that are pond- or lagoon-like in finish and shape. And ones without a deep end.

A typical new pool might be 3 1/2 feet in depth on each end and deeper in the center--but only by another foot or so.

It's a good setup for volleyball or water basketball, not so good for swimming laps: Flip turns require 4 feet of water.

"There are people who are serious about swimming as an exercise, and they have lap pools, but that's not us," says homeowner Kristine Quart of Encinitas. "It's our social center."

Daughter Gabrielle, 13, turns up the outdoor stereo and stages shows on the same ankle-deep shelf--which is also the space the family's German shepherd chooses to take his naps. "My husband, Barry, keeps saying, 'Why should I go on vacation when I can enjoy my backyard this much?' " says Quart.

A shelf costs less than most weekend getaways when designed into a new pool; adding one to an existing pool runs a few thousand dollars more. The average price of a new pool is around $35,000, according to the Virginia-based National Spa & Pool Institute.

California Pools charged the Jordans $350 for their 4-by-6-foot shelf when it was wrapped into the cost of their new $37,500 pool. Jordan figures that they spent about 1% of their budget on the corner of the pool they use almost 100% of the time.

The two preschoolers in the family see it as a wading pond; the teenager leans against it when he's standing chest-deep on the main pool floor (the pool at its deepest is only 4 feet); the grandmother, age 80, uses it to maintain her balance as she dips into the pool. As for Jordan and her husband, Robert, well, they enjoy lounging there when they get a free moment.

There's another benefit: The bigger step and shallower pool cut maintenance costs. Less water has to be treated and cared for, says Bruce Conn of California Pools. And, he adds, it acts as a solar collector, reducing heating costs.

Re-creating a Honeymoon

Saving memories--not money--was Sarah Winkler's incentive for having a shelf take up one-fifth of her pool in San Clemente.

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