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200606BVB0By Brian Van Bower

I’ve been using the word “confluence” a lot lately – so often, in fact, that I decided to look it up to be sure that I wasn’t misusing it in some way.

According to Webster, the first definition of confluence is “a flowing together of two or more streams,” with a second meaning of “a gathering, flowing, or meeting together at one juncture or point.”  To me, it’s a perfect word to describe a trend that’s redefining the watershaping industries – that is, a growing confluence between the pool/spa and pond/stream industries.

Coming from the pool/spa side of the discussion, I can recall a time not very long ago when ponds and streams were only rarely if ever considered by anyone in my business.  What could pools and spas possibly have in common with purely decorative bodies of water that weren’t even chemically treated?

In those days – which I stress again were not so long ago – it was almost as though the discipline of stream craft didn’t exist.  Even stranger was the thought that anyone who was into ponds and streams might ever consider getting into building pools or spas.  

Today, of course, all that has changed:  The pond and stream industry has literally exploded during the past few years to a point where an increasing percentage of home and commercial-property owners who are entranced by the thought of having their own bodies of water are considering ponds and streams right up there with (or often instead of) swimming pools and spas.

OBTUSE PARALLELS

To verify this point, I don’t need to look any farther than my own business, where I’ve seen an increasing number of clients ask for ponds and streams as part of my scope of work.  I’ve noticed this with some commercial projects, but this interest is especially pronounced in the residential realm.

For all of these clients, the beauty and tranquility of ponds and streams and the ability they give people to raise their own fish and aquatic plants has a profound, widespread appeal.  It’s almost reached a level where these naturalistic watershapes are as much on my clients’ minds as pools and spas.

I’m excited by this trend:  To my way of thinking, it expands the range of ways water can be used to make my clients happy and has opened up an entirely new set of creative possibilities to me in developing exterior designs.  In other words, it will be a wonderful evolutionary step if we choose to embrace it as such.
 
When I step back and take a look at the general trends in watershaping, I see some distinct parallels – developmental histories that have touched professionals on both the naturalistic and recreational sides of watershaping and have distinct implications for anyone who seeks to work both sides of the equation.

In the case of pools, they started out early in the 20th Century as a luxury item – playthings for the rich and the province of high-end commercial properties.  After World War II ended and the U.S. middle class rose in consuming power, an entire industry sprouted up to mass-produce swimming pools and make these vessels a big part of the suburban landscape.

That rapid proliferation resulted in an industry that for decades was predominately defined by a production mentality – an approach that in turn led to oft-cited limitations of the mainstream pool and spa industry when it came to design, creativity and quality.

After years of seeing the product degraded, we’re now in the midst of a renaissance for the swimming pool, a time in which there’s a hopeful upswing in creativity and the emergence of a new class of designers and builders who aren’t shackled by the past and its cookie-cutter mentality.  Indeed, we’re in a new era in which the best of our output can easily been seen as works of art.

RISING TIDE

In recent times, it’s been possible to see a similar set of trends in the pond/stream sector – although it’s my observation that the trends are moving at an amazingly accelerated rate.

As with pools, naturalistic ponds and streams in contemporary times were the exclusive purview of the very rich and perhaps a few high-end commercial facilities – a situation that prevailed straight through to the last decade of the 20th Century.  This was a realm in which watergarden artists including Anthony Archer Wills and others plied their trade and generated extraordinarily beautiful work for an exclusive clientele.   

It’s only in the past 10 to 15 years that ponds and streams have managed to cross over the line and grab the interest of the great middle class – a testimonial to the determination of a handful of suppliers to market a new species of watershape to the masses.

Firms including (most prominently) Aquascape Designs of St. Charles, Ill., have succeeded in nurturing consumer demand while training a large contingent of installers.  Greg Wittstock of Aquascape Designs is indeed a bold marketer who may be personally responsible for the fact that thousands of affordable ponds and streams now grace homes across America.       

That said, the rapidity with which the pond/stream market has emerged has brought its share of negatives.  As occurred with the explosion of the affordable-pool market in the 1950s and ’60s, so, too, the growth in the market for affordable ponds has led to the emergence of a class of products that is too often less than it could or should be.

To many landscape artists, these easily and quickly installed ponds and streams stand out for their lack of imagination and questionable standards of construction.  In other words, just as was the case in the pool industry, the advent of affordable ponds and streams has resulted in the proliferation of hack installers working on the fly.  By now we’ve all heard horror stories about failed jobs and systems that are impossible to maintain – a sad tune all too familiar to dignified players on the pool/spa side of things.

MUCH THE SAME

Given the longer perspective of the pool industry’s evolution and recent renaissance, it’s hard to think that the pond/stream sector could have encapsulated that entire growth curve in a span as short as a decade or so, but that is what seems to be happening.

