Life has taken on a shallowness that suits Mary Kay Jordan just fine. Sunk in a low-slung beach chair, knee-deep in water, she watches over her world with languid blue ripples reflecting in her sunglasses.
"Sometimes nothing is going through my mind," whispers Jordan, iced tea and an unopened Tom Clancy thriller within reach, "when I'm sitting on my Baja step."
The self-employed bookkeeper and mother of three isn't vacationing at a Mexican resort but chilling in her Carlsbad, Calif., backyard pool, taking full advantage of its first step, which is really a shelf as wide and long as an oversized beach towel. It is the ultimate pool: You can go in the water and yet stay dry. Well, almost.
A third of the in-ground pools made by California's largest builders this year will have such a shelf, an entry area that's about a foot deep and as broad as the homeowner's imagination. There are as many names for them as there are uses: tanning bench, kiddie play platform, grandparents' step, thermal ledge, Shamu shelf (picture SeaWorld's killer whale belly-up in shallow water).
But the idea is the same: In pools, there's a lot less swimming and a lot more lounging going on.
It's all part of the trend of transforming ever smaller backyards into social oases "where people can group together as families and neighbors," says Bil Kennedy of P.K. Data, an Atlanta-based market research firm that has been tracking the swimming pool industry for a decade.
And shallow waters make that possible, whereas deep ends are empty space, says Brian Van Bower of Aquatic Consultants in Miami. "With deeper pools you have a whole section that you can only swim or float through, but you can't stand around and have fun."
To create an oasis, more often the distinction between home and backyard is blurred. The old-fashioned pool entry with three little steps clustered in one corner compared with an expanded entry is "like the difference between having a skinny front door and an inviting large one," says Skip Phillips of Questar Pools and Spas in Escondido, Calif.
And builders such as Frank Berry of Southwinds Landscaping in Irvine, Calif., have been scrambling to keep up with demand for counters, stools and even speakers in pools.
To add more of the feeling of a resort, some owners are having holes carved into the concrete steps to hold umbrellas, which shade waders during the day and can also be used as tiki torch holders at night, creating a dramatic reflection of fire on water.
Questar client Marilee Breeding of Fallbrook, Calif., says her shallow area is more like a reflecting pool. "We had our daughter's wedding reception at the house and the photographer took photos with the water in the foreground."
Pool styles come in waves. Few people long for the big blue rectangular tanks of the past. Instead they want pools that are pond- or lagoon-like in finish and shape. And ones without a deep end.
A typical new pool might be 3 1/2 feet in depth on each end and deeper in the center-but only by another foot or so.
It's a good setup for volleyball or water basketball, not so good for swimming laps: Flip turns require 4 feet of water.
"There are people who are serious about swimming as an exercise, and they have lap pools, but that's not us," says homeowner Kristine Quart of Encinitas, Calif. "It's our social center."
Daughter Gabrielle, 13, turns up the outdoor stereo and stages shows on the same ankle-deep shelf - which is also the space the family's German shepherd chooses to take his naps. "My husband, Barry, keeps saying, 'Why should I go on vacation when I can enjoy my backyard this much?"' Quart says.
A shelf costs less than most weekend getaways when designed into a new pool; adding one to an existing pool runs a few thousand dollars more. The average price of a new pool is around $35,000, according to the Virginia-based National Spa & Pool Institute.
California Pools charged the Jordans $350 for their 4-by-6-foot shelf when it was wrapped into the cost of their new $37,500 pool. Jordan figures that they spent about 1 percent of their budget on the corner of the pool they use almost 100 percent of the time.
The two preschoolers in the family see it as a wading pond; the teen-ager leans against it when he's standing chest-deep on the main pool floor (the pool at its deepest is only 4 feet); the grandmother, age 80, uses it to maintain her balance as she dips into the pool. As for Jordan and her husband, Robert, well, they enjoy lounging there when they get a free moment.
There's another benefit: The bigger step and shallower pool cut maintenance costs. Less water has to be treated and cared for, says Bruce Conn of California Pools. And, he adds, it acts as a solar collector, reducing heating costs.
Saving memories - not money - was Sarah Winkler's incentive for having a shelf take up one-fifth of her pool in San Clemente, Calif.
Winkler and husband Troy spent their honeymoon in the shallow end of a Cancn pool. "It was a hot July, and we'd sit all day in lounge chairs in a few inches of water, which kept us at a constant temperature so we didn't have to dunk into the pool every five minutes to cool off," Winkler says.
When the couple went searching for a builder to create a mini-version for their backyard last year, they found James Long of Mission Valley Pools & Spas in Lake Forest, Calif., who for years has been designing what he calls a "Baja reef" - so named, he says, because, like the California coast, it starts out shallow, then drops deep.
Katie Parks and Peggy Chambers of Long Beach, Calif., worked with Long to create a knee-deep bench in their pool for a physical therapist to use when working with their son, Akio, 14, who has a spinal injury and Down syndrome. Parks was surprised to find, however, that everyone gravitates to Akio's space. "Little kids in life jackets feel safe there, and four adults can sit and talk to people who are in or out of the pool."
Joe and Shelly Kaufmann of Mission Viejo, Calif., also Long's clients, retreat to their walled-off shelf when kids' play gets to be too much. "When our children are jumping and having water-gun fights in the deep end, we can stay out of their way," Shelly says.
Over at Mark Abbott's place in San Clemente, he heads for the pool, often with friends, after returning from surfing. He sees his longboard-size landing as the first step to bliss.
"It's like a shallow sandbar you see in the Caribbean," he says. "Sometimes we wrap inflated travel pillows around our necks, lie down in the foot-deep water and just completely let go."
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