Isolation fences do more than secure a pool, they define a space.
Howard Roberts, Liquidscapes Isolation fences do more than secure a pool, they define a space.

A poorly designed isolation fence can give the impression of a pool serving a sentence behind bars.

“I just hate the confinement of the space, not just the aesthetics,” says Howard Roberts, owner of Liquidscapes, a design/build firm based in Pittstown, N.J.

It’s what Roberts refers to as the “playpen effect.”

Charles Hess, principal of Hess Landscape Architects in Lansdale, Pa., has his own colorful description for a fenced-in pool. “It can sort of look like the O.K. Corral,” Hess opines.

But an isolation fence needn’t be an eyesore. Properly designed, it can actually complement the poolscape.

Here, designers offer tips on how to incorporate a safety barrier without obscuring the beauty that lies beyond.

Tie it into the architecture

A fence as an afterthought rarely looks good. That’s why designers encourage landscapers and pool builders to work in concert to deliver a cohesive project patterned on the home’s architecture.

Take Roberts’ house for example. His is a Colonial reproduction. The home, pergola, pool house and arbor are color coordinated and, in keeping with the style of the era, Roberts bordered his pool with an inexpensive, code-compliant fence obscured by formal boxwood hedges.

“There’s no sense spending money twice by designing, building and installing a beautiful fence only then to hide it with landscape,” Roberts says.

Certainly, there are specific styles of fence that are well suited to each architectural genre.

Hess offers an example: He’s a fan of hairpin fencing, especially in conjunction with Tudor architecture. It’s elegant and inconspicuous, made of 3/8-inch or ½-inch iron railings, and can be customized to fit the grading of the site.

“It’s of a higher quality and it looks it,” Hess says. “And it resonates well in the garden and creates a beautiful space. It’s something nice to look at, as opposed to being an obstruction.”

Give it breathing room

A swimming pool is not a boxing ring. Ideally, there should be a fair amount of space — at least enough for some patio furniture — between the pool and fence to make it a functional living space.

When the fence sits right on top of the pool deck, it can create that penitentiary-like effect.

“It’s very confining,” Robert notes. “It’s very cold, it’s very sterile, and there’s not a great transition to the space.”

To avoid that effect, designers can place a band of turf around the deck.

“That right away creates warmth around the space,” Robert says. “It pushes the pool fence away from the area and it really creates an outdoor room where the pool is sitting within a garden environment.”

It also opens up the area for more social activities beyond just swimming. “At my pool, kids love to lay blankets on the lawn and play cards and games,” Roberts adds.

But what if you just don’t have the room? You can overcome compact footprints by maintaining at least 24- to 30 inches between the fence and the deck, enough to plant something that adds vertical scale so that the pool doesn’t look so boxed in.

“Anything to help soften the transition from a hard paving edge or deck that comes right up to the fence,” Hess advises.

Kris Schmitt of Neave Pools in Wappingers Falls, N.Y., designed this pool with split railings to reflect the community’s horse-keeping heritage. A mesh screen between the rails makes it code compliant.
Neave Pools Kris Schmitt of Neave Pools in Wappingers Falls, N.Y., designed this pool with split railings to reflect the community’s horse-keeping heritage. A mesh screen between the rails makes it code compliant.

Validate the view

Does the property have a stunning view of an ocean or lake?

If so, consider frameless glass or cable railings — popular options at shoreline properties. However, special consideration needs to be taken with cable railings. This type of fence often is used as a deck railing, but it can be used to keep a pool secure if the style is tweaked to meet code.

In most cases, the railings are horizontal, allowing young ones to easily climb up and over the barrier. That obviously won’t pass inspection near a pool. That’s why designers suggest making the railings vertical, even if it doesn’t deliver the same visual appeal.

“Horizontal boards on a fence are generally 48 inches apart. … That means you have these long thin cables that are kind of winding up and down so it won’t look quite as nice,” Hess cautions.

The near invisibility of glass makes it an appealing option for those with sweeping vistas. However, there is a caveat: Salt spray and mist can make a mess of the fence, so it will need occasional cleaning, Hess warns. Kids with smudgy fingerprints and dogs with wet noses also can mean repeated scrubbings.

“It’s not for everyone,” he adds.

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Material matters

Wood looks great for a few years then begins to show its age.

This actually can be a good thing for those who want the fence to “go natural” — a desired aesthetic for some. But it can rot over time. That’s why some opt for vinyl, which can be used to create pickets or privacy screens. It holds up to moisture, though it can be flimsy.

A sturdier moisture-resistant alternative is a composite fence. Just like lumber, composites come in raw sizes so it can be milled to the client’s specifications, making it a good customizable material.

Wrought iron, of course, is the old standby. Black bars blend into the background, allowing the colors of the poolscape to pop through. But black isn’t the only way to go. Sometimes an environment calls for color, even on the fence. That’s why designers are beginning to experiment with powder-coated aluminum for brighter barriers. The finish also holds up well under corrosive salty air so that it is virtually maintenance-free.

And for some, rust rules. Corten is a brand of steel that develops a rust-like patina to prevent corrosion. “They allow it to rust and sort of freeze-frame it,” Hess says.

It can look a tad industrial, or Old World with the right embellishments, such as a fleur-de-lis (a series of stylized lilies) along the top.

With so many styles and materials to choose from, a fence should never present a barrier to good design.