Under my byline

Liquid asset

Posted in Architecture/Design, Living by Rrishi on 31 May 2008

Wealthy homeowners are adding value and pleasure to their homes by means of private indoor pools

It’s the last in one of those rows of grand townhouses typical of Delhi’s upper-class localities, and with its stone-clad façade is more impressive than most of its neighbours. Despite its bulk, though, it has a warm and inviting look — and offers no hint of the deep, unseen secret at its heart.

For the sharp-eyed visitor, that secret will quickly be laid bare. From the entry hall, one set of stairs descends into the basement, from where a flash of dappled light will announce what lurks beneath: an illuminated swimming pool, glowing green-blue like a jewel.

It’s just as well that such luxury is hidden, because it is forbidden. The licensing department of Delhi police, which controls such things, rarely gives permission to homeowners to build pools in town, let alone indoor, underground pools. Which is why, when it happens, it often happens under the police radar. This, and fear of income-tax raids, is why no pool owner agreed to be named.

Private indoor pools are still rare in Indian cities. The wealthy have land on the outskirts, where they build themselves “farmhouses” with plenty of space for the traditional outdoor pools. Now, however, there is a gathering trend towards not denying oneself the luxury of a swim even in one’s city home, and the best way to do this on urban plots is by building an indoor pool.

“It’s more from the privacy point of view,” says designer Raseel Gujral Ansal, speaking of one set of clients. Also, “They wanted to not lose out on garden space,” even though “indoor space is precious”. So she designed them a 65-by-20-foot basement pool, which “stretches from one end of the foundations to the other” and shares space with a bar, lounge, spa, home theatre and sunken court in a wonderful space for entertaining and family.

“If you spend Rs 25-40 lakh building a basement pool, you get that money back,” says Hemant Atrish of Technology Pools. “As an addition to the property [an indoor pool] adds more value than an outdoor pool, because you can use it 24/7 all year round.” His company is based in the UK — a hotspot of indoor pool-building — but also designs and builds in India.

“In Delhi it’s quite bitter and cold in winter — not the perfect time to swim,” says Atrish, “and in India if it’s not cold it’s raining for a few months… so indoor pools get a lot more use”. Outdoor pools suffer from being exposed to the weather: “After the first heavy rain, the pool turns dark green or black — I’ve seen dark blue, even red,” says Atrish, because “the pollutants [from the air] react with the chemicals in the water”.

By contrast, indoor pools require extensive mechanical support. Not only is the water constantly filtered, a precise temperature differential must be maintained between water and air in the pool room to minimise evaporation. “We keep the water at 28 C and the air at 29 C,” says Atrish, and a dehumidifier removes moisture from the air. Damp is bad for everything indoors, from building materials and finishes to furniture and even the residents’ health.

Atrish says he has to design around maintenance issues, partly because in India the pool caretaker is invariably a “domestic help” and doesn’t understand the technology. “We keep it very, very simple.”

Still, exotic ideas and excess abound. One industrialist ordered three pools for his farmhouse: two outdoors for visitors and guests, and one indoors “for his own personal use”. Raseel Gujral Ansal is working on a house “in the middle of a forest” near Vadodara where the pool “is half in and half out”. The two halves are separated by “a water curtain between the two kinds of spaces — a sheet of water that’s constantly falling”. Indoors there’s a lounge and bar, and “you swim out from under the curtain and you’re outdoors — it’s pretty fabulous”.

Pools and parties go together. “It’s always the biggest room in the house,” says Atrish, so it’s natural to want to make the space count when entertaining. Atrish’s company can put in “a floating floor with a stainless steel frame” that can be raised or lowered to cover or reveal the pool. “It’s easily Rs 70-80 lakh so it won’t work except in the most expensive locations,” he says. But Gujral Ansal says one can do without: “Indoor pools are only about three and a half feet deep,” so, emptied out, a pool can be used as “a depressed dance floor”.

If that strikes you as a waste of water, you’re right. One new pool owner says, “You can use the same water for 10 years with a good filtration plant,” although he plans to change his 50,000 litres every year.

No hint of economy in the London home of hedge fund manager Chris Rokos, who’s reportedly planning a four-level basement to accommodate a deep pool with high diving board. He’s not alone in patronising such architectural spectacle. London since the mid-1990s boom has seen a rush of new basement creations, the high end of which all involve swimming pools. There, planning rules and the lack of urban land have driven homeowners to ever-greater depths, to the joy of estate agents and the misery of neighbours.

Sooner or later this trend will come to India’s booming but space-starved cities, and begin its inevitable trickle-down effect.


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