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Nature’s Way
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Nature’s Way



Ten years ago, back when WaterShapes was in its infancy, the idea that swimming pools and spas had much in common with other forms of contained water (including ponds, fountains and streams) was a true novelty: All of those worlds seemed light years apart.

In this past decade, however, things have changed and there’s now widespread recognition that these seemingly disparate aquatic categories do indeed share many important characteristics and challenges. All of these systems contain water, for example, and circulate it in such ways that it stays safely clear and clean. All can be beautiful as well, whether they

bring us stillness or motion, sounds or silence, energy or tranquility.

Coming at this from the pool/spa side of the equation, I’m fascinated by the opportunities I now have to translate my fundamental capabilities as a watershaper into other categories within the greater watershaping milieu. In particular, I’ve developed a powerful appreciation for the artistry involved in creating watershapes that are meant to look natural – an interest that has made me aware that the basic similarities we can now see across all lines of watershaping are balanced by tremendous differences as well.


It’s important, of course, for each of us to recognize that when we reach across lines, expand our repertoires and start using water in new ways, new doors open and we’re able to increase and enhance what we offer our clients.

That kind of expansion is important when times are good (as they were as recently as two years ago) and when things become tight (as they are now). In my own business, for example, encompassing naturalistic watershapes has given me an entirely new way to talk to clients about water and enables me to place water in settings that would not have been workable for me in the years when I focused solely on pools and spas.

This broader focus truly has opened things up for me: Naturalistic watershapes can be of almost any size and can fit in a startling range of physical locations. They can appear in tiny spaces where they bring delicate sights and sounds of moving water to an intimate level. Or they can be expansive, transforming large areas into oases through which people walk and explore aquatic elements ranging from large waterfalls and islands to shorelines teeming with plants and fish.

Moreover, working with ponds and streams gives me occasional relief from having to deal with the codes and regulations that limit what can be done with pools and spas. Whereas every square inch of a swimming pool in a commercial setting in this country falls under the purview of building and health departments, ponds and streams are subject to significantly less scrutiny, with fewer restrictions on setbacks, depths, signage, pathways and just about every other design detail.

Also, because naturalistic watershapes are generally not built of reinforced concrete and are more often made using liners covered in stone and plant material, in many cases (but certainly not all), they tend to be not quite as costly as pools or spas and can be included without putting too large a dent in a budget.

But mostly, naturalistic watershapes are exciting because of the way they enable me to expand my creative horizons. In a growing number of our projects, for example, we’re using ponds and streams in addition to pools, spas and fountains to broaden the overall presence of water on given sites. Streams in particular are useful in connecting different areas, while ponds bring nature and restfulness into spaces otherwise dominated by man-made structures.

As is true with any new endeavor, digging into naturalistic watershapes involves learning what makes them tick. In the same way a watershaper from the pond and stream world has a steep learning curve in successfully embracing pools and spas, those of us from the pool/spa industry must explore these systems in a disciplined way and do what it takes to gain proficiency and achieve excellence.


My first exposure to ponds and streams came during a Genesis 3 program some years back in which master watergardener (and regular WaterShapes contributor) Anthony Archer Wills was leading a seminar. I was amazed by the depth of his discussions of stone selection and placement and the nuances he defined for effectively using stone in creating waterfalls, edge treatments and subsurface structures.

Although I’d built a number of lagoon-style pools and already had an appreciation of the art and craft of stonework, I was completely transfixed by the way he looked at stone relative to scale, how he considered its placement along edges and the techniques he described for moving large pieces into place in ways that the material would secure itself with gravity alone.

As he spoke, it occurred to me that this type of design and construction was not something you could draw up on a plan the way you would a coping or step detail: This was something that largely had to be done in the field, and he helped me see that stonework in ponds and streams is a purely improvisational art form.

I also recognized the way he uses stone on edges as a complete departure from the way we structure boundaries in pools and spas and line materials up to precise fractions of inches to create a crisp architectural presence. I suspect this rigid approach is why so many pool designers and builders who seek a natural touch instead fall prey to the dreaded “string of pearls” look – an alignment of stones that completely destroys any sort of natural appearance.

By contrast, artists including Archer Wills use stone in the water, on the margins and in the landscape so that the eye cannot detect the precise boundary between wet and dry. In some respects, it’s the procedural antithesis of what most pool and spa designers builders do.

In reading his books and attending subsequent seminars, I came to appreciate the way Archer Wills uses liners, spreading them far beyond the water’s edge atop earthen contours and then covering them with soil to create various shelves, gentle shorelines, planting pockets, peninsulas – all intended to integrate the water and the surrounding landscape.

He also taught me just about all I know when it comes to using plants in and around water to create natural looking habitats and how the processes of nature can be used to create clear water without resorting to the treatments used in pools and spas. I learned as well the importance of concealing the source of a stream so that its headwaters emerge naturally from the landscape instead of becoming a visual distraction.

Through all of these revelations, I gained an appreciation for what makes ponds and streams effective in the landscape and awareness of the pitfalls that mark the works of lesser watergardeners. Just as I’ve always seen pools and spas that make me cringe, from time to time I now discern attempts at naturalism that are complete failures – even in large and apparently expensive installations.

In that respect, pools, spas, ponds and streams have one very big thing in common: They can all be used to great effect to transform a space into a paradise, or they can destroy an area with a thoughtless lack of design skill and craftsmanship.


