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Sixteen years ago, boat builder Chris Rawlings left his dream job at the Mystic Seaport shipyard in Mystic, Connecticut, and moved 100 miles inland to Western Massachusetts. “The love of my life wanted a farm with goats and rosebushes,” he says. But though he was far from the salty air, he was determined to stay close to the water. Eventually, he did the next best thing. “I started building ponds and pools,” says Rawlings.
His company, Water House Pools in Ashfield, Massachusetts, has a portfolio that includes some of the most exquisite and eclectic “swimming holes” — as he affectionately calls them — on sites from Cape Cod to Vermont’s Green Mountains. “I was trained at the Rhode Island School of Design,” say Rawlings, “so I had an idea of how to put things together. And my father had me riding excavators when I was a teenager for his construction business, so I already knew how to dig up rocks and move them around. It seemed like a natural fit.”
Not surprisingly, Rawlings’s creations commonly feature massive stonework as the supporting cast to the actual swimming pools. “Stone is more than a statement,” he says. “It has energy, a kind of life, particularly when incorporated into the kinds of natural pools many of my clients want.”
The demand for natural swimming pools (NSPs), he says, is driven by environmental concerns as well as aesthetics. With the NSP system, a central, deeper swimming area is typically surrounded by shallower, submerged gravel beds filled with aquatic plants and teeming with what Rawlings calls “biodynamic” activity. The NSP principle is to mimic nature by creating a man-made pond surrounded by a man-made marsh. Pumps circulate the central pond water into the “marsh,” where plants and aquatic microorganisms in the water and gravel below clean and purify the system.
For a couple with two sons, ages 8 and 10, near Brattleboro, Vermont, Rawlings took a hybrid approach, incorporating fully natural pools that surround — but are not aquatically connected to — a more conventionally treated and heated main pool. NSPs are difficult and expensive to keep heated in New England’s unpredictable shoulder seasons, but the owners wanted to begin the swimming season early in spring, extend it well into the fall, plus harness the abundance of electricity generated by a formidable bank of solar panels in their adjoining pasture to heat the pool. “This way,” says Rawlings, “they could have the plants, frogs, fish, and wildlife of the natural pool right there — all the pretty and fun things — without sacrificing the practicality of a pool they could use for almost half the year.” In winter, the main pool is covered, while the natural pools ice over and thaw out in spring.
“Having a pond and pool on the knoll of a hill is as unnatural as Twinkies,” says the wife, “but Chris somehow made it seem as if the landscape required it. I can hardly remember what it was like not having water in the backyard with the three little waterfalls burbling. We can hear them from the bedroom when the windows are open. Something about water moving calms the soul.”
Rawlings compares the NSP to a giant, freshwater aquarium, and as such, maintenance is both art and science. The pools are energy efficient, use no chemicals whatsoever, but says Rawlings, “It’s pure nature, and nature can be temperamental.” When the weather is particularly warm, the water can get cloudy from algae and other microorganism activity, a condition that’s usually temporary. “The ponds take a little bit of care and are love’s labors,” says the Vermont homeowner. “My wife takes particular satisfaction from dipping algae out of them. Algae has no chance with her around. It stands a better chance with me than leaves. I love wandering around the pond and pool with the long-handled net in shorts and flip-flops aimlessly tidying up.”
The main swimming pool is conditioned by a saline purification system. Using salt rather than chlorine and other chemicals to sanitize the water, saline pools utilize a generator to produce natural chlorine by separating the salt’s sodium and chloride molecules through electrolysis. Chemically speaking, both chlorines are the same, but each works in a different manner and place in the system and at different concentrations. After the chlorine conditions the water inside the generator, it converts back to salt and returns to the pool.
The amount of free chlorine remaining in the pool water is less than what’s found in chlorinated drinking water from the kitchen tap. “So there’s no smell, and it’s easier on the eyes and the environment,” says Rawlings. Since the saline system is also self-perpetuating, there’s no need for the homeowner to buy, haul, and store chemicals. The Vermont pool also incorporates an ultraviolet-light sanitizing component to further control microorganisms and lower chemical usage.
As to cost, Rawlings compares a pool with a house. “Every client, every site, every budget, every project is different,” he says. He’s built small “plunge pools” and large farm ponds used both for swimming and cattle watering. “I try to keep energy and maintenance efficiency as my main goal,” says Rawlings, “and let the clients steer me the rest of the way.”
The owner of the Vermont pool is an accomplished woodworker and wanted to incorporate an impressive, vine-covered pergola he built several years ago into the design. “The stone walls completely surrounded the structure,” he says, “and, against my initial protests, Chris wanted to take down half of the wall and open the whole thing up to the sweeping stairs down to the pool area. It is brilliant. I realize that my reluctance was entirely about undoing good work. Stacking stone is difficult. Stacking stone well is an art. Our friend Jared Flynn did the original stonework and was able to come back and repurpose the stone into the wall that swings around the firepit. It was always meant to be this way, as it turns out.”
Rawlings also had to fine-tune a few other things. “I love going out in the morning and sitting on the end of the jumping stone,” says the wife. But the boys made a contest of trying to run and jump across the pool to the other side. “We moved it once,” she says. “They jumped harder. We moved it again and now hope that before their bodies develop enough to reach the other side, their good judgment might also develop.”