What’s better than having your own backyard swimming pool? How about having a pool that relies on an underground garden to filter the water rather than chlorine and other harsh chemicals?
Alan Barlis, principal with BarlisWedlick, designed a natural swimming pool for a 75-acre property in New York’s Hudson Valley. The project was a team effort. BarlisWedlick led the design of the pool, decks, hardscape and materials. Pool builder Vinny Torcasio and Biotop designed the pool filtration/mechanical system, and landscape architect Anthony Archer-Wills was responsible for the softscape and plantings around the pool.
BarlisWedlick is a pioneer in passive design in the United States. Notable projects include Beckoning Path Wellness Center in Armonk, New York, the world’s first new-construction passive house church in Kinderhook, New York, and low-income housing projects built in partnership with Habitat for Humanity.
As for the new natural pool, the result is stunning and makes us yearn for a swim. Jessie Goldvarg, an associate with BarlisWedlick who served as the project architect, talked with Inhabitat about this magnificent natural pool.
Inhabitat: So, whose pool is this?
Goldvarg: The project was for a client, who maintains this residence in Ancram, New York.
Inhabitat: Could you give a brief description of the pool as far as dimensions, materials, what’s on the bottom, etcetera?
Goldvarg: The swimming area is approximately 16’x62′, and the planted water garden is about 14’x20′. The structure is gunite (concrete-based) with a plaster finish, all typical of a new conventional pool. In the water garden, the plants are planted in a sand/gravel bed. The surrounding decks are garapa wood.
Inhabitat: How did you come up with this idea?
Goldvarg: Our client was interested in a new swimming pool, but it was also important to him that the projects we were envisioning on his property were environmentally friendly and would blend in seamlessly with the landscape, both visually and functionally. We did some research into chemical-free, healthier pool concepts, and quickly learned how common mechanically-filtered natural pools are in Europe and presented the concept to our client — he was in right away. The phrase a “bowl full of Windex” came up as a comparison to the natural pool concept, making it hard for him to go in any other direction. It was intriguing to us that unlike a stream-fed natural pond, the water could be mechanically filtered in a controlled way, and that it’s been common and successful in Europe for decades, but without any real foothold in the U.S. (yet).
Inhabitat: What plants did you choose and why?
Goldvarg: The pool builder worked with a landscape contractor to select native plants, and it was important to our client to have some flowering plants and lily pads.
Inhabitat: What kind of maintenance is necessary?
Goldvarg: The plantings need to be cut back in the fall when the pool is closed-up for the winter. Weekly/regular cleaning and occasional plant trimming is needed throughout the pool season. The maintenance requires a similar amount of “effort” and “cost” as a conventional pool, just via a different skillset. Our client keeps the pool vacuum running fairly often to keep the floors and walls smooth. Since conventional pool maintenance includes adding chemicals to balance the water, we’ve found it’s best to find a maintenance person through the pool builder/landscape supplier, rather than through pool maintenance companies.
Inhabitat: Are you a swimmer yourself? Have you swum in the completed pool?
Goldvarg: I was a swimmer growing up and was personally excited at the thought of swimming every day WITHOUT the dry skin and damaged hair! I have dipped my feet in this pool, and it’s marvelous. Alan [Barlis] has swum in the pool — he said he felt cleaner and more refreshed than by any other swimming experience.
Inhabitat: Does the water feel different than in a chemically treated pool?
Goldvarg: Absolutely. It’s akin to lake swimming — clean, refreshing water — but better: without the slimy muck, and the water is perfectly clear. There is a heater as well, which keeps the water comfortable in early/late summer, so it’s never icy cold. The post-chlorine dry skin is non-existent.
Inhabitat: Are there fish or aqua critters in the pool, too?
Goldvarg: There are no fish in the pool, as these would eat the plants, and also add to the material to be filtered. Just like conventional pools, there is an occasional frog found that needs to be removed, but the nice part is they are always alive!
Inhabitat: Will you be building more pools like this?
Goldvarg: We sure hope so. We’ve completed a second natural pool since, and have a few potential clients interested in them.
Inhabitat: What else should readers know about your natural swimming pool?
Goldvarg: Two things: It was a goal of ours to hit the right balance of how “natural” the pool feels and looks. It is still “conventional” in that many swimmers may not realize how unique it is, and would not need convincing to jump in, the way pond swimming can sometimes be off-putting. But this pool is surrounded by gardens, and with the refreshing clean water, the experience is special.
It was a great accomplishment to build the first mechanically-filtered natural pool in New York State. The technology has been around for decades, just not in the U.S., and we’re hopeful more clients will consider them as a healthier, and dare we say more enjoyable, alternative.
Photography by Reto Guntli