Waterscaper of the Year
Irrigation & Green Industry magazine is proud to present its first annual Award to Ed Beaulieu, director of contractor development, field research and sustainability for Aquascape, Inc., St. Charles, Illinois.
Beaulieu has built more than 1,300 water features around the world, including every major city in Canada, Europe, Mexico, the Caribbean and South America. These include every type and permutation of water feature, many of which he invented, such as the pondless waterfall.
You might say that Ed Beaulieu was destined to do what he does. “One day, I happened to research the meaning of my full first and last name. Turns out that ‘Edgar’ means ‘protector,’ and my last name, ‘Beaulieu,’ means ‘the beautiful place.’ So the literal translation of my name is ‘protector of the beautiful place.’” He not only protects beautiful places, he creates them. It’s the perfect job for an environmentalist who loves nature.
There are so many spectacular water gardens, fountains and waterfalls that Beaulieu has built around the world, for zoos, aquariums, public parks, high-end home developments, hotels and golf courses. Some of his most rewarding work, however, has been in his role as vice president of the Aquascape Foundation, a charitable organization started in 2008 by the company’s owners, Greg and Carla Wittstock. The Foundation’s mission is to “pay it forward” by creating sustainable solutions for the worldwide water crisis.
“I’ve gone to developing nations such as Ghana, Uganda, Colombia and the Dominican Republic and used the rainwater recapture technology that we developed,” said Beaulieu.
The systems he’s built have improved the lives of the people in the places that were fortunate enough to get them. “In a lot of these villages in Africa that I’ve worked in, the children spend a good part of their day obtaining water,” Beaulieu says.
“Now, education is a big component in taking a country to the next level. When kids don’t have enough time to go to school because they’re busy getting water and other basic necessities, it’s unfortunate. And then the water they do get is dirty.”
Eighty percent of the children in these villages have intestinal parasites from drinking contaminated water. These parasites cause intestinal problems, diarrhea and headaches. That’s not conducive to learning, either.
In these villages, the homes usually have thatched roofs, unsuitable for rainwater capture. But the schools are usually centrally located and built with galvanized metal roofs large enough to collect the rainwater.
“I’ll do a water budget for the property,” says Beaulieu. “I’ll calculate the amount of surface area they have on the roof, and also calculate the average precipitation they may have in that particular country. In these tropical, equatorial regions, they get an abundance of rain, but also heavy periods of drought; they go from one extreme to the other. So our goal is to design a system large enough to capture sufficient water to sustain a village of 1,000 people through a drought period.”
The Aquascape Foundation “does not want to be one of those organizations you hear horror stories about, that invests money or time to help a community, and then leaves and never has contact again,” said Beaulieu. “We tell them that if we’re going to do a water system, they’re going to have to give us feedback on how it’s working. We did get some very good results in one of the villages we worked in a few years ago.
A doctor comes out once a year and tests the children. He found that the parasites were gone, after drinking cleaner water. Not only that, but the children were freed from having to fetch water from miles away.
Providing entire villages with safe, clean drinking water “is very fulfilling. It’s a way for us to give back some of our passion for water and use the technology we’ve developed in a whole different way.”
One “beautiful place” that stands out for Beaulieu was built in Ireland, at a business specializing in custom stone for landscaping and home applications. “The owner wanted to highlight some of the various products that they carry. So we designed a unique water feature that incorporated multiple types of stone, so you could get a good feel of how these different elements could be used in and around a home.”
“We used this very aged stone that’s heavily eroded, with moss and lichen growing on it, to build a large waterfall that flows into a big pond loaded with Koi. Very striking, especially in the Irish countryside where they haven’t seen those types of fish before.” The feature also incorporates stepping stones and bridges. “I don’t like to create something that you just look at,” says Beaulieu. “I want to engage the visitors, so they actually have to explore.”
But perhaps the most interesting feature of this project isn’t decorative. It incorporates a constructed wetland filter, a patented system designed by Beaulieu. “We wanted to have as low maintenance a project as possible, to keep it clean without them having to put a lot of work into it.”
