Pro rules

By Helen M. Stone

California Aqua Pros follow state regulations while building a water feature that stands out.

Photos: California Aqua Pros

Clients crave professionalism. With an increasingly automated society, the hallmarks of superior service are friendly acknowledgment, rapid response and timely follow-up, instead of standard procedure.

California Aqua Pros have proven the value of professionalism for more than 25 years. Greg and Marlo Purkey honed their customer service skills to create a thriving business, enhancing the lives and landscapes of their clients. Serving the entire San Francisco Bay Area, they built a network of contractors and friends who assist their company design and install unique gardens and water features.

Covering nine counties and 101 municipalities throughout the Bay Area, each with their own rules and regulations, every job demands its own set of permits and constraints. “We need to get a license for every city we work in, and they are usually only good for a year,” Marlo says. At any given moment, they hold at least a dozen licenses. “They all have very different requirements, and it’s constantly changing. Before we even bid a project, we need to see exactly what is allowed, and not.”

Building a Tribe

Greg and Marlo were high school sweethearts in central California and moved to the Bay Area after they were married. “My father and grandfather were both in the pool industry,” Greg says. Although he was successful sticking to swimming pools, after getting a taste of the extra beauty and excitement a water feature can offer, he started “dabbling in ponds.”

Always a fan of continued education, Greg Purkey discovered Greg Whittstock and Aquascape Inc., a pond-building company based in St. Charles, Illinois. Whittstock was a pond and turtle lover who founded his company in 1991 to build and design water features, waterfalls and ecologically balanced ponds. Whittstock eventually devised a system to share with others, as well as a complete product line of biofilters and skimmers that keep water features running clean and clear.

Now known as “The Pond Guy,” Whittstock has built a network of pond professionals using proven systems and products to ensure both customer satisfaction and contractor profits. “What they are doing right is offering training,” says Greg Purkey.

“We meet once a year with other Aquascape contractors,” Marlo says. “There’s lots of camaraderie and ideas exchanged. We’re all from different areas, so we’re not competing. We can openly share information. We call it the tribe!”

The Purkeys are proud tribe leaders. “Last year we were the third largest contractor in the world for Aquascape,” Greg says. California Aqua Pros have consistently been one of the top 10 contractors through the last decade for the manufacturer.

Greg originally produced all the designs on paper, but in the past year, the company has hired a dedicated designer. “We met Jorge Castellanos at an educational event. It was a good match and he has been with us for over a year now,” says Marlo. The company employs seven people.

While California Aqua Pros performs the actual pond and water feature design and installation, other parts of the job are contracted out to the company’s wide network of professionals. “We sub out a lot of our big projects,” Greg says. “We have a concrete guy for concrete, and a paver guy for pavers. We work with multiple landscape contractors throughout the area. We have four or five different contractors we can use for the irrigation, depending on the location. We try to stick to companies who are specialists in their field.”

Marlo ensures that all subcontractors are thoroughly vetted before they ever set foot on a job site. “We’re audited every six months, so we need to be sure that everyone is updated, licensed and insured,” says Marlo. “We need to be sure that all contractors have proper liability, workers’ comp and all the other requirements.”

Doing the Work

Government regulations played a big part in one of the couple’s most interesting jobs of late. The call for a massive water feature, plus a complementary front-yard design, was a bit above-and-beyond for the company, but they were up for the challenge.

“We met at a home show, before their house was even built,” Greg says. “They did it right, getting us in at the design stage. I met them on-site when there was nothing but the slab for the house poured.”

The front-yard landscape was one of the biggest hurdles. “The city had preapproved the front-yard landscapes by the developer, but our client wanted something beyond the cookie-cutter gardens offered,” says Greg. “The developer gave them a choice of only a few plants, and if you look down the street, every front yard looks exactly the same. They wanted more.”

The client had a sound working knowledge of plants and wanted color and style. “We installed dry-stack boulder walls in the front that meandered around the walkway and drive, and they created some great terraced planting areas,” Greg says. “She wanted colorful foliage as well as flowers.”

Little did they know that it would require satisfying an obstacle course of rules and regulations to upgrade the front-yard landscape design. “The city required a detailed plan with all plants labeled as to water requirements,” says Greg.

The Purkeys created a complete plan that checked all of the boxes, including bringing in other irrigation experts, Greg says. “They required us to hire a certified irrigation auditor to perform and audit and complete a report before they would sign off.”

The regulatory obstacles in the front yard made the massive project in the back seem simple in comparison. The water feature itself was 18 feet by 24 feet and required a substantial raised wall. “They had a huge ‘California room’ along the whole back side of the building, so it feels like the waterfall is literally falling into the house,” Greg says. The doors to the room open up, bringing the outdoors into the living space.

But there’s plenty of living space outdoors around the water feature as well. A dining area and a fire pit create an irresistible invitation for entertaining and lounging. “Of course we had to pull permits to run the gas line to the fire pit,” says Marlo.

The client had design demands for the backyard as well. “She had a pond at her previous home and loved it. There was a black panther sculpture that she was bringing with her, and she wanted a great spot for it on the slope somewhere. It was almost life-sized — it’s huge,” Greg says.

“We put it next to the waterfall, and for nighttime viewing we put a light on its face. It actually looks kind of menacing!” he jokes.

As well as design challenges, the company faced a few other issues. “We had time constraints and scheduling challenges as well,” Marlo says.

“We hit a bunch of shale during the excavation process, so we had to use a jackhammer,” says Greg. “We made special accommodations to protect the liner for the pond, because the rock was fairly sharp.”

The weather provided a few setbacks as well. “We started right around the same time the rainy season did, about December, and by February we were a little behind because of the rains,” says Greg. “But we had already done all the gas line work and concrete work, so we were able to catch up.”

“We say in our contracts that one day of rain can cause up to seven days of delay,” Greg says. “That’s mainly because if we hit a downpour and we’re doing excavation, it’s just a mess. Typically a day or two of rain isn’t bad, but if we have clay and have excavated, you can’t move it around, and it sticks to everything.

“The excavation and concrete pour were massive,” Greg says. The project used nearly 80 tons of rock, all set by hand. “Like many new developments, there was only about a 4-foot access on either side of the house to the back, so equipment use was limited. We hand dug, using jackhammers with spades on them, and brought out the soil by hand. After we put the liner in, all those tons of boulders were brought in using just a dolly and a wheelbarrow.”

Once the boulders were in the back, they needed to be hoisted up to create a structure for the waterfall and outline for the pond. “We use special planks used for high-rise building scaffolding because they are very durable. We use them to span the waterfalls and roll the boulders up them. It’s a tedious process,” he says.

“The boulders were set so they could mesh perfectly,” says Greg. “It ended up looking very organic and natural.” And the clients loved it.

After more than a quarter century at work, Greg and Marlo still greet each day with enthusiasm and professionalism. What is the key to success? “Education, education, education,” says Greg. “Never stop learning. We spend a lot of money every year on continued education.”

“Don’t take shortcuts,” Marlo says. “You have to follow the rules. It’s not always fun at the time, but the end results are so worth it!”

Helen M. Stone is a freelance writer based in northern California covering the green industry for more than two decades.