In a push to come up with evermore creative backyard designs, many builders are mixing and matching multiple surfacing products to great effect.

Vic Lehmann, for one, uses a variety of materials on his projects. “There’s no excuse for creating a cookie-cutter pool in a day and age when there are so many incredible surfacing options available,” says the president of Lehmann Pools & Spas in Mahwah, N.J.

While it takes skill and an artistic eye to blend layers of materials and textures in a way that creates a cohesive design — and not a jumbled mess — pool builders should not feel intimidated.

Here, we’ll examine the multiple-surface trend and showcase tricks of the trade from those who do it well.

Spotlight on surfaces

With decking materials reaching new levels of sophistication, it’s no surprise that designers are becoming more ambitious. Many use multiple types of surfaces to enhance otherwise plain patios, improve safety, and even make their projects more cost-effective (To see real-life examples, go to Making an Impact).

“When mulling over new materials, not only should visual elements be considered, but also strength, safety, ease of maintenance, weather resistance and drainage capability,” says Mark Ragel, president of Patio Pools & Spas, a Pool & Spa News Top Builder in Tucson, Ariz. 

If price is an issue, these materials can be a great way to keep costs low, says Joe Vassallo, president of Las Vegas-based Paragon Pools. “When the materials themselves are breathtaking, you don’t need as many bells, whistles and tricks [such as a fountain].”

To discover creative combinations, designers suggest experimenting while on the job. In addition, Lehmann spends time reading trade magazines to learn what other builders are doing, traveling to see what’s hot in other regions, visiting quarries to look at stones firsthand, and crafting small-scale mock-ups to show to his clients.

“Creating something new and exciting takes a lot of experimentation, preparation and hard work,” he says, “but the payoff is worth the extra time and effort that goes into designing something truly original.”

Putting it into practice

To achieve design excellence with multiple materials, it’s important to remember a few basic principles.

• Experiment with color.

Creative decking designs often use complementary or contrasting shades.

Some prefer working with a narrow color palette — for instance, a variety of blues, grays and black — which allows them to visually unite the disparate materials. Others choose to boost the “wow” factor by incorporating dramatic elements against a more neutral backdrop, such as setting metallic tiles into a concrete path. 

Another option is to vary the look of a single type of material. “For greater sophistication in our designs, we often use one material cut or finished in a variety of ways,” Lehmann notes. Using the material in different ways enables designers to highlight focal areas and capture viewers’ attention in a manner that’s less “look at me” and more subtle elegance.

Whether colors harmonize with one another or provide stark juxtapositions of contrast is a matter of preference. Be warned, however, that with so many beautiful and boldly hued materials available in today’s market, it’s easy for builders to overdo it.

“You have to use your most eye-catching materials wisely, and sometimes sparingly, to avoid a final product that looks like the work of an amateur,” Vassallo says. Even with more adventurous clients, he still prefers to work with fewer than six materials to avoid what he calls “a Picasso” — a look that many will see as a disjointed mess.

• Keep things in proportion.

When blending a variety of materials, size, scale and proportion should be considered in great detail.

“With a rectangular pool, you want to use materials that are geometric. To throw in the use of boulders and curvy materials simply doesn’t work,” Ragel says. “The same thing goes for a free-form pool, where bold square and geometric patterns disturb the overall appeal of the design.”

For large lots, he recommends multiple materials as a rule. “Even if a particular material is incredibly beautiful, it will lose its effect if it paves an area as expansive as a football field,” Ragel says.

To avoid a mismatched look, he recommends setting off the different materials with design elements such as waterfeatures, planters, bridges or walkways. Doing so creates intimate spaces that function almost like outdoor rooms. 

Conversely, to maintain proportion in a small lot, Ragel often limits the variation in materials used to keep things uncluttered.

• Consider balance and symmetry.

To provide a cohesive, finished look, designers should focus on where the hardscape is placed as well as the materials. “Balance outside the pool goes a long way toward making a setting visually pleasing,” says Bill Renter, president of The Deck & Patio Co. in Huntington Station, N.Y.

Materials should not only be in balance with each other, but also harmonize with the property and home. “Use of rhythmic patterns and well-known, simple shapes can provide a sense of order as well as pleasing variation,” he adds.

That’s not to say the decking must always be evenly distributed. While most builders strive toward symmetry, Renter believes asymmetry can achieve a more natural look. “Nothing is more classic than nature, and since most things in nature are grouped in odd numbers, I like to see design groupings in threes and fives to mirror nature,” he says. 

• Strive for unity.

Unique materials can draw the eye, but nothing in the hardscape should stand out too much because, ultimately, each element needs to fit together like pieces of a puzzle.

By carefully editing the number of materials used and drawing on them repeatedly throughout the design, aesthetic unity can be achieved. Also, using a variety of differing but complementary textures, colors and shapes can break up what could become monotonous.

Harmony is crucial to creating a picture-perfect project. “One key element should tie the entire yard together,” Ragel says. “With consistency in patterns, colors and textures, builders can make almost anything work. They’ll be able to successfully unite many different materials while maintaining a sense of seamless ease.”