This filter works by replicating natural processes as much as possible. Water is pumped from a skimmer system and discharged into a sediment trap, a large, hollow area underneath the bottom of the filter. As the water slows down, the sedimentation process occurs naturally.
High-velocity water from the pump keeps the sediment in suspension.
Another of Beaulieu’s favorite projects is one he built for NASCAR star Richard Petty at Victory Junction, a camp he runs for chronically ill children. It’s a stone waterfall, 35 feet tall and 300 feet long, that splashes into a large natural lake.
All of the stone came directly from the site. “Petty always dreamed there’d be a waterfall on this beautiful slope. We were able to make that dream come true.”
The son of Edgar Beaulieu, Sr., a financial advisor with his own business, and homemaker Theresa, Ed Beaulieu, now 46, grew up in Palos Heights, Illinois, a suburb southwest of Chicago. The family included older sister Michelle, younger sister Jennifer, and twin older brothers Mark and Gerard. His parents, now both 82, still reside in the same home.
All through his childhood and teenage years, Beaulieu says he “preferred to be in natural places.” An avid outdoorsman, when not busy pole-vaulting as a member of the Marist High School track team, he enjoyed “fishing, swimming, boating, scuba diving, snorkeling, hiking; all of that fun stuff.” Science was his favorite subject.
At Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Beaulieu stuck with science, majoring in zoology with a specialization in limnology, the study of freshwater ecosystems. After a couple of years spent working and earning money, he headed off to Nova University in Dania Beach, Florida, bent on earning a master’s degree in marine biology and coastal zone management. However, he never completed it. “I’d still love to, at some point,” he says.
“While I was in the master’s program, other students who had completed theirs, or who had even earned doctorates were all saying that the job market had changed,” explains Beaulieu. “They were working at local grocery stores and libraries, not practicing what they had gone to school for.”
Having just wed Ellen Malis, a special education teacher, Beaulieu’s priorities had changed. “She was paying for me to go to school. I said, ‘I can’t afford to spend the next three years of my life getting this degree, and then go work at a store or library. I can do that now.’” Beaulieu was offered a job as an environmental chemist at Pollution Control Industries of Indiana, a recycling facility back in his hometown of Chicago. “Although I enjoyed my job analyzing different kinds of materials, I wasn’t really fulfilled by working in a lab all day long. I could not see myself still there in 20 years.”
He had a talk with his wife, and they started looking for different avenues where he could use his scientific background while working outdoors. Ellen found an ad in the newspaper. “It said that a representative from Aquascape was going to be speaking at the local public library about backyard ponds.”
He thought, “I studied freshwater biology, that’s in backyard ponds.” He had talked about planning and building ponds for people while he was in college, so he said to himself, “I should go and see what this guy has to say.”
Beaulieu went to the talk, and was blown away by it, not just because of the beautiful pictures that were shown, but by the message about working with nature to create backyard ecosystems. This is exactly what Beaulieu had studied, except on a larger scale—in rivers, streams and oceans. Intrigued, he kept in touch with Aquascape for months while still working at the lab.
“Eventually, I was able to touch base with the owners. I went on the very first pond tour the company had in the Chicago area, and saw firsthand what these backyard ponds actually looked like.” Beaulieu was hired to help run the construction crew in 1993.
Running a construction crew is a big change from juggling test tubes in a lab. But Beaulieu was prepared for it, having worked through high school and college as a construction foreman, remodeling and building decks for a company owned by his twin brothers. “I’d been outdoors working with my hands, doing physical labor and running crews, so I was already familiar with construction processes and timeframes. I was able to easily shift gears.”
Now he found himself working with water and natural stone, creating backyard environments, using both the construction techniques he knew and the environmental science he’d studied. “I kind of melded the two things together,” says Beaulieu. “I don’t think it would have worked out, coming from a science background alone,” he laughs. “I probably would’ve left after the first week.”
Instead, he’s still at Aquascape, having had numerous job titles over the years, including chief sustainability officer. He’s certainly years earlier. Beaulieu has helped leaving his mark on the company he design some of Aquascapes’ proprietary equipment, and has his name joined in 1993, when it was still in the 20’X20’ garage it began in two on several patents. The company is now housed in a 250,000- sq. ft. facility in St. Charles, Illinois.
