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Cascading Insights

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This past April, my wife Gina and I spent two wonderful weeks in Hawaii.

As is true of most of those who visit our 50th state, we were mainly there to relax and enjoy warm weather, tropical Pacific waters, breathtaking scenery, fine cuisine and laid-back Hawaiian culture. As has been the case for countless others who’ve been there, we were not disappointed: Hawaii is everything people have said it is and much, much more.

As a watershape designer, I had the added pleasure of being able to study a huge number of waterfalls and streams that mark many of the islands’ most appealing landscapes, particularly on Maui and Kauai. It was one of those happy situations where my professional life merged with the personal pleasure I take in getting out in nature – a confluence that made the experience all the more rewarding.

Specifically, the trip gave me a great excuse to indulge my abiding interest in how water works in natural landscapes. Waterfalls, streams and ponds have always fascinated me: In my Hawaiian “laboratory,” I had a chance to focus on nature’s handiwork in ways I’m certain will influence my work for years to come.


This notion of the value of studying nature to inspire watershape design is, of course, anything but new: Landscape architects, pond/stream specialists, Japanese gardening aficionados and a host of people from other design disciplines often espouse the importance of studying nature as a primary educational resource.

That makes perfect sense for those who aspire to create naturalistic ponds and streams. In fact, without these explorations, it would be impossible to be successful in such endeavors: To replicate nature, you must first understand it in great depth, detail and nuance.

For those of us from the pool/spa side of the watershaping universe, however, it might be said that the need for such familiarity is less certain. After all, most of our designs are architectural in character, and even in cases where we use naturalistic design elements, we usually do so in symbolic, representational ways. Indeed, only a very small number of swimming pools succeed in mimicking nature so completely that any observer would be confused about the humanity of the source.

This begs the question: What is there to gain in studying nature if what we do for a living is design Grecian-, Contemporary- or Modernist-style bodies of water?

To me, the answer is simple: When you take the time to look at the wonders of nature with an open heart and an open mind – as I did during my recent trip – you walk away with an armful of ideas that are extremely inspiring as well as enormously practical.

While on the road, we often stopped to watch waterfalls rolling down huge rock faces – often as relatively slight volumes that seemed to split, reunite and rebreak into fresh flows and were flanked by other falls that seemed to come out of nowhere.

It all spins off the fact that, in a place like Hawaii, water is the dominant, centermost element just about everywhere you turn. Surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and shot through by countless watercourses, there are no aspects of Hawaiian culture and its appeal to visitors that are not directly related to water.

Resorts compete for visitors with lavish pool environments and sweeping ocean views. Surfing, scuba diving, snorkeling, fishing and windsurfing are at the core of the active visitor’s agenda and speak to the heart of the islands’ drama, mystique and attitude. Beyond that, water truly is what creates the joy in Hawaii’s landscapes along with a sense of constant discovery and amazing visual appeal.

Speaking for myself, the places I saw put me very much in contact with a recognition that my basic function as a watershaper is to provide my clients with similar opportunities for joy, discovery and visual engagement in all sorts of aquatic environments.

With that profound backdrop, let’s step out into the Hawaiian landscape and consider some of the “technical” lessons nature has to offer in places such as this.


One of the big highlights of our April trip was a sojourn along the famous Road to Hana. A perennial favorite on any tour of Maui, this winding thoroughfare takes you into the heart of wild Hawaii through lavish jungle landscapes, across breathtaking cliff faces and past countless waterfalls. (If you were to stop at every set of falls and consider them with a designer’s eye, it would probably take several days to make the trip there and back.)

We stopped at several points along the way, with Gina waiting patiently as I took scores of photographs and spent quality time considering the subtleties of these places. The more I saw and heard, the more I recognized that this experience would not only prove to be influential but would also be both valuable and indispensable.

First, for all their visual beauty, Maui’s waterfalls serve as a sort of aural studio where you hear just how varied and important an element the sound of falling water can be. Although I’d be hard-pressed to identify the most important of all the design lessons I picked up during this trip, I am perfectly willing to say that the things I learned about sound were definitely the most unexpected.

In the world of watershapes in general but especially with swimming pools, the sound spectrum we generally work with is extremely limited compared to what we encounter in nature. We tend to think in terms of edges and weirs and nozzles and pushing water from one level to another as ends in themselves: Even when we build waterfalls that spill into lagoon-style pools, our treatment of the medium tends to focus on the visual with scant attention to the sounds the water makes.

