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Modern Movements

Moving water has an uncanny ability to soothe and refresh no matter where you find it, observe watershapers Sheri and Roger Soares II– but, they quickly add, it has a special power in arid, desert environments, where its appearance is both unexpected and reassuring.  That’s why their projects almost always include water-in-transit effects, from subtle spillways or runnels to complex vanishing edges or perimeter overflows.
Moving water has an uncanny ability to soothe and refresh no matter where you find it, observe watershapers Sheri and Roger Soares II– but, they quickly add, it has a special power in arid, desert environments, where its appearance is both unexpected and reassuring. That’s why their projects almost always include water-in-transit effects, from subtle spillways or runnels to complex vanishing edges or perimeter overflows.
By Sheri & Roger Soares II

It’s not unusual for watershapers to have their signatures.  For some, these noteworthy effects extend from their educations and personal design preferences, while for others, inspiration comes from distinctive qualities found in local landscapes or from tailoring designs to suit the characters of their clients.

In our case, we at Hydroscapes (Fountain Hills, Ariz.) pull on all of the above and more in our design work.  

Through the years, we’ve done a lot of projects associated with Contemporary-style architecture – a specialty, perhaps, but not what we’d call a signature.  This work has led us to invest lots of time in studying modern masters including Frank Lloyd Wright and John Lautner – and, as they did, in learning about Japanese garden design and the work of the great Craftsmen architects such as Greene & Greene.

Those influences flow neatly together for us because all of those designers embrace simplicity of line and form as well as elegance in the use of colors and materials.  It doesn’t hurt that these legacies suit our personal tastes as a husband-and-wife design team – and it helps even more that a majority of our clients these days seem to start with similar ideas in mind:  They want straightforward design schemes, rich materials palettes, and colors and textures that draw connections between interiors and exteriors and desert vistas beyond.  

In most cases, however, we up the ante and make certain our projects involve water that moves:  That’s where we’ve developed our own signature.

GUIDING LINES

Before we get down to specifics, however, we need to set a stage the way we set it for our clients.

We’ve found through the years that it can be very difficult to describe in words or even show in photograph the qualities that moving water will bring to a setting and the overall mood it creates for anyone entering the space.  As a result, while our clients may be thinking about or are in some way open to the notion of moving water, relatively few of them have enough familiarity with it to embrace the whole experience.

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‘Our custom spillway systems feature reservoirs that simply fill with water and flow out of the fixture by way of gravity.  As we see it, this creates a more natural-seeming flow of moving and falling water.’

To make this happen, we focus on communication and conveying information and guiding clients toward effective design solutions.  These conversations will vary in detail and complexity from project to project:  It all depends on how far we need to go to open their eyes (and ears) to the possibilities.

In some cases, for example, we start out with relatively vague ideas the clients have, pick up all we can and then nudge them in the direction of some particular concept, whether it’s a runnel or a vanishing edge or a set of spillways.  These are voyages of discovery on both sides, and we’ll work at it until ideas are polished and ready to go.

In other situations, far more practical and specific concerns come into play.  We recently completed a project, for example, with clients whose office complex is located on the flight path of a major airport:  What they wanted most of all was moving water as a source of white noise to mask the sounds of low-flying jets.  They also had a pre-existing block wall that had to stay.

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‘Although these are manifestly architectural features, the gentle flow of water passing along a runnel draws the eye and creates sights and sounds that remind observers of small, natural streams.’

The solution in this case was a waterfeature in which five stainless steel spillways emerged from that wall.  They didn’t want the sound of the water to be overwhelming, so we custom-designed spillways that not only fit perfectly within the pattern of the CMU blocks (and the architecture of the home), but also offered them the flexibility needed to tune the sound of the flowing water to meet their desires.

In this case, the clients had no solution in mind other than that they wanted noise (but not too much of it).  We had to bring them along, educate them about some applicable forms of water in transit, and ultimately guide them to a solution that did a great job of meeting their needs.

In doing so, we never considered off-the-shelf approaches.  In our work, in fact, we rarely use standard fixtures to achieve desired water-in-transit effects because they limit our options with respect to the width of the spillway and the water flow.  For the project just mentioned, for instance, we used custom-fabricated stainless steel troughs that fit perfectly into the existing wall and, perhaps more important, enabled us to determine the water’s behavior.

RUNNING OVER

As a result of these sorts of projects, we’ve developed something of a reputation for innovative, custom work with spillways and runnels – the first strokes in our water-in-transit signature.

We’ve learned a lot along the way about what makes these features tick, and that’s one of the reasons why, as mentioned above, we don’t tend to use manufactured fixtures:  In a lot of cases, these devices are set up so that water is forced out of a system’s manifold – an approach that makes them seem more like nozzles than spillways.  

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‘The principal advantage of these water-in-transit systems is that they create knife edges that visually define the surface of the water – the key to why they work so well in Contemporary designs.’

