Come in, the water's lovely

Forget turquoise squares: the new generation of pools is organic - and deeply fashionable. DOMINIC LUTYENS takes a dip

As a paean to California, nothing matches David Hockney's Sixties paintings of LA swimming pools. But private pools also conjure images of those ostentatious holes in the ground Fifties families were only too keen to display at the height of the American Dream. Brutally rectilinear or fussily kidney shaped, they embodied the era's crass consumerism. Naffly nouveau riche they remain to some, but pools are cool again.

Denise van Outen bragged earlier this year that she'd tested her new swimwear line at paramour Jay Kay's swanky pool. And Wallpaper* magazine this month features party guests proclaiming the pleasures of poolside hedonism. They're not just an excuse for pretty pictures, says editor Tyler Brule: "Pools are a great way to keep fit and a social hub."

The Nineties pool eschews its Fifties forebears for a new "Asian" breed that sensitively blends with its natural surroundings. Gone is the rectangle of turquoise blue: in its place is an irregularly shaped organic pool, edged with rocks and grasses. Says Brule: "So many people have travelled to southeast Asia and seen this type of pool that it's influenced design everywhere."

Rainbow Pools, which designs some of Britain's ritziest pools, strives to blend into the garden or architecture around them. "We're seeing a big reaction against the traditional Californian pool towards a more modern aesthetic of naturalism, with the use of natural stone and slate finishes," says managing director Tony Wynne.

The indoor Pool House in Buckinghamshire, designed by architects Allford, Hall, Monaghan and Morris, is a good example. It is filled with water from an underground river and swimmers have a 360-degree view of the valley around. The pool is cleaned by ozone, not chlorine. And the package - including sauna, Jacuzzi and shower - costs pounds 100,000.

That might not be quite as much as Noel Gallagher's latest car, but it's still more than most of us can afford. But pools don't need to be this expensive, and neither does maintenance. Denis Wood has had his heated outdoor lap pool for 20 years. "Running costs are about pounds 1,000 a year," says Wood - which compares favourably to gym membership. When she's not using it, Jenny Thoms covers her 10-year-old lap pool with a huge solar panel on a roller. "It keeps heating costs down and debris out," she says.

Jim Gray and his partner Dick L'Estrange live in Metro Central Heights, an Erno Goldfinger building in south London - now a glamorous block with gym and pool. Is it sociable? "No," says Gray. "You get very territorial - you fantasise it's your private pool." L'Estrange emphasises the pool's holidayish feel: "You can come down wearing just a towel - as if you'd just left your holiday flat." Who could ask for more.

A POOL OF ONE'S OWN - IS IT REALLY POSSIBLE?

4 There are six types of pools. Different pool types and average prices (for one measuring 7m x 7m), including basic equipment are as follows: DIY block and liner kit (from pounds 5,500); fibreglass (from pounds 8,250); DIY steel panel kits (from pounds 10,000); liner pools (pounds 11,000); luxury concrete (from pounds 16,000).

4 Choose an installer with a good name and ask to see examples.

4 Think carefully about your needs: serious swimmers will want a covered pool for year-round use. Otherwise, a well-heated outdoor pool is fine.

4 Decide carefully on size, depth and shape - you won't be able to change it later.

4 You can do some or most of the work yourself, or you can get a complete package from design to construction and landscaping of the surrounding area.

4 Short on space? You can instal a "swim jet": a counter-current in a small pool, so you have to swim harder over a short distance.

4 Think about safety: from non-slip surfaces to a shallow end.

4 Ask whether your installer provides after-care, eg an opening-up or closing-down service.

MAINTENANCE

4 This takes about an hour a week, with a longer session once a month, advises pool dealer Aquapool. Begin the season with a shock treatment, using either sodium hypochlorite (liquid chlorine) or calcium hypochlorite (granular shock chlorine).

4 An automatic cleaner will remove leaves, twigs, etc.

4 A skimmer and filter will remove smaller particles.

4 There are various methods of counteracting build-up of bacteria and algae and maintaining the right PH level. 1. Chlorine, the most popular, cheapest option, oxidises the water; you can supplement it with long- life algicides. 2. Bromine or biocides, for those with sensitive skin and eyes. 3. Active Oxygen, available in tablets and with automatic dosing systems. 4. Ionisation: a cartridge impregnated with copper and zinc or silver and zinc particles purifies water for the whole season with only the odd "shock dose" of chlorine. 5. Ozone: produces excellent water clarity and odourless water. Overall, the average annual cost of running a 7m x 3m outdoor pool with cover can be as little as pounds 600 to heat, service and maintain.

4 For independent advice, call national swimming-pool watchdog SPATA (tel: 01264 356210).

4 Pool specialists include:

Aquapool: 01342 893911.

Allford, Hall, Monaghan and Morris: 0171 251 5261.

Rainbow Pools: 0171 720 7181.

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