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Making a Mountain Haven

For 35 years, landscape artist Martin Mosko has specialized in designing and installing highly customized watershapes and landscapes that harmonize with their environments.  In this project, the client asked him to create a high-altitude paradise that would make the most of its dramatic surroundings – and Mosko responded with a pool, pond, stream and waterfall complex in which everything seems absolutely right at home.
For 35 years, landscape artist Martin Mosko has specialized in designing and installing highly customized watershapes and landscapes that harmonize with their environments. In this project, the client asked him to create a high-altitude paradise that would make the most of its dramatic surroundings – and Mosko responded with a pool, pond, stream and waterfall complex in which everything seems absolutely right at home.
By Martin Mosko

I see gardens as entire worlds unto themselves – as complete and alive and distinct rather than as simple decorative extensions of architecture.  Whatever form they might take, these spaces should carry us back into the peaceful parts of ourselves and to the calm, clear realms of our minds and spirits.  

This outlook has, in my role as founder and principal of Marpa Design Studio of Boulder, Colo., led me to consider landscapes as integrated wholes rather than as cobbled assemblies of solutions to various problems.  It’s a positive philosophy and design approach that is fully on display in the project depicted on these pages.

I was recommended by the architect, who was working with the owners of this sprawling Rocky Mountain estate on a major renovation of both the home and the surrounding land.  From the start, I was told there was just one major theme in mind:  The home and its surroundings were to look as natural as possible – as though everything had arisen organically from the roots of the mountains.  

Neither house nor grounds possessed that spirit at the time, and the landscape was particularly deficient.  Indeed, the only pre-existing feature was a cracked 20-by-40-foot swimming pool on the south side of the home, leaving me with an enormous and basically blank canvas.

I knew good things were on the way when I met the owner and discovered we had a shared affection for rock:   He’s a trained geologist and was as passionate as I was about using natural materials in ways that let them harmonize with their surroundings.  

WATER WOES

As we surveyed the site, he mapped out his vision of a garden that would seem as though it had been put there by nature.  The pool was to be long enough for a full-scale swim lane for his daughter, a serious competitive swimmer.  It would also have a deck large enough for elaborate entertaining as well as a waterslide he didn’t actually want to be able to see but did want to enjoy.  

After carefully listening to the client, I spend a great deal of time on the site and a vision emerged of the garden that I then expressed in a model.  After studying the model, we refined the design – a process that, among other things, saw the pool shortened by 15 feet from the west side at the owner’s request.

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It’s ironic given the fact that we were working on a 165-acre property, but the construction process for this project was complicated because of the narrow space in which we had to work to keep the pool within the home’s water district. Once we overcame the access issues, we still had to deal with big stone and the sheer size of the pool and related structures.

It was all making sense, and then he told me the bad news:  The 165-acre property, he said, was a combination of two adjoining parcels that straddled two water districts.  The house itself is located within the town of Genesee, which has limited water supplies and strict water regulations.  Under the rules, he told me, if you have a pool or any other type of watershape, you must use their water and that water cannot be used in any other district.  

This meant that, despite the extent of the property, whatever watershapes we might install all had to be located close enough to the house (and its Genesee water service) that no parts of them would cross lines into the neighboring water district’s turf.  Immediately, my big blank canvas become considerably smaller, and I saw that I would be creating the naturalistic exteriors we’d been discussing within a relatively confined, definitely busy and distinctly architectural space.   

The owner’s love of stone and my decision that it was to be a major player in the design saved the day, giving us the avenue we needed to make visual connections between the home and the rugged, mountain-themed surroundings we’d been discussing.  Using indigenous granite, we would ultimately prepare a visually engaging series of structures in and around the pool that extended well into the surrounding space.  

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Just off the home’s south side, we built a large deck/patio space encompassed by a stream and waterfall system. In keeping with basic principles of feng shui, the water follows a clockwise course as it traverses a significant drop through boulders and wildflowers.

We sited the pool on the west side of the home to take advantage of the magnificent view of the Continental Divide available in that direction.  Not only did this tuck the pool neatly within the Genesee district, but it also let us borrow the distant views and establish the watershape as the unifying element in an exterior design in which a mountain river would flow around the house before widening (and only seeming) to flow into a naturalistic “swimming hole” where the grade flattened to the west.  

As with all gardens, it was important for us to establish boundaries, set visual limits and contain the energy of the space.  We did so in this case by using the home to the east and tall, existing trees to the north.  To the south, we would be crafting a retaining wall made of boulders and trees, while the vanishing edge of the swimming pool serves as the fourth, western boundary:  Although these features establish physical and visual limits, the views are wide open to the west above the pool so there’s no practical sense of confinement.  