We’re generally after more subtle effects, so our custom systems feature reservoirs that simply fill with water and flow out of the fixture by way of gravity.  As we see it, this creates a more natural-seeming flow of moving and falling water – something that reminds us (and our clients) of the action of gentle, natural streams or springs even though the fixtures are manifestly architectural.  When water is pushed out under pressure, by contrast, it’s always clear that the flow is artificial.

It’s also our view that standard sheeting waterfalls are very often much too wide for given applications.  As we see it, scale is extremely important, especially in smaller water-in-transit systems, and it’s always important to avoid overwhelming the space with either the visual mass of the sheeting water or the sound it makes.

Much of our insight into these matters can be traced to our appreciation of those who’ve influenced us (see the sidebar just below for more on this subject).  When it comes to spillways, however, we’ve always found specific inspiration in the work of David Tisherman, who for years has advocated the use of multiple, small spillways rather than long, continuous sheets of water.  By breaking up the flow, we have more flexibility in aligning features to scale; beyond that, the multiple flows have the simple advantage of carrying greater visual interest than do single, sheeting falls.

Tracing Inspiration

In our work, we don’t see associating ourselves with “Contemporary” styling as being terribly restrictive, because this category encompasses a huge range of possibilities under an immense conceptual umbrella.  For us, distinction comes from being selective and working with details that can be used in a variety of ways:  These lead us to develop designs that are sufficiently unique to be visually appealing and reflective of both our clients’ specific desires as well as the requirements of given settings.

Where we work in the Phoenix area, however, the harshness of the sun influences the colors and materials we use because they fade and lose their luster far more rapidly here than they do in other places.  And of course, the desert’s color palette drives many of our choices in the first place, making us lean toward natural colors to harmonize with the enveloping landscape.

In our projects, we’re responsible for bringing water into the picture – and we certainly appreciate that there are a huge number of ways to do so while operating under the “Contemporary” banner.  Indeed, as we’ve developed as watershapers and have refined our approaches to variations in style, settings and clients, we’ve found ourselves using a flexible set of design details that have become common to most of our projects.

In general, we now use water’s natural horizontal planes to create reflections and define lines and levels within our landscapes.  The key is that we now almost invariably focus as well on the vertical, making water flow over surfaces, down spillways, into perimeter overflows, through runnels, over vanishing edges or from spas into pools.

These water-in-transit details can be traced to the works of Frank Lloyd Wright and John Lautner, but we’ve also been inspired by the Alhambra in Spain and its use of gravity-driven waterfeatures.  There are also the works of Antoni Gaudi, the amazing Spanish architect:  Although he’s not known for his use of water, there’s a fluidity in his use of line, color and organic shapes that speaks volumes to us.

All are masters when it came to finding different ways to move water from one plane to another in visually striking ways.  

And the value of creating these flows in the midst of a desert cannot be understated:  They provide our Phoenix-area clients with a sense of comfort and repose that’s common to all watershapes with water in motion, but there’s also a symbolic, personal power that comes with making water move in arid places where it typically doesn’t.
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This leads us to the additional observation that our design inspirations reach back well before the 20th Century to include Moorish architecture and the Moroccan and Spanish Colonial styles that have become so popular locally in recent years.  This works for us on several levels, because all of these practitioners and styles – Contemporary, Craftsman, Moorish, Spanish Colonial, Moroccan – engage in rectilinear or otherwise geometric forms and warm colors.  There are differences, of course, but many similarities as well.

It’s in this mix of styles and forms that we find inspiration for our various edges, runnels and spillways.  It is also here that we’ve come to recognize just how still and even stagnant watershapes can seem when there’s no palpable sort of motion.

-- S. & R.S.

There are no rules of thumb here, of course, because the requirements of every project are different.  In many cases, for example, we’ll design these systems with odd numbers of spillway openings and find that these arrays have wonderful senses of balance – but that rule can go out the window on another project depending on whether we’re striving for symmetry, asymmetry or some other visual effect.

We also like spillways because they can be any size and fitted to most any type of watershape in any number of contexts.  We’ll put them in retaining walls, set them up in freestanding structures, place them above spas, insert them into pilasters – almost any vertical plane that rises above a body of water will do.  

On occasion, we’ll vary the distance covered by the water as it flows through the visible part of the spillway troughs.  In some cases, in fact, we deliberately extend these troughs several feet from their points of origin to create runnels.  We do so because we like the contrast:  Although these are manifestly architectural features, the gentle flow of water passing along a runnel draws the eye and creates sights and sounds that remind observers of small, natural streams.

We particularly advocate the use of spillways and runnels in place of the sheeting spillovers so commonly found between spas and pools.  In most cases, we treat spas as distinct sculptural elements that become focal points within overall compositions.  A good spillway treatment enhances that focus and can even drive it by adding special interest and variety to the visual transition.   

ON EDGE

The other “letters” in our signature have to do with the most dramatic of all water-in-transit effects, that is, vanishing edges and perimeter overflows.  Both involve multiple design, engineering and construction challenges that go well beyond the scope of this discussion; suffice it for now to say that we’ve worked with them long enough that we don’t hesitate to bring them into our conversations where they fit settings and clients.  

