To me, designing and building ponds and streams is the best job in the world: It offers the professional rare opportunities to shape beautiful compositions that mimic nature and bring joy to those who spend time near the water’s edge. It’s hard work both physically and mentally, but ultimately, it’s profoundly satisfying.
I backed into this business while doing lawn and landscape maintenance work during high school. What I observed on that end of the market was a level of competition so intense that I soon recognized I’d need a specialty if I were to have any chance of pursuing a good career at it.
In surveying the market, I noted that a number of landscaping firms were getting into naturalistic waterfeatures – and that the outcomes frequently looked terrible, even from my novice’s perspective. To get in and out quickly, too many of these operators created systems that bore no resemblance to nature at all: From the rockwork to the way streams cut through spaces, what I saw just didn’t square with what I’d seen in the real world.
These shortcomings spelled opportunity, of course, but I also knew that to stand apart from the rest, I’d need to develop my own skills and deliver work that reached a much higher level than just about
everything I was seeing.
Getting traction on this career path was no small effort. I started out in my parents’ backyard, progressively learning by trial and error as I worked my way through the yards of other family members. It didn’t take long before I decided to give it a try professionally, and I haven’t looked back since I started my firm, Laughing Waters of Palos Park, Ill., in 2003.
My approach is defined by two major factors: First, everything I do is based on my experience of nature. When I was a child, my family did a lot of camping in Colorado and other beautiful places, and I particularly enjoyed spending time near streams and waterfalls and picking up impressions that have stayed with me ever since.
Second, I recognized from the start that, as designers, we must work with what the site gives us. In studying what went wrong with many of the installations I’d seen, I noticed that many of them looked forced: They were often either oversized or undersized for their spaces, and no apparent thought had been given to making the watershapes and the surrounding landscape look like part of a unified, natural environment.
|Our projects engage us in the full range of watershaping activities related to ponds and streams, from excavating basins (and in this case creating an island around an existing tree) to jockeying large rocks into place and establishing appropriate plumbing systems to keep the water flowing.
Looking in the opposite direction, I studied the work of masters who make their watershapes look as though they had been on site before the land was developed. In general terms, their successes had to do with the orientation of a property relative to its surroundings, the natural contours of the land and the scale of the spaces: I came to accept these as my guiding principles and have made them the keys to every creative move I’ve made since.
I also recognized that natural bodies of water exist on their own terms and their own scale, so my challenge has been to learn how to translate natural “patterns” of rock distribution, stream contours and edge formations to confined residential spaces. Soon came acceptance of the fact that I was in a world without guidelines: Every project is different and each has its own set of parameters, so I’ve had to adapt my approaches accordingly and constantly.
Before long, I began to see each composition as having its own story, its own way of declaring how it should be shaped. Whether the tale has to do with the forces of erosion, the random dispersal of stone, fundamental geological activity and/or the influence of plant materials, I’ve seen each story played out in natural systems and do all I can to transfer one or more of them to my clients’ backyards.
Whenever I place a stone or determine the course of a stream or the formations along an edge, I always make sure I’m thinking about the story at hand and where I am in what I’m doing relative to what I’ve see in nature. If I can’t see the narrative thread clearly, I’ll keep making changes until I can.
Of course, I don’t dodge the fact that, at 22 years old, I’m something of an anomaly. I don’t know too many people my age who are tackling independent, creative work on this scale with so much at stake financially.
Building a Narrative
As I see things at this point, age isn’t the issue in getting work as a pond/stream specialist: Whether you’re 22 or 52, this business is all about communication.
Certainly, listening to clients and discerning their wants and needs is a starting point that requires us to open our ears at any age and hear what they have to say. While some of them have fairly distinct ideas about what they want, I’ve found that most don’t fully realize what’s possible – and that’s where our expertise comes into play.
This is why, in early conversations with my clients, I take my time and patiently look for opportunities to inject ideas that come from my own creative experience. More often that not, my low-key suggestions serve simply to open the doors to clients’ imaginations and guide us into more dynamic exchanges of ideas that will lead to results they’ll enjoy for years to come.
When combined with detailed site inspections, these conversations fuel my labors back in my studio. I don’t draw by hand; instead, I rely on my computer and prepare a variety of illustrations to help my clients experience the space in three dimensions. These illustrations usually take the form of two distinct design approaches, giving clients the opportunity to refine their thinking, recombine design elements and get a real grasp of the possibilities.
The purpose here isn’t to develop exact, literal representations of the project; rather, it’s about lending definition to a narrative in which my clients are engaged as we begin the glorious process of bringing ponds and streams to their backyards.
The way I see it, however, I had little to lose in reaching for the brass ring while still in college. I had no mouths to feed other than my own and saw no need to limit the risks I could take; I also had the energy, strength and stamina to work extremely hard for days on end and found that I enjoyed the growing sense of self-reliance: If something went wrong on a project and I lost money – which happened (and still happens) from time to time – the only person compromised financially was me.
In that sense, my career path has always made sense. I have an aptitude for the work, and although I’m proud of what I’ve already accomplished, I am also aware that I have many years in front of me to develop my skills and get better at what I do. There’s also a remarkable sense of satisfaction that comes from not just dreaming about a creative life, but actually living it.
Of course, being a “kid” in the eyes of potential clients comes with its own set of challenges. I do have to work hard at establishing my credibility and I do have to help them get past any reservations they might have about working with someone they think should still be in school. I simply accept this as part of the process at this point.