Another recognition that has come with my interest in naturalistic watershaping is the universal need for continuing education.

This means, of course, seeking out and attending courses taught by people such as Anthony Archer Wills and David Duensing (another superlative craftsperson). But just as I see a need with pools and spas of understanding history and appreciating the legacy of Greek, Roman, Islamic and Renaissance designers, I also see a need in the realm of ponds and streams to get out into nature’s classroom and study the way water works its ways through the wild.

In the past few years, wherever and whenever I have the opportunity in traveling, I find my way into a park, nature preserve or wilderness area to see how water works in natural settings. I’ve taken many trips to North Carolina, for example, and I’ve made it my business to spend long periods of time walking along and photographing natural streams, waterfalls, ponds and lakes. This activity is something that all accomplished pond and stream specialists do, and I appreciate these hikes most for the way they help me see the incredible variety of approaches I can take in conceiving my own designs.

Most of us assume we know how nature does things, but in fact, until you really open your eyes to the endless variations, random patterns and underlying order of nature, you can never truly embrace it to the point where you can begin to replicate it with any visual credibility.

Returning to Archer Wills for a moment, his study of nature leads him to use enormous boulders he buries partly in the ground so that they appear to be parts of immense subsurface structures, then often marks them with very small rivulets of water – just the sort of contrast of grand and small you often see in nature if you take the time to look.

In pool and spa work, we seldom hide material that way or devise flows of water that are deliberately out of scale in architectural terms. But nature doesn’t follow our rules and much of what we see in the wild is counterintuitive. With pools, for example, I can’t think of a situation where I’d deliberately lay a fallen log over a body of water (someone might climb on it, so it would raise safety issues), but in stream construction, mimicking the natural occasion of a tree dying and falling is not only acceptable, it’s desirable.

On all sides of the pool/pond/fountain continuum, we are, of course, still considering man-made bodies of water and we all need to understand hydraulics, the dynamics of flowing water and the principles of drainage, filtration and water treatment. System layout is different across those disciplines, as are approaches to filtration, water treatment and construction, but in every case the water needs to be placed under control, no matter whether the watershape is a pool, pond, waterfall, fountain, spa or stream.

In other words, as a designer of pools and spas, I saw working with ponds and streams as completely creatively liberating – until I recognized that every watershape, no matter its form, is very much constrained by the realities of engineering, physics and technology: The seem to be quite different, but at root they’re very much the same.


To concluding these ruminations, let me briefly describe a current project that captures the spirit of this discussion. We’re designing a private resort property on the Pacific coast of Nicaragua for an American couple. The site runs along a gently sloping ravine that rises from a point some 15 feet above the beach.

The main building is an open-air affair that sits at the top of the slope. At that level, we’ll install a large vanishing-edge pool with a formality and lines that match the modernity of the architecture and exploit the dramatic ocean views. Approximately 300 feet down the slope, we’re building another large, freeform pool on a level right above the beach.

Between those two watershapes, we’re inserting a substantial stream/waterfall/pond complex that will link the two areas. On either side of this composition will be a series of casitas, each with a patio overlooking the water and access to pathways that lead up and down through the space, crossing the stream at several points and providing small seating areas – a couple of which will be located on islands within the ponds. It’s the perfect way to let visitors enjoy the sights and sounds of our handiwork along with fantastic views of the ocean.

The upper part of the stream will appear as through it’s fed by the water flowing over the vanishing edge, but that won’t be the case. Instead, the collection trough, which will be finished in natural stone, will house a hidden welling pond that will feed the upper portion of the stream and a sequence of cascades and ponds. At the base of the system, the water will run through a set of large bead filters to be concealed behind an adjacent building.

We’ll use indigenous stone and enlist the services of either local or United States-based stone artists well-versed in the art of placement to create the most natural and complex edges and vertical transitions possible. At various points along the watercourse, we’ll add water from hidden locations so that the stream will gain in volume as it descends toward the lower swimming pool.

Along the way, we’ve planned for numerous planting pockets and shelves for rocks around the edges and will be spreading stone through the water and into the surrounding space to integrate the stream completely with its environment. I can’t wait to see the finished product: It’s going to be beautiful.

I am well aware that if I had not spent recent years educating myself about ponds and streams, this sort of composition would have been completely beyond my reach and I can reliably assert that I probably would either have developed another design solution or never have been seriously considered for the project. What we had here was an opportunity to create a wonderful linkage between two swimming pools, and my suspicion is that this naturalistic watershape will be one of the most memorable and enjoyable features of the property.


Certainly, there will always be those who will be most comfortable staying in one corner or another of the watershaping world, and I must say that I do see the merit of mastering one system type and doing it well rather than spreading yourself thin and achieving little more than working poorly in more than one medium.

But if you apply yourself, learn the ropes, pay attention and familiarize yourself with the ins and outs of watershape types that were previously unfamiliar, my own endeavors testify to the fact that you can expand your working horizons and open the way to ever-greater levels of creativity.

At a minimum, it is useful to open yourself to opportunity and align yourself with people who are experts in fields you don’t want to pursue so you can bring them in when they can do things you can’t. In my case, for example, if I didn’t feel comfortable in my own capabilities, I’d be satisfied in having learned to speak communicate with skilled professionals in those fields, recognize possibilities and know where to find gifted people who have the necessary level of expertise – all to benefit my clients and help me exploit the broadest limits of watershaping’s potential.

As with most everything else in life, it’s about being open to the possibilities.

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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