The principal advantage of these systems is that they create knife edges that visually define the surface of the water – the key to why they work so well in Contemporary designs – and create dramatic visual transitions.  Even though they’re familiar to most designers and many clients by now, they both are still the subjects of limitless fascination.

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‘We appreciate the fact that the subtlety of the visual effects perimeter overflows create completely belies the difficulty of the engineering and construction used to achieve perfectly level wetted edges.’

The trouble with many vanishing edges, in our view, is that they’re misapplied.  The typical design involves water falling away from a home’s primary focal points, thereby linking the surface of the water with distant vistas.  That works beautifully when watershapes overlook oceans or other large bodies of water or, by contrast, offer broad views of valleys or mountain ranges.  Many projects, however, distinctly lack such prized views.

As a result, in most of our projects that call for vanishing edges, we turned the detail around to face the primary focal points:  By having the water flow back toward the observer, we take advantage of the water flowing over the material used to create the edge and finish the dam wall.  These flows, in effect, become beautiful water-wall features that draw the eye into the backyard.  

Special Sensations

No matter whether we’re working with the smallest spillway or the longest vanishing edge, we must inevitably consider sound in designing water-in-transit systems.

It might seem like a stretch, but our approach to sound was first informed by marveling at pyramids:  One of the characteristic of these structures is that they generate a very subtle “white noise” once you’re inside.  This almost imperceptible sound is quite soothing, and studies have shown that people entering pyramids will immediately shed stress and relax.

In a very real sense, the sound of moving water works in much the same way:  We all know that when water flows from one level to another, it’s going to make noise – a fact that hasn’t escaped our clients, many of whom crave those soothing sounds and the relaxing atmosphere they create whether they can see the water or not.

Having worked with these systems for many years, we’ve learned a great deal about how to give the water its “voice” – that is, find ways to draw out a variety of tones and textures to go along with the volume.  (As mentioned in the accompanying text, we seldom use manufactured sheet waterfalls, one of the main reasons being that they create sounds that are too loud for these settings.)

The key is to create enough sound so that it can be heard throughout the space – but not so much that it commands primary attention.  Yes, there may be specific cases where, say, traffic noise must be overcome with a robust flow, but more often than not what’s required is the soft sound of a gentle flow – one that doesn’t echo or reverberate through the space like a Mack truck.

With vanishing edges and perimeter overflows, managing sound is almost always a key consideration.  With vanishing edges, we manage flows so that they wet the edge and the dam wall without creating torrents; with perimeter overflows, we use baffles in our collection troughs to minimize the gurgling, echoing sounds the water can make as it moves into and along the overflow system.

It’s largely a subjective exercise, and we let experience guide us.  Whenever there’s a doubt, however, we’ve always found that although the sound of moving water is a big benefit, in most cases less truly is more.   

-- S. & R.S.

This doesn’t mean losing the vanishing-edge effect:  Indeed, we almost always create secondary viewing locations on the far sides of these yards, rewarding observers who venture out to these seating areas or viewing rocks with the traditional vanishing-edge effect.   

As for perimeter overflows, we respect them as the most complex and costly of all water-in-transit systems and appreciate the fact that the subtlety of the visual effects they create completely belies the difficulty of the engineering and construction used to achieve perfectly level wetted edges.   

As a practical matter, we don’t design and install perimeter overflows where we know that budgets are inflexible:  More than any other watershaping element, these systems involve levels of on-site problem-solving and adjustment that are often difficult to anticipate in early project phases.  The work must be flawless just the same, and that often takes extra time and effort.

GENERATING INTEREST

If there’s a unifying principle that applies to watershapes of all types and styles – Contemporary or Classical, residential or commercial, simple or complex, architectural or naturalistic – it’s that water in a landscape generates interest.  Most of the time, if these watershapes are well devised, that interest is accompanied by sensations of tranquility and relaxation.

In thinking creatively about the use of water flowing from one plane to another, we find ourselves with many options when it comes to developing compelling water-in-transit details within these scenes.  Sometimes the solution is as simple as water flowing from a small scupper into a tiny pond; other times it’s as sweeping as a long vanishing edge or a masterful perimeter overflow.  No matter what comes, by setting water in motion you cause those who experience your watershapes to take notice.

In our case, we’ve used water in transit to expand our palette in, largely, Contemporary-style designs.  What keeps us centered – what helps us maintain the value and integrity of our design signature – is that we keep our focus on the experience of someone sitting next to and enjoying a small stream in the mountains:  That’s a primal appeal, as old as humankind, yet it’s always new and delightful.   

  

Roger Soares II is president of Hyrdoscapes, a custom watershaping firm based in Fountain Hills, Ariz.  His background includes 26 years in residential and commercial construction and extensive experience as a plumber.  He and his wife, Sheri Soares, co-founded Hydroscapes in 1998 as a service and repair firm.  They quickly moved into residential pool and spa design and construction and now focus on providing mostly high-end clients with creative watershape and landscape designs and installations.  She also has a background in real estate development.

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