My kids, my students, and my fellow DIYers (those home improvement enthusiasts I consult online as Alla DIY Ally) have all heard me exclaim time and time again: “That’s a blessing in disguise!” I love when perceived design problems are turned around and emerge as opportunities.
Designing without explicit limitations as if “the sky’s the limit” is actually harder than when there are constraints. Design process can start anywhere. Sure. Hard to argue with that. But it’s a bit daunting, too open-ended. Too overwhelming. For instance, if you have a plot of land that you can build anything on, referring to context for clues might be a good place to start.
Somehow, it is always helpful to begin with a set of design guidelines or boundaries. Here is an example of how I was able to turn restrictions into opportunities while designing an above-ground pool.
1. Willing to Experiment
Searching for our first home, I fell in love with a run-down house mainly because of its amazing lot — a promise of an urban retreat nestled in a lush area of LA’s Hollywood Hills. My husband objected — built right under the hill, it had no backyard. I promised to build a pool and sauna in the front.
Thus, I set out to hire a well-regarded pool specialist who turned out to be too expensive and too much of a “star,” not interested in working with my aesthetic or incorporating my vision. We would’ve ended up with a cookie-cutter solution. No, thank you. Having never done a pool design before (potentially a huge problem), I took on a challenge myself.
2. Making the Most of Existing Conditions
There was enough elbowroom in the front yard for a 40-foot long lap pool, but the ground sloped drastically, making it impossible to utilize traditional pool construction. I opted to preserve and enhance. Besides, flattening the terrain by introducing retaining walls would have been prohibitively expensive.
3. Using Restrictions as Inspiration
I invented a site-specific solution — an above-ground swimming pool with an underground bath house to circumvent an outrageous obstacle. It crystalized in 24 hours, after a zoning official at the Department of Building and Safety cited a required setback of 55 feet.
My plan was to create a deck at the level of the house, set 75 feet away and eight feet above the street, from which you could enter a nine foot wide tub-like concrete reservoir at its most shallow. The depth would gradually increase following the slope.
4. Dealing with Challenges Incrementally
An architect-DIYer, lucky enough to work on my ideal home, I thought it was important to provide choices and options. The immense front yard with over a hundred rose bushes that former owners had lovingly cultivated possessed an amazing potential to be transformed into an outdoor enclave.
I envisioned lingering alfresco dinners amidst a fragrant garden, children playing Marco Polo, my husband running out of the scorching sauna and jumping into the pool, everyone relaxing in the bubbling spa at night, strategically assembled to partake in the drama of the fire pit.
Multiple functions had to be served. Meeting family’s needs as they changed over time was clearly the main design objective. Breaking up the vast scale by dividing the space into intimate areas seemed to make sense.
5. Self-Imposing Priorities
Using a restrained palette of natural materials allowed me to repeat a subtle theme while unifying all of the unique conditions. Specifying pre-cast concrete pavers for the coping (a budget limitation) in lieu of more decorative options, I faithfully expressed the method of construction employed for the pool.
Then, as pre-cast motif emerged, I chose to dress garden stairs in the same fashion. It appeared only logical to design pre-cast benches for the deck as well as to repeat waterline tile combination in the underground bathroom, deck, and spa.
Repetition was a way of addressing a design problem holistically. It resulted in a collection of flexible outdoor spaces, suitable not only for different moods and times of day, but for years of continuous enjoyment. Making a conscious decision to consistently echo certain contextual details tied everything together. Embracing the mindset that “there are no problems, only solutions” helped tremendously!