Landscape & Hardscape Ideas

Spa and pool designs: the basics

The placement of a backyard spa is more controversial than you may think.

When homeowners are beginning to consider buying a home with a pool or installing a pool, the many discussions and articles written about design options may overwhelm them. Spa and pool owners can have strong opinions on which set-up is best. For now, let’s start with some basics. We’ll take a look at a few photos and get acquainted with some terms.

Here are some bare-bones definitions, according to Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary:

•     Hot Tub: a large usually wooden tub filled with hot water in which bathers soak and usually socialize; also :  such a tub with a whirlpool device

•     Spa: a hot tub with a whirlpool device

•     Whirlpool Bath: a therapeutic bath in which a whirling churning stream of hot water is forcibly directed against a part of the body

•     Jacuzzi: Trademark – used for a whirlpool bath and a recreational bathing tub or pool

For this article, we’ll be using “spa” as the general term to refer to a hot-water, jetted small pool.

Spas can be portable or permanent installations. Portable spas can be lifted (when empty of water) by a few people and moved around the backyard. Some owners opt for portable spas for this ease of movement, as they like to move the spas indoors for the colder months or take them along to a new house. Permanent installations are built in like in-ground swimming pools.

The different design options for spa-and-pool projects can cause some confusion. There is definitely a lot to learn about this outdoor living staple. Here are a few examples of spa/pool arrangements to consider. Let’s look at some examples of permanent spa structures.

Attached vs. separate: Spas that share a wall or are within the pool’s perimeter are considered attached. Stand-alone spas do not share any physical structure with the pool and are referred to as stand-alone or separate.

Attached vs. Integrated : Attached spas share a wall with the pool. Integrated spas are installed within the pool’s walls.

Spillover vs. contained: Attached and separate spas have water-circulation systems that differ in aesthetic and physical design.


“Spillover” spas are usually attached to or integrated in the pool and the water from the spa falls into the pool. Contained water spas don’t share water with the pool. An integrated spa with an “infinity” spillway, i.e. the water level is higher than the spa wall, is a very modern and less common contained-water design. In an infinity spa design, the water looks to be spilling out into the pool but it may be captured by a hidden reservoir and recirculated into the spa.

How the water is heated and cleaned is one of the major design decisions in any spa and pool project. If the homeowner is unfamiliar with spa and pool use, it may be challenging to predict what kind of use the spa will get throughout the seasons. Year-round spa users prefer to have their spas closer to the house and heated separately than a spa that’s attached to a pool that is closed for the winter months. This may mean that the spa needs to be drained and refilled more frequently. An integrated spa that is filtered with the pool makes testing and water maintenance more convenient.

A detached spa may be the choice of a family with multi-generational use of the outdoor areas. Kids can be a bit splashy when it comes to pool play time, and some adults prefer to soak in peace. To make an integrated spa more restful, it can be installed on the opposite end of the pool away from the slide and the deeper water. Some attached spas sit 12 to 18 inches higher than the pool deck, with the spa water’s spillway adding a lovely waterfall element to the design. A raised rim on an attached spa cuts down on the amount of splash from the pool.

Whether an attached or separate spa is the option, keep the whole look consistent by using the same pool deck pavers throughout the design. A coherent color and type of pavers unites the outdoor kitchen, pool deck and spa into one beautiful backyard hardscape, no matter how far apart those elements are placed from each other.

Make sure to consult a contractor with ample spa experience. Some pool installers concentrate on pools and are less familiar with spas. If you have or are considering an outdoor kitchen or bar, even more questions about your family’s use of the space will come up. An experienced contractor is the key to planning an outdoor living area that is perfect for your lifestyle.

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