What we see already is a desire on the part of some of our most discerning clients to obtain custom, naturalistic ponds and streams that are creatively designed, expertly installed and reliably sustainable.  As with pools, we’re now seeing ponds being elevated to an art form and its best practitioners as the logical successors to the traditions of Japanese gardening and European watergardening.

This is where I now see a great and dynamic confluence of watershaping “streams” unfolding before my eyes.  More and more, I see intersections where professionals from the naturalistic watershaping arts are delving into swimming pool design and construction; likewise, there are those in the pool and spa trades who have embraced ponds and streams with equally deliberate enthusiasm.  

As with all forms of change, those who embrace the trends will be prepared to meet and exploit new opportunities, while those who resist will find themselves stuck in a status quo that may not exist much longer.  Specifically in this case, I can see no logical reason to refrain from latching onto the similarities between pool and spas on the one hand, and ponds and streams on the other.

In aesthetic terms, all are deployed to give clients the beautiful, restful benefits of water, both moving and still.  In technical terms, these are all systems that must reliably contain water, circulate it and make high water quality attainable.  No matter the materials of construction, all must be well designed and installed, and they all have pumps, filters, skimmers and valves – and even water-treatment devices in many cases.

As important, these systems are all at their best when designed as part of an overall exterior composition, and all use reflection, the sound of moving water, visual dynamics, landscaping, rockwork, lighting and host of other design elements in making their marks.

PRIME DIRECTIVE

To my mind, this confluence once and for all establishes what being a “watershaper” is really all about, now and for the future:  These days I don’t consider myself so much a pool and spa designer, but rather as a designer who works in the medium of water to meet my clients’ needs.

Yes, I’m at an early point on the learning curve when it comes to naturalistic watershapes, but the greater my understanding of the design logic of these systems becomes, the more I’ll be seeing them as a natural extension of what I’ve been doing for most of my career.

In other words, from whichever side of the industry we originate, there is tremendous value in accepting the full spectrum of watershaping genres and possibilities.  Look at it from the clients’ points of view:  They know they love water and they’re seeking its beauty and pleasure in their lives in whatever form makes the most sense to them at the time they make the purchase decision.  It doesn’t matter who delivers their watershapes or from which industry they hail:  The goal is to obtain beautiful watershapes from whatever source provides them.

What I’m observing as well is that our clients are accommodating the confluence of trends with much greater speed than we probably are as watershapers.  Indeed, a great many clients these days want bodies of water that fall in both categories.

Form a business standpoint, there’s nothing wrong with clients who love watershapes so much that they want the moon and stars – the beauty and tranquility of streams and ponds and the recreational, therapeutic and visual splendor of custom pools and spas.  In practical terms, this broadening of scope means that growing numbers of consumers are devoting more of their resources to watershapes, a fact that spells opportunity in big, bright letters.   

As an example, I’m currently in the design phase on a Miami project that takes this notion of a confluence to something of an extreme.  It’s a complicated job, so I’ll just hit the high points.  

The work is for a wealthy couple living on a beautifully designed, exquisitely well-maintained property on an inland waterway.  The lot covers about acre and a half and features a home with wraparound porches and open, casual architecture – a direct stylistic transplant from Key West.

It’s a beautiful place that, left completely alone at this point, would stand as a fully realized example of great residential design, inside and out.  The existing landscaping is immaculate, and there’s an existing custom pool with expansive decks – nothing to sneer at on any level.

A TIME FOR CHANGE

The pool, which we designed originally under the project architect, is about five years old, and I have to say I like its clean, rectilinear design.  It’s in good shape, and although it’s not extraordinary by any means, it’s certainly well done.  It’s also huge – some 60-plus feet in length – and the surrounding deck areas are so expansive that it wouldn’t be out of place at a fine resort.

These clients are the kind who are always tinkering with their surroundings, and it’s clear to me that what they want is to find their way to a new design that aligns more closely with the natural beauty of south Florida and its lifestyles.  In other words, they want to rip out the pool, decking and much of the surrounding landscaping and start all over – a process with which they seem experienced and right at home.

What’s unique about them is their desire to make a saltwater pond/stream composition the primary feature of the reworked setting – a place where they can maintain a stock of ocean-going fish.  

We’re far from finished with the design process, but I know already that there will be a relatively large stream that will be woven through gardens, paths and decks.  Portions of the stream closest to the home will be edged with coral in a quasi-architectural style, while the far reaches will be bordered with rustic, lushly planted berms to provide layered views and senses of both privacy and depth.

The fact that it’s going to be a saltwater stream is interesting enough, but the real kick here is that the reason we’re taking out a viable swimming pool at significant expense is that they want to replace it with a new pool that visually echoes and harmonizes with the stream/pond system.  In other words, the