He explains that in the early ’90s, there was no set list of products for use in the construction of a water feature. “You’d go to the local hardware store and buy a sump pump that might be used for draining water, to an irrigation company to buy piping, and to a roofing company to buy a rubber liner. The rock would come from a stoneyard. We had to make the filters ourselves, because there were no commercially available ones for what we were doing, and the ones that were available were undersized for our applications.”
The company put together a list of components they used on a daily basis, and started making their own. “And then we fine-tuned them, saying, ‘This one could be a little bit better, this one could be more efficient,’ trying to shave off installation time and make the experience easier for the consumer as well as for us.”
Wittstock, the owner, realized that selling the components could be a whole new business unto itself. “We’d be at jobsites, working alongside landscape contractors,” Beaulieu explains. “They’d be there to do a patio or something, and see what we were doing. They’d say, ‘I have a customer who wants me to build one, can I buy some of these parts from you?’ So we said, ‘Sure!’” “Greg said, ‘We have an interesting product line and tons of knowledge; we could train people,’” said Beaulieu. At that point, the business shifted from being a design/build firm to being more of a manufacturer/supplier/educator.
Some companies would be scared that others would steal their ideas and compete with them. But Aquascape chose to take that chance. “At the time, being naïve to the whole situation, we thought, ‘If we can create products and sell them at reasonable prices, how could anybody compete with us?’” said Beaulieu. “Lo and behold, we do have competitors now, and they’ve knocked off a lot of our products and equipment. That’s life. Competition is good; it makes us stay on our toes, keeps pushing us to do more and more things. We didn’t want to be afraid of that. We’ve become known as the industry leaders and innovators right out of the gate, and we’re still in that same position.”
In 2001, Beaulieu invented the pondless waterfall. Like a lot of great innovations, it came about by accident. “One day, I was playing around on a jobsite with one of our filtration systems. I had built something with water flowing over a pile of rocks, when I noticed that the water was disappearing into a gravel bed. I realized that I could build a waterfall that recirculates water from an underground reservoir instead of a pond.”
A co-worker volunteered his mother’s house for the prototype. Soon, the company started selling them. A job at a public park led to the next phase. “The park officials told me they’d love to have a water feature, but didn’t have a water supply to keep it operating. They told me they’d have to bring a water truck in from the city to fill it, and that would be too difficult and expensive.”
Beaulieu realized that if he built an underground reservoir five to ten times the normal size, it’d fill naturally from winter snow and spring rain. “It should store enough water so they’d never have to add another drop.”
It did, and they didn’t. The park project’s success led, in a roundabout way, to the company’s involvement in rainwater harvesting, filling the underground reservoirs with captured rainwater from roofs and drains.
Beaulieu explains: “The average roof is going to generate about 1,800 gallons of water in a one-inch rain.
That’s huge. So we started putting these numbers together. In Chicago, we get about 40 inches of rain a year. If you make an underground reservoir even bigger still, then instead of just operating a feature, you can have a surplus of water, and draw it out for irrigation.”
Aquascape started calling projects like this “sustainable water features.” Now, the company builds entire sustainable ecosystems that include biological filtration. “You can tie them into fish, or use that water for irrigation and attracting wildlife. At the same time, you’re reducing your carbon footprint, creating a beautiful environment, with green plants using carbon dioxide. This is very appealing to a certain clientele.”
Beaulieu has come a long way from feeling unfulfilled, hidden away in a lab somewhere. At Aquascape, he’s been able to combine his passion for the environment with his education. “With these rainwater capture systems, my coastal zone management knowledge comes into play. The number-one cause of coastal pollution and destruction of coastal zones is stormwater runoff. As an environmentalist, sustainability is very important for me. So I get involved with a lot of stormwater management projects, very unique projects with LEED certifications.”
It’s a sure bet that Ed Beaulieu will continue to be found in beautiful places, many of which he’ll have designed himself. It’ll be fascinating to see what he comes up with in the future.