We kept encountering waterfalls that, in the context of common naturalistic watershaping, made nature seem playful and staggeringly ‘creative’ – as it this place, where a gushing torrent is joined by a trickling flow just before it reaches a pond.

Happily, nature plays by a different set of rules dictated by the available volume of water, the nature of surrounding rock and plant material, the pitch of the slope, the course of erosion and the influence of seismic and volcanic activity. What we see on the Road to Hana is mind-blowing variety that exceeds anything the average pool designer would encompass in approaching any given project.

Speaking for myself, I was blown away by how waterfalls will send small sprays or rivulets across the faces of large rock formations, creating sounds unlike anything I’ve ever heard in the presence of a pool, spa or fountain. These side-streams provide undertones that lend depth, variety and odd resonance to the sounds made by the steadier rush of the larger, more coherent flows that make up the main part of these streams.

It’s like a dance: It’s great to enjoy the visuals and the way the water splashes, divides, recombines, tumbles and flows, but when you start listening with the same intensity with which you’re watching and begin to perceive the range from near-silent to nearly deafening, you get caught up in the moment and become part of the scene in amazing, joyful ways.

In the most practical terms, listening to this infinite symphony has taught me that I need to consider the sounds my work generates in far greater detail. In many cases, I suspect that my watershapes make more noise than they should and that there’s too much uniformity in their auditory range. My sense now is that while these sounds can be novel and enjoyable for a while, over time I fear that they might become monotonous and too aggressive for comfort.

That’s definitely not what I want to do! After listening to the falls on Hawaii, I’m going to experiment much more with “tuning” my systems and tailoring both sights and sounds to suit the needs of individual settings.


One of the interesting things about the sound of moving water is how distinctly it ties into its appearance. Water spilling over the edge of a uniform weir makes aural and visual impressions that are, to me as a watershaper who has seen hundreds if not thousands of such details, entirely and inextricably linked in my memory.

What I found along the Road to Hana is that nature works across an almost infinite set of random variables that make the observer abandon assumptions and think about the relationship of aquatic sights and sounds in completely different ways. Returning to that abovementioned trickle of a side stream flowing over that large stone and the unexpected extent of its contribution to the majesty of the main flow: The impression it made by barely wetting the stone surface alongside a vast torrent of water is one I’ll never forget.

As I see it now, pool designers and builders tend to send flows of water over natural or artificial rock structures that we “scale” to the size of the hardscape, going with big flows with big rocks and easier flows with smaller ones. Nature certainly doesn’t work that way and doesn’t care at all whether a formation of large rocks boasts either a flood of water or a trickle. My intention now is to consider the scale of the water as a separate issue from the scale of my rockwork and see where a more nuanced approach carries me.

And the lesson doesn’t apply just to naturalistic settings: In fact, I see it as being just as important in architectural designs. I know that a few watershapers (including my friend and Genesis 3 partner David Tisherman) have gone a long way toward reshaping the way we think about spillways and issues of relative scale between water flows and the structures that surround them, but until I saw what I saw on the Road to Hana, I lacked a visceral understanding of why it was so important.

Another point: Nature has an amazing way of combining and distributing stone material of various sizes. Time after time, I saw huge boulders and imposing formations juxtaposed with small stones and even pebbles. As evidence of erosion, stone tumbling and other natural forces, this near-infinite variation in sizes creates tremendous visual interest. I recall standing in one spot watching a large waterfall cascading down a cliff face across huge boulders; when I moved in for a closer look, I saw a clear pool filled with pebbles. With just a few steps, I rewarded myself with a second, distinctly different aesthetic experience.

At other times, I saw small boulders positioned at the foot of large, sheer waterfalls in such a way that they created secondary cascades – and immediate visual contrasts with the falling sheets of water. In these and countless other situations, not only does this arrangement of stone material provide contrasts in scale, but also different textures as the water moves over, around and through the formations. All in one space, I was treated to views of aerated whitewater; sheer sheets of water; quiescent, reflective surfaces; and uneven rills and runnels of water flowing swiftly across the rocky bottom.


During our trip, Gina and I visited waterways up close on the Road to Hana and along other trails, but while we were on Kauai we took the opportunity to board a helicopter for a tour of an array of waterfalls that are basically inaccessible to average tourists.

