When Amy Holland bought her home in Austin, Texas in 2020, she and her husband knew they wanted a pool in their backyard — but not just any pool.
“We don’t have kids, so we didn’t want a giant water slide, all the features,” said Ms. Holland, 46, who works in technology sales. “We just wanted a ‘cocktail pool’ that we could dip into, have a drink, have some friends. We just didn’t want a big pool.”
The solution was a plunge bath.
While traditional backyard pools are typically 15 feet wide and 30 feet long, plunge pools typically don’t exceed 10 feet by 20 feet. They also have a flat bottom and are shallow, usually around five feet deep.
They are also less expensive to maintain and easier to build. The design chosen by Mrs. Holland and her husband ensured a pool that would fit right in their sloping backyard and would not disturb the long root system of the 100-year-old live oak on the property.
Other homeowners like the minimalism of plunge pools, said Allison Messner, the chief executive of the landscape design firm Yardzen in Sausalito, California.
“I think people who are attracted to plunge pools are looking for a pool with a smaller footprint, as they may have more functional spaces in their yard, which also has a modern feel,” Ms Messner said. Larger pools don’t allow much else in the typical backyard, she added, while plunge pools leave room for dining and play areas. They can also “make your yard look and feel like a place to stay,” Ms. Messner said.
Plunge pools are certainly not new. In nature, they take the form of deep basins at the bottom of waterfalls, where erosion creates a natural swimming hole. The ancient Romans installed small round pools, usually five feet deep, as part of their baths. Small pools, inspired by the example of the Romans, dotted with British gardens in the 18th century. In the age of social media, pictures of plunge pools in tropical resorts or Greek villas are often widely shared.
Once reserved for the wealthy in the United States, backyard pools boomed as gunite pools, a type of concrete pool, became more affordable for many homeowners. For a while, the kidney-shaped pool—often six feet deep, with the requisite diving board—became a suburban status symbol, especially in Southern California, where neighborhoods were filled with the sounds of Marco Polo’s splash fights and games.
Lucas Firmin, a pool builder in Baton Rouge, La., said most of the pools he builds today are about five feet deep.
Chapman Bullock, co-founder of Proper Plunge Pools in Austin, said that even before the new popularity of plunge pools, people used traditional pools in a different way.
“Sometimes when you go to a pool party, you see everyone in the shallow end gathered together, and there’s a lot of the pool that’s not being used,” he said. “Just having a water to cool off and relax in is really what most people are looking for.”
The standard backyard pool isn’t going away, but in recent years a large number of companies have sprung up that make prefabricated plunge pools easily accessible to a growing number of people. These companies also fill a gap created by labor and supply shortages faced by traditional builders and help reduce costs and timing.
“I think the pandemic has certainly boosted the demand for plunge pools for that reason,” said Karen Larson, co-founder of Soake Pools, in Pembroke, NH. to the idea of a small swimming pool.”
Ms Larson said Soake, founded in 2014, has seen increased demand in recent years for its so-called “prefab plunge pools”. After the homeowner has chosen the size and finish (such as tile and bench options), Soake builds the pool off-site while a local landscape contractor prepares space in the yard. When the body of the pool is complete, it is transported to the house and placed on site with a crane. The process takes from “a few days to a few weeks,” Ms Larson said.
Other prefabricated plunge pool companies include Plunge Plus in Easton, Mass., and Modpools, in British Columbia. Modpools uses recycled shipping containers for its pools, which are available for delivery in the US
Last year, Mr Bullock, a designer, started Proper Plunge Pools in Austin with Ken Dineen, who has a background in construction. Mr Bullock said he got the idea for a company dedicated to small pools after trying to persuade pool builders to install one in his tiny backyard a few years ago. When the traditional pool builders were no longer interested, he designed and built a concrete plunge pool himself.
Proper Plunge Pools offers pools in three different sizes to people in the Austin area. It has installed 20 swimming pools in the past year, Mr Bullock said.
“A plunge pool, with these small lots in many metropolitan places, allows you to use the square footage of your backyard more,” said Mr Bullock.
Plunge pools are also less expensive than their full-size counterparts. According to a nationwide survey of 1,100 brokers conducted by Homelight, a mid-tier or luxury pool will cost about $70,000 to $100,000 in Q3 2020. Proper Plunge Pools charges about $40,000 to $60,000 for its smaller models.
“What we’re seeing in Austin is a lot of pool companies don’t even start talking to you unless you’re willing to spend $70,000 to $80,000, and then really at the end of it, you’re going to go close to $100,000,” the said. Mr Bullock “It’s a lot of money. In the end you get something just as high quality and I think it looks just as good aesthetically as a custom pool.”
Dip pools, once built, are also less expensive to maintain: they require fewer chemicals and water, and they require less energy to heat. “It’s more financially efficient for the homeowner because the heating bill is significantly lower,” said Philip Michael, owner of Cool Water Pool Works in Southampton, NY.
Smaller baths are easy to cool and warm up, making them attractive to people who would otherwise close their baths in the colder months.
Leigh Profit, 42, installed a Soake plunge pool in the backyard of her farm in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., which she has converted into an Airbnb.
“It’s extremely relaxing,” she said. “It can be heated to as warm as you want – hot tub temperatures. So it also feels really therapeutic just being in this calm water and soaking in it.