There are times, even in high-end custom backyards, when nothing but a portable spa will do.
That has happened to landscape architect Chuck Hess. He was building a very expensive pool as part of a whole backyard design. It had a vanishing edge on one side, with slot overflow on the other three. That detail alone cost about $1,000 per linear foot.
With all this in the works, the homeowners sprang it on the designer that they’d like a portable spa, too, and they’d like it placed away from the pool.
For many designers, this can create a challenge because portable hot tubs stand more than 3 feet off the ground and come with pre-made skirting. This makes the unit a little bulkier to deal with and means designers have to work with an existing aesthetic rather than create their own concrete spa tucked into the ground.
None of this stopped Hess, principal of Hess Landscape Architects in Lansdale, Pa., from designing a beautiful hot tub environment where homeowners could enjoy the benefits of hydrotherapy while feeling completely engaged in their surroundings.
Sometimes a portable spa is just more appropriate, whether it be because of budget or accoutrements.
“From a hydrotherapy standpoint, they’re ergonomically designed, they have multiple jets — they’re able to accomplish things in a more comfortable spa shell than we’re able to do out of [concrete] currently,” says Scott Cohen, president of Green Scene Landscaping and Pools in Los Angeles. “They’re easier to cover, they’re insulated, and more energy efficient.”
Here, professionals with experience designing pools share their perspective on how to build the best environment around a portable spa.
Make it the place to be
A portable spa is an incredible amenity, however it doesn’t always need to be the visual center of attention.
“A portable spa is a go-to destination but not a focal point,” Cohen says. “I create my focal points with fire, fountains, trees and plantings, but have a go-to outdoor room that’s got the aboveground spa.”
In many cases, this means creating a separate area for the hot tub, without trying to integrate it with the pool, if there is one. This can be done by using the same materials and design elements found in the rest of the yard, while adding planters, half walls and other borders to delineate the spa room, along with steps and stone paths to get there.
Of course, a tried-and-true destination is near the bedroom, where the homeowners can slip in and out conveniently. That strategy still stands, whether the spa is manufactured or a custom-built hot tub.
“[Homeowners] don’t want to walk a long distance,” says Shane LeBlanc, president of Selective Designs in Peachtree City, Ga. “I’ve noticed that if we put the hot tubs closer to the house, even if they’re designed with the swimming pool, [homeowners] tend to use it a lot more. If it’s farther away, they don’t use it,” he adds.
But that doesn’t mean the hot tub should just be dropped on a concrete pad.
“Often you’ll have the standard patio coming just out your back door, and they sit the hot tub right in the middle,” Hess says. “I get it — it’s very accessible to the home, but it looks like somebody dropped it there. Could you have placed it in a way that looked more inviting?”
When Hess needed to add a hot tub in the same yard as his pool, he decided to create a separate destination spot suited even for those not planning to soak. His solution was a shade arbor, and instead of placing the hot tub in the middle of the arbor, he set it to the side. This left space under the structure for people to walk through on the way to the house, or to relax on a chaise and chat with those in the hot tub.
“You can sit in the arbor and feel like you’re connected with the people in the spa,” Hess says. “If the hot tub were in the center of the space, you’d have to walk around it. I didn’t want it to be that much of an obstacle. Instead, I’m leaving the patio 100-percent usable, so it’s not just a tiny little space.”
But some designers prefer to blend the tub completely with the landscape, so they bury it in the ground. That’s the first strategy for LeBlanc.
“We want it to look like there’s a hole in the ground where this hot, luscious water comes out,” he says. “That makes it more desirable. We try to hide the [lip] of the spa as much as possible by cantilevering over it with either teak wood, Brazilian hardwood or large pieces of flagstone.”
Connect bathers with the area Though the hot tub may be placed off to the side, those using it don’t necessarily want to feel isolated.
Place elements around the custom hot tub that create a connection, making it easier for those in the spa to feel like part of the big picture, and for those outside the hot tub to interact.
Taller plantings, such as ornamental grasses and shrubs, can be placed around the hot tub so they’re on level with the top of the tub, as Hess has done.
“When you’re sitting in the hot tub, I wanted the feeling that you’re kind of in the garden,” Hess says. This strategy enhances the sensation of looking over the rest of the garden, while also providing privacy from other areas.
To enable more interaction while softening the bulkiness of the tub, Cohen likes to build countertops around three sides, leaving the fourth open so the equipment can be accessed for maintenance and repairs. Those inside the spa can take advantage of the counter, and others, who might be eating or drinking, can sit and chat with those in the spa. For this same reason, LeBlanc likes to keep the outdoor kitchen close by. This also keeps the drinks on hand so bathers can hydrate.
Designers also can invite conversation between those inside and out of the spa by setting it partially in the ground, so it’s raised about 18 inches, and building a seat wall around it. “This also makes it very easy for [users] to swing their legs over and get into the spa,” adds Bill Renter, president of Deck and Patio Company in Huntington Station, N.Y.
If the hot tub is lowered into the ground, designers can bring other features, such as streams and ponds, right to the spa. Koi ponds, especially, create engagement with the moving colors and fish.
Engage the senses
Of course, it’s important to engage as many of the senses as possible.
This starts by creating a beautiful view from the hot tub, whether of a vista off the property, or from a waterfeature or fire bowl placed for that specific purpose.
Designers also should discuss the possibility of stargazing. Though many designers tend to automatically place a solid roof structure or latticed arbor over the spa, some homeowners soak at night, and they might want to look at the sky. If this is the case, the hot tub can go without a shade structure, or one can be placed to the side, where it will throw a shadow at certain times of the day.
Sound can be introduced with the use of moving water or by placing grasses and leaves that sweep and flow with the wind.
Scent also should be incorporated, especially because some people link hydrotherapy with aromatherapy. This can be accomplished, at least during part of the year, with the placement of fragrant plants nearby. LeBlanc tries to avoid putting flowers too close if they will attract bees or bugs.
“A lot of times the bees aren’t going to sting you in the hot tub, but most people want to feel comfortable,” he says.
There are specimens that generally are less attractive to bees. Tea olive, also known as sweet olive, is preferred by LeBlanc and Cohen. The dark green shrub has small white flowers that aren’t extraordinary to look at, but smell similar to freesia, Cohen says.
Frost-proof gardenia presents another option.
“The frost-proof gardenia is a little disease-resistant, so moisture from the spa won’t create what they call hot spots, where it creates a fungus on it,” he says. Wax myrtles placed around the perimeter can help repel insects, such as mosquitoes, with a scent that people can’t detect.
Beautiful flowers that do attract bees can go farther away to be appreciated from a distance.
Professionals have a variety of approaches to the bee question. While some designers will, as a practice, keep bee-attracting flowers away from the spa, others ask clients about their tolerance for the insects. Still others don’t worry about it. But Cohen gives one piece of advice: “When getting into a conversation with a homeowner about bees, you never want to imply that you’re able to plant plants that have fewer bees,” he says. “They hear that as ‘no bees,’ and that’s not an option with plants.”