But truth be told, I have a knack for winning people over, and I’m always an open book when it comes to sharing my experiences and past projects. In addition, I’m highly conscious of the fact that I must carry myself as a serious professional and represent every aspect of what I do and how I do it as being worthy of trust and confidence.
|When completed, our work on the pond seen under construction above included extensive rockwork and plantings (quite young in the photographs) related to a system of waterfalls as well as a bridge leading to the island perch. Given the setting’s prominence, we needed to focus not just on key views from a distance, but also had to get the details just right for the waterfalls to bear up under the scrutiny they’ll get from the island, the water and the shoreline.
This is probably no different from what seasoned veterans in this business must do, and that’s a fact from which I take some comfort. Persuading clients that their projects will be taken seriously and done competently is always part of the business; no matter one’s age, it all boils down to learning good habits and doing well with presentations, project management and client relations.
Mostly, once homeowners see that I’m utterly serious about what I do, they quickly move past concerns about my age and start looking at me as a professional with a job to do on their behalf.
FROM THE WOODS
Once I’m engaged in a project, I spend a considerable amount of time with the homeowners, listening carefully to what they have to say and offering guidance that fits within the scope of their needs and desires. But unlike many others whose work I’ve seen, I also spend a good bit of time listening to the site and hearing what it has to say about the way its watershapes should work.
|Our study of the way water works in natural settings pays dividends in a project such as this one, for which we actually had something of a slope at our disposal. Even in such a compact composition, the source of the water is hidden, and we invite detailed examination of all the waterfall’s dynamics from the comfort of a small footbridge.
Too often, I’ve seen designs in which ponds are brought right up close to houses so they can be seen from the most convenient indoor viewpoints, but only infrequently is this the best use of the available space. Instead, what works best is a subtler placement that invites observers to walk out into the yard and rewards their curiosity with pleasant surprises along the way.
I seek this sort of “direction” from the site because I know my clients are working almost exclusively in simple visual terms: They want to see what they’re paying for in a convenient, steady way. As a watershaper, however, I’m aware that the design has dimensions of visual depth, sound and motion that also must be considered and that these subtler details likely will come as a revelation to my clients once the work is completed.
The Hand You’re Dealt
I’ve learned through the last few years that size really does matter with naturalistic bodies of water. Tiny ponds in isolation do not typically exist in nature, yet lots of projects I see are simply too small and look distinctly out of place in the typical backyard.
This is why I tend to persuade clients to think bigger: To me, it’s the key to making the water seem as though it’s always been there.
Certainly, it helps in this context to work on large properties, which has often been the case for me. These spaces give me options when it comes to creating views across the water’s surface, and it leaves plenty of room for meandering streams and fusions of stone and plantings that blend the design into the surrounding landscape.
Large or small, however, in my area of the Midwest we’re generally saddled with flat terrain and limited availability of natural vertical transitions. That’s a huge challenge, part of which requires me to make use of any available grade changes. It’s always easier (when the site allows) to follow natural contours in creating cascades that don’t seem forced and can be situated so as to conceal the water’s source.
Another point of which the typically client is unaware is that, to seem natural, water systems must start from someplace out of view in the environment – perhaps from a wooded area or a rock formation. (This is yet another reason why front-and-center/under-the-kitchen-window placements seldom work in naturalistic visual terms.)
What I encounter most often are sites large enough that we can think in grand terms and can connect our clients’ experience of their streams and ponds to the entirety of their outdoor space, adding value to areas that might otherwise be ignored by including them in the design.
For the most part, I’ve found that clients catch onto these concepts quickly and appreciate what water adds to the experience of being on their properties. When they’re drawn out to reach special spaces, they get the feeling that their yards somehow have grown in size and, more important, have a greater range of experiences to offer.
You can’t do any of this if you don’t work with the site and make the most of what it has to offer.
Hidden among all these nuances of the business is the biggest challenge of all (and one I intend to explore for the entirety of what I’m projecting as a long, happy career): Every client and every site is different, so there are no hard, fast rules to this form of watershaping. It’s a realm of improvisation, and it takes a good bit of skill to operate in it while still responding to each new combination of client and site in unique, creative ways.
|In grander settings, our compositions spread out and take advantage of scale – in this case on a basically flat piece of land. The temple-like structure at the top sets a background for a scene in which it seems perfectly appropriate to spot an icon that might have tumbled from the hilltop to reach its serene resting place.
When I look at the works of the masters of the craft – including my personal hero, the great Anthony Archer Wills – I’m always struck by how their compositions in rock, water and plants flow seamlessly into the setting. That’s a level of finesse that can’t be picked up from a book or a seminar: You have go out and press the issue in the field as you’re setting stone, working edges and acclimating the landscape to water’s new presence.
These tasks stir my heart and creative spirit at every turn, and I’m happy to face a lifetime of attempting to master so worthy a form of art.
Tim Krzeminski is president and founder of Laughing Water, a high-end pond/stream design and installation company based in Palo Park, Ill., that he founded in 2002 while still in high school. His first experience came in landscape maintenance, but, recognizing local demand for quality pond and stream services, he decided to enter that field soon after. Ever since, he has applied himself rigorously to studying the fine points of naturalistic watershaping and now focuses solely on ultra-high-end residential projects.