Photo: Mike Feraco for BonaVista LeisureScapes

That ‘Built-In’ Look

High-end customers seek customized swim spa look

Empty nesters are part of a growing trend for new swim spa owners at Dimension One Spas of San Diego. Once the kids move out and the pool is seeing less use, they’re draining the pool and creating a built-in swim spa, dropping it in the empty pool and surrounding it with decking or rock.

John ‘JT’ Trzcinka, owner of D1 Spas of San Diego, says that’s exactly what he did at his home. His swim spa is surrounded by flagstone where the outline of the pool used to be. He calls this custom swim spa install the “vault.”

Trzcinka’s team has also done custom vault builds for swim spa installs on backyards without a pre-existing swimming pool. “Southern California is a highly sophisticated market for swim spas,” he says. “We’re seeing a lot more custom installations rather than just buying a swim spa and putting it above ground.” He does that as well but says at least 75% of his jobs are custom installs.

Photo: Mike Feraco for BonaVista LeisureScapes

Trzcinka says custom installations make swim spas more attractive to buyers in his market. “We can sell them a swim spa for a fraction of the cost of a pool and still have a built-in, beautiful look and not have to worry about building fences around a pool, since swim spas have locking covers.”

Jennifer Gannon, owner at BonaVista LeisureScapes, says aesthetic in keeping with the beauty or the value of their home is the driving motivator for homeowners seeking a built-in swim spa. “Swim spas seem to be like a personal gym for most of them,” she says, “but while they want to have a gym at home, they want it to look attractive and be integrated with the landscape.”

For BonaVista’s custom installations, Gannon says her designers work with the existing grade of the backyard or try to create a landscape that integrates a dining area, lounging space and water feature.

“If you walk out your back door and there’s a four-foot drop, that’s a perfect place to put a swim spa with a deck wrapped around it,” Gannon says. “So we’re not going to go in-ground if it doesn’t make sense. It’s the lay of the land.”

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When the homeowner is looking for a full landscape plan, freelance designers and landscape architects work with BonaVista to bring the customer’s wishes to fruition, including the built-in design for the swim spa.

“It’s very attractive to customers,” says Mark Beene, president of Spa & Pool Outlet in Raleigh, North Carolina. “That way you don’t have something five-foot-tall sitting on top of a concrete pad.”

Beene says a majority of his customers like to have raised decks surrounding the new swim spa. “Basically [you] come out of your house onto a deck and then have a small walkway, making it more of a centerpiece, which is easy to do when it’s just 2 feet off the ground,” he says.

A few logistics come into play when creating a built-in swim spa; homeowners’ associations are one of them. “Many of the homeowners have to go through an approval process to be permitted to put swim spas in a permanent installation,” Trzcinka says. “Even above ground, they have to get approval.”

However, for Trzcinka’s area, a special construction permit like with a pool is not required for in-ground swim spas as long as they’re fewer than 36 inches deep. The only permits he needs in those cases are for the electrical work. If the homeowner wants to go completely in-ground with the swim spa, a construction permit is required, which he says is another reason that partially above-ground installations are popular.

Access to the equipment housed in the cabinetry is also necessary for any built-in swim spa. There must be 24 to 36 inches of access around the spa, per manufacturer specifications. This is easily done when the swim spa is built into decking, however.

“Usually those decks are at shell height,” Beene says, “so it’s fairly simple to go underneath the deck and access the service panels. We’ve had cases where we’ve done removable sections of deck. There were a couple of times when the builder didn’t listen to us and we had to take the panels off [the swim spa] and reposition screws so we could access them later. That’s the key: communicating with the builder.” Beene says the best way to do a built-in swim spa installation is with assistance from the experts, adding that landscape designers are usually handling most of that in his geographic area. “Where we work with them is usually regarding the overall access and things of that nature. And that’s honestly the way I prefer it. That’s somebody else’s expertise.”