In most cases, of course, man-made watershapes do not reach the scale of a waterfall so immense that you need to be airborne to take everything in, but even here I found that even the largest of the waterfalls we saw are marked by the same sort of variability and variety I observed on the ground at eye level. In all cases, nature moves water through topography in unexpected ways, large and small, that are simply engrossing to anyone with eyes open to the possibilities.

(As a side note, I found myself comforted by the fact that even in a state as well traveled as Hawaii, there are still wild places that have been left entirely to nature – locations reachable only with miles of difficult hiking or by aircraft. The fact that we go to such extremes simply to see these places speaks eloquently of the profound importance and fascination of moving water.)

I was fascinated by places in which I saw all of water’s potential appearances captured in a single scene: Sheer sheets, aerated whitewater, reflective surfaces and surging flows all visible, all at once, within the span of a few feet.

In the helicopter and on the land, I also learned something of the profundity of a principle espoused tirelessly by landscape architects – that is, the power of concealing and revealing views. The falls of Hawaii provide tremendous examples of this fundamental design concept, and I see with greater clarity than ever before that it can be applied to great effect in almost any type of design.

In many ways, this concept cuts back to one of the keystones that has driven the content of this magazine as well as our work in developing programs for Genesis 3: Watershapes and the landscape are not separate and must instead exist in context and together.

Natural landscapes such as those I saw in Hawaii serve as vast, living examples of this principle. Whether from the air at a distance or on foot in close proximity, I was always struck by the way plants interacted with stone and water and, in many cases, beautifully obscured and sometimes completely hid parts of the scene.

In many places, for example, I could see a portion of the falls but had to move to another location (often just a few feet away) to avoid greenery that kept me from taking in the entire scene. Once in my new location, I’d often find that I needed to move again, because this new viewpoint led me to discover adjunct formations or new sets of pond and cascades. In these settings, I inevitably found that I was rewarded for using my feet.

It made me consider the common fact that with pools and spas as well as fountains, there’s a near-irresistible tendency to present entire scenes that are completely visible from various primary viewpoints. Now I’m thinking that, by arranging spaces with elements that shelter views (plants, fences, hardscape structures, rock formations), I’ll be able to do a far better job of generating a sense of anticipation and reward by not showing everything off all at once.


In a sense, I felt as if the explosive greenery of Hawaii was working on me in much the same way as wrapping on birthday presents or, at the risk of revealing too much about myself, a woman’s lingerie: The object of interest is beautiful to begin with, but you know there’s something hidden from view that’s even more exciting. The anticipation is what makes the journey of discovery so compelling.

I witnessed similar processes of revelation in Hawaii and enjoyed the fact that the sense of discovery is enhanced not only by what’s right in front of you, but also by what lies beyond the primary views. In other words, as you move up one of these bodies of water to higher elevations, what was once a backdrop becomes a new foreground – a tranquil pool above raging falls, perhaps, or another set of waterfalls unseen from below as you moved uphill.

In nature, of course, that chain of discoveries can flow on for miles – but even scaled down to backyards, this concept of backdrops creating interest that reaches mysteriously beyond the primary vignette strikes me as being extremely useful. Designing with backdrops in mind, for example, opens up the potential of using distant views as design elements. Our work may stop at the property line, but rather than creating a visual boundary in the form of a fence, maybe we can alter the barrier by planting it with vines that lead us to enjoy the greenery of distant hills or mountains.

Nature, of course, also has a distinct tendency to do things in ways we’d never attempt in our work simply because they look fake, disruptive and entirely man-made.

I saw places where water gathered in channel and ponds where I knew that if a watershaper had done this, I’d have critiqued it as a terrible mistake – but here it is, right in front of me, as natural as could be. On the one hand, it makes me feel empowered to do something jarring or discordant; on the other, I have the sense that such liberties can reasonably be taken only by Mother Nature herself and that I have no standing to do so in my designs. Regardless of what my hands tell me, however, the ideas are there and will almost certainly express themselves in ways I can’t anticipate.

Was this trip worth it? In a word, yes – despite the fact I had a touch of the flu that kept us from doing everything we’d planned. These journeys are incredibly valuable not just for taking you away from the day-to-day press of business, but also for the opportunities they give you to observe and learn.

Brian Van Bower runs Aquatic Consultants, a design firm based in Miami, Fla., and is a co-founder of the Genesis 3 Design Group; dedicated to top-of-the-line performance in aquatic design and construction, this organization conducts schools for like-minded pool designers and builders. He can be reached at [email protected].

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