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Pool Houses That Make a Splash!

An Informative Interview with Burr Salvatore Architects

How do you determine the best distance from the Pool House to the Main House?

There are a variety of considerations. Foremost, we need to ensure that the building complies with any municipal regulations-- zoning or wetlands setbacks, flood regulations, etc.--but sometimes those can also be an asset. Siting a pool house with a wetland beyond can sometimes create a significant landscape opportunity.

From a design standpoint, there’s always the question of whether the pool is adjunct to the house or it’s own entity. Do the clients want to walk out of the house with a pitcher and go immediately to the pool terrace, or is it a destination in the site. And if it’s a destination in the site, then it probably needs to be equipped differently, as well.

What are some factors that are vital for the Pool House design that many people may not realize?

There are significant regulatory considerations. Towns often limit building heights, what amenities they can include, and size. Satisfying a program within those restrictions can be a huge challenge.

Do you have a signature style in the Pool Houses that you design?

Hopefully not! We want each of our projects to stand on its own, but be grounded in what we think are the essentials of good design: attentive listening, careful consideration, meticulous planning, and thorough execution. We often try to introduce a bit of whimsy and to be a bit less staid with a pool house. We don’t often think of it as a mini-version of the main building—what a bore! The pool or guest house is an opportunity to take a chance! 

What are the top current design requests from your clients?

It's seemingly always better outdoors spaces—covered or uncovered, screened, pergolas, etc.—that can accommodate different programs. Our clients want to have cocktails by the pool then maybe dinner in the Pool House or to be able to casually watch the game by the TV in the Screened Porch in November. 

Are there new materials being used?

There are always new building materials and technologies that permit us to achieve design ambitions more richly. The key is to use them in sensible ways that do not objectify the possible; we are interested in timelessly beautiful outcomes, not those that reek of the here-and-now. That’s not a stylistic mandate, but rather an approach—just because something is possible does not mean it is worthwhile! 

How have Pool Houses evolved over the years, or are they consistent?

There is a long tradition of pool houses or accessory buildings and a huge range of what they afford. Nearly a century ago the Rockefellers built an entire Playhouse on their Pocantico Hills estate; in contrast, Paul Williams designed a much more modest but no less brilliant poolside pavilion at the Paley house in California. That range of program and size continues today, but it’s fair to say that the baseline of what a pool house includes has been elevated. Rarely is it just a shack by the edge of the pool (or if it is, it is very, very intentionally conceived as such). They are generally better-appointed than ever.

How do you strike a balance with comfort, casual feel and sophistication? This is often client driven—some people are looking for a formal, insulated outbuilding that can serve as a guest house year round, while others just want a place to store beach towels and/or provide shaded seating during the summer months. There’s no right-or-wrong on this, though the aspirations of a building that is more remote on the property tend to be greater because it affords a bit more independence from the main house.

Where do you stand with pools being flush against the pool or do you prefer they be set back w/ a patio? 

There’s no one-answer to this. We just proposed a pool house renovation that placed a Screened Porch right on the coping so someone sipping a margarita in the Porch could get splashed by an aggressive swimmer! On the flipside, we just finished a pool house that was a path away from the pool, conceived as a small stone cottage tucked in the woods. This is fundamentally linked to client desires and site dynamics.

How do you determine their size? When is it too small/ big? 

We would probably declare that too often they’re too big and they look like the a scaled-down version of the main house. It’s not so much a size issue, though, as it is an identity. Who wants to go to the pool and feel like you’re arriving at the portico of a 25,000 SF manse? It needs to be differentiated and less serious. It’s the difference between walking into the main entry of the Colony Hotel in Palm Beach versus walking into the pool area where the fabulous “green” ceiling and the piping on the umbrellas transport you to a different space.

How does your design differ when property is on the water vs. landlocked?

Waterfront pool houses often tend to be more casual, perhaps because they take a beating from the elements and are thus conceived more as cabanas that can be seasonally boarded up, rather than miniature houses. An example of this is the “House on the Sound” pool house that we recently completed. This structure was designed to be completely shuttered in the off-season, in large part because it had to be. It was constructed in the most intense flood zone, the VE (velocity) zone, and therefore all mechanicals need to be elevated above a certain height, and all of the walls need to be designed to break-away in the event of wave action or flooding. It looks like a deceivingly simple structure given the sophisticated engineering that went into it! From a conception standpoint, though, our starting point was more a pavilion by the shore than a proper “house.”

Another pool house that feels more like a cabana than a small “house” is the Silver Beach Pool House. This is also located right on the Sound, though not in a flood zone. The bright colors, asymmetrical roof, and exposed outdoor shower give it the casual character of a beach shack. This is also on a site where the pool is immediately adjacent to the house, so the programmatic exigencies were much simpler—it freed us to simplify the structure and play-up the come-as-you are feel. The interior is detailed with exposed studs and rafters and the exposed electrical and plumbing pipes are all part of the design. It’s a very intentional pursuit of no-frills design.

To keep the style consistent with the main residence, what in particular do you tend to pull from and carry over into the Pool House? 

We almost always think the pool house is an opportunity to make a conscious departure from the style of the main house. Sometimes when the pool house feels like a mini-main house it can seem too matchy-matchy. If anything, we look to the pool house as a foil. It can be a folly in the landscape, rather than a little sister to the main house. And let’s be clear—the guest staying there should know they are not the King of the castle!

Interview & Photos courtesy of Burr Salvatore Architects.

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