Elements of Design: Take Your Water Features to the Next Level
This summer, I've been engaged by Savio Engineering to crisscross the country teaching groups of contractors in hands-on clinics about the fundamentals of water feature construction -- that is, the installation of ponds, water gardens, and pond-free systems. A major component of these seminars is a discussion of the design principles of water feature installation I call the RISE Method:
R--random . . . having no specific pattern
I--irregular . . . having no even occurrences
S--spontaneous . . . having no external confinement
E--erratic . . . having no fixed course In this article we will take a look at the elements of design; their interaction with one another and the techniques used to reveal the true form of each element. This particular phenomenon or approach to visual organization is known by many names, in many parts of the world:
Natural Balance -- a harmonious or satisfying arrangement of parts or elements.
Proportional Harmonics -- elements properly related to one another in measurable balance.
Spacial Orientation -- the fundamental position of elements within a given space.
Feng Shui -- a pleasing combination of the elements forming a whole. At the core of each of these philosophies is the concept that all things within a given space interact with one another. Too much of one element will overpower the others. Change the layout, design, size, or quantity of any single element or group of elements in a given design and you will change the outcome, the feel, even the mood and atmosphere of the entire waterscape.
A water feature installation contractor would not or should not build a little tiny 50-gallon goldfish pool with huge ten- or twelve-ton boulders any more than he should build an enormous 50,000-gallon water feature with small bowling ball-sized river rock. Yet contractors are still doing it everyday. The elements comprising a water feature must be proportionally balanced with one another; water surface, rocks and boulders, plant material, light and shadow, even texture and color play an intrinsic part in the overall balance of your designs and ultimately your ability to realize your clients' dreams.
Attention to detail
Recently, I was commissioned to provide a detailed consultation for a water feature designed and installed by a talented young contractor who missed the mark when it came to the details of his design. The design goal was to provide the appearance of a cool, shady forest with a small babbling brook. The design itself was good, yet it lacked the detail and balance necessary to deliver the desired results expected by the client.
The problem: it didn't look cool or shady. It looked hot, barren and arid; and the client was not at all pleased with the overall appearance. The solution: determine which elements contributed to the ill-received hot and arid appearance and alter or manipulate them to deliver the desired result.
Light was seriously out of balance. Harsh, bright light washed out the entire view, creating that hot, parched look. Adding a few moderately-sized trees that provided an adequate amount of shade to the area solved this problem. Keeping in mind that we did not want to create a maintenance nightmare with a species of tree that would deposit a lot of debris throughout the year, we selected a nice evergreen variety with soft, wispy and feathery boughs that moved easily in the wind. This also gave us the added benefit of introducing some movement into the area.
Sterile, bleached-out rock that had been sitting in direct sunlight at a landscape supply yard was used in the water feature's original design. This only added to the arid and barren scene. Hand-selected mountain stone, covered in mosses and lichens, solved this problem.
An old mossy cedar log and an abundance of ferns, along with a few low-growing sedums and stonecrop varieties added thick, lush undergrowth to the area, ending in an extremely jubilant client and a cool, shady, moist, green waterscape feature that appeared to have been there for years. The reason: attention to detail in the well thought-out placement for the overall balance of interacting elements.
No matter how educated, skilled or talented a designer or installation contractor may be, there is only so much that can be done with a pile of small rocks. To achieve a truly natural-appearing water feature; bigger can be better. You will never accomplish natural harmony in your water features if your elements are out of balance with each other.
A client, irritated by the inability of a local landscaper, requested that I redesign and rebuild a poorly- installed water feature that was to be the backdrop for an upcoming wedding. The water feature was not much more than tandem dump truck loads of rubble covering an eighteen-foot rubber-lined embankment and a priming reservoir that was far too small to hold a volume of water adequate enough to supply the huge waterfall. Yet the fee that was charged to the client for the project was more than adequate to design and install the water feature properly from the beginning.
Though several design changes were necessary, the most dramatic and important was the simple removal of the mass of hideous small rocks that littered the hillside. We replaced them with eighteen to twenty massive and beautiful boulders. The result: an awesome cascade waterfall fit for a wedding.
Balance the size of the feature with the size of the materials, using high quality well-manufactured components and you will not go wrong in the implementation of your water feature designs.
The same issue with size can be true when it comes to streams. Many times have I seen a relatively attractive water feature design, only to have my attention drawn to the disproportionate size of the stream.
A forty-foot long stream averaging three or four feet across just doesn't look appropriate flowing into a small five-foot diameter pool of water. This again comes down to balance. One solution is to place the long streambed so that the entire stream is not completely visible from any one vantage point. This can be accomplished by designing large sweeping turns or bends in your streams or by selectively placing large boulders or plant material to partially hide portions of the stream. Conscious placement also encourages guests to interact with the water feature.
If the water feature is not completely visible from any one point, it will draw people in; give them treats and treasures for their efforts . When someone takes the extra effort to walk around and explore your water features, you can reward them with a previously unseen stretch of white water rapids hidden behind a boulder or a cool shady pool laced with moss and ferns.
The RISE method has been successfully utilized in the planning and installation of thousands of actively operating water features throughout the world, on some of the most natural-appearing designs ever created. 'RISE' above your competitors by providing proper balance of materials through great designs; RISE to the challenge of building better water features with superior quality manufactured components and then continue to RISE by striving to reach that next level of proficiency through continuing education.
When we stop learning, we stop being a viable and functioning part of this great industry. Advancing your knowledge of design will greatly improve the appearance of your water features, your reputation as a designer/installer and will allow you to reap the financial rewards of quality water feature construction.