In our offices, we refer to this phenomenon as “connecting the microcosm of the built landscape with the macrocosm of the existing natural landscape.”  To us, this is the key to conjuring the sense that the work we’re doing has always been there, has always been part of the mountainous scenery.

SELLING THE DRAMA

At the south of the house – outside the kitchen in the space near where the old pool once stood – we installed an upper deck that leads down to a patio surrounded with the sight and sounds of moving water.  There’s a small, hidden pond near the top of the driveway that serves as the source for a stream that flows down in a sequence of turns that embrace the patio.  This water follows a clockwise path – excellent feng shui – and moves along a boulder-strewn course softened by plants and wildflowers.

We placed the entrance to the waterslide at the edge of the patio, making it resemble the access to an abandoned mine.  From here, the slide runs right through the heart of the waterfall-carved mountain we devised before emerging into the pool.  (The waterfall itself is part of a separate system that appears to flow into the pool but actually doesn’t.)  

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Boulders and waterfalls mark the intently naturalistic transition between the upper deck and the pool level. The interesting thing is that we built this composition twice – once to define the extent of the support structure we’d need and then again after the rocks had been removed and the base prepared. One of our goals here was to hide the slide that snakes its way through the waterfall structure: All that’s visible now are the entrance and exit, both of which have been framed in timbers to look like abandoned mine shafts.

As suggested above, the client knew the addition of the slide was an aesthetic risk; we minimized its potential intrusiveness by burying it beneath tons of stone.  And I mean tons:  Some of the boulders we used in this area weighed up to 70,000 pounds each, and we massed them in such a way that they’ve become their own view, blocking off visual access to the pool from the patio.  The use of these massive boulders allowed us to make the entire mountainous waterfall feature quite natural-looking.  

These 16- to 18-foot boulders, by the way, are backed by a 12-foot concrete retaining wall that cannot be seen in the finished landscape.  Once the boulders were placed, we backfilled with soil between them and the concrete wall.  We then planted the gap heavily and covered the upper edge of the retaining wall with cantilevered Bluestone.

The most noteworthy feature of construction of the waterfall/slide mountain is that we actually built it twice: access was so restricted that we couldn’t get a crane to the west side of the house to set the rocks.  Instead, we brought in the largest excavator in Colorado, which arrived in parts in two semi-truckloads and took a week to assemble on site.  Once the swimming pool area was excavated to the desired depth, we set all the boulders for the waterfall.  

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The pool has a broad, deep well for a reason:  The owner was keenly interested in being able to dive from the wooden platform we’d planned on installing, but once he saw the big boulders, he also wanted us to make certain he could safely take the plunge from the stones that encircle the south side of the pool.

We carefully numbered, photographed, and documented the boulders’ various dimensions and positions, then removed them all and stored them at the edge of the site.  This enabled us to build a waterproof concrete substructure and the engineered support wall that would stand behind the boulders.    

Once this was accomplished, we used the excavator to build a temporary road up the mountainside and to convey the stones from the delivery trucks.  This meant we didn’t have to disassemble the excavator; it also gave us a means to get a crane to the job site and use it to reset the boulders in their proper places with considerably greater ease than we’d experienced the first time around.  Once the boulders were set and shimmed exactly as we wanted, we filled the gaps between them with shrink-proof shotcrete.

Once the owner saw the big boulders in place, he wanted to be able to dive off them.  For safety, this required a diving well 16 feet deep.  Given the fact we were already cutting into the grade, this meant the hole for the shell in this area was 29 feet deep and led to creation of one of the most impressive steel cages for the pool and its retaining wall that I’ve ever seen.

BACK TO THE WATER

In organizing the waterworks for efficient operation, we established two separate water systems – one for the pool, waterslide and the small pond that spills over into the pool from the upper patio via two scuppers in the central stone wall; the other for the stream/waterfall system.  The motivation here was entirely practical:  This division allows the client to heat and filter the pool independently to save on energy and maintenance costs.  

The pool is heated with a custom-designed heat-exchanger that warms the pool to comfortable swimming temperatures for three seasons and allows the water to be kept just above freezing during cold months so our client and his family can enjoy their beautiful pool on a year-round basis.  All equipment is hidden in a giant vault buried 12 feet under the original grade at the southwest end of the pool.

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There are several ways to get from the upper level down to the pool, its deck and views of the stones that break through the pool’s irregularly shaped perimeter in several key places. Our desire was to create the impression that this was a mountain lake that had always been there – and if questions to the owner from his guests are any indication, it seems we did a fair job of making the visuals work.

The pool itself is irregularly shaped to maintain the illusion that it’s a mountain lake, and boulders spill over its edges and appear in the water as well.  Engineering the shell to carry the extra load imposed by the boulders was a painstaking process.  It was very helpful that by the time we were setting these stones, the crane was on site and available for use.

Near the vanishing edge of the swimming pool is a hidden bonus:  a ledge large enough for two that lets bathers lounge with their bodies submerged and their heads above the water.  This platform rises in depth relative to the surface from six to 12 inches, so each bather can decide exactly how much exposure to the sun is desired.

Throughout the process, we knew that stone-setting was an important part of the design of the pool and the key to the way things would look from various vantage points inside the house.  In particular, we considered the view from the home’s “great room” on the second level:  It is well above the pool and opens onto a balcony that takes advantage of every vista.  

Recognition

In the end, everyone involved in the project described in the accompanying text was thrilled with the results and the sheer joyousness of the space we created.  

Although our personal satisfaction was quite sufficient, I’m pleased to report that we at Marpa Design Studio earned some professional kudos as well, winning the Tucker Award from the Building Stone Institute for excellence in the use of natural stone; a Merit Award for Residential Design from the American Society of Landscape Architects; and a Grand Award of Excellence from the Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado.

M.M.

By design, we wanted to extend the pool far enough out from the house that it could be seen from inside the great room, but that proved impractical because of the steepness of the slope and the expense and difficulty that would have been involved in building retaining walls to make things work in the ways we wanted.  There were also the ten-foot waterfall scuppers to consider – another factor that limited the visual depth we could practically achieve.

At this point, we had to evaluate the balancing act we were trying to accomplish between the width, depth and height of the water relative to the house and recognized that we couldn’t build the pool with enough width that it could be seen directly from inside the great room – especially give the fact that the balcony had a railing that was definitely in the way.  Helpfully, the architect went back to one of his original ideas, revising the balcony to step down from the level of the great room, thereby lowering the railing enough to pull the pool’s vanishing edge into view and make the sight lines work.

As completed, the side of the pool with the vanishing edge stands about 18 feet above grade.  Its shell was engineered to stand on its own, but to give the structure a natural look from below, we added a “retaining wall” made of boulders and established numerous planting pockets among the stones.  

NATURAL BALANCE

Although the water in any landscape is a magical and important element, we see it as just one of five we consider along with earth, pathways, stopping places, plants and space.  To succeed, a project must balance all of these elements in scale with each other, the home and the surrounding landscape.  This doesn’t mean that each element takes up 20 percent of the space; rather, it means that each must have enough presence to work properly with the others.  

In this landscape, for example, the water occupies a great deal of the physical space.  That dominance, however, is balanced by the fact that the water is reflective – a quality we enhanced by finishing the pool’s interior with a black Diamond-Brite plaster from SGM (Pompano Beach, Fla.) – and repeats the presence of the tall surrounding trees, boulders, and plants as well as the house.  In other words, the water doesn’t stand alone: it engages all other elements in the space.  

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We did all we could in this project to put great beauty within easy reach in the form of stone structures, a mountain lake, waterfalls and more, but when all is said and done, our work was about surrounding a beautiful home with an exterior environment that provided worthy transitions from architectural to natural spaces while taking full and primary advantage of breathtaking views to the Continental Divide in the distance.

And in any event, it’s not all water.  There’s plenty of entertainment space in this landscape, from the Pennsylvania Bluestone patio spaces on the upper level to the area around the pool.  There’s also a fire pit near the waterslide’s entrance, and there’s an expansive verandah near the top of the space that’s high enough on the hill that the view from its spa captures the view across the pool and into the mountains and forests beyond.

As is true in any space where architecture and naturalistic landscapes come together, visual transitions should be as graceful as possible.  In this case, we used a ten-foot-tall stone wall and sweeps of steps leading down to the pool, borrowing the look of the home’s façade and using granite to ease the visual shift from the built to the seemingly “natural” space.  

Our ambition in all of this was to conjure the thought that the house had been built to take advantage of a naturally occurring stream and mountain pool the homeowners had happened across in surveying their property.  By the time we finished our work and erased all traces of our construction activities and the temporary access road, we’d created just such a compelling illusion: frequently, our client tells us, his guests will ask him how he happened upon such a beautiful spot for his house and wonder how in the world he managed to build it amid all the outcroppings and boulders and waterways.

That’s his little secret – and a source of great pride for us.

 

Martin Mosko is president and principal of Marpa Design Studio, a landscape architecture company he founded in 1974 in Boulder, Colo.  A graduate of Yale University, he is also an ordained Zen Buddhist monk and abbot of Hakubai Temple.  He has designed and built award-winning gardens throughout the United States and is co-author of the book Landscape as Spirit:  Creating a Contemplative Garden (Weatherhill, 2003).   Mosko’s work  has also been published in numerous magazines and books, including Sunset, Better Homes & Gardens, Spirituality & Health, Garten Praxis (Germany) and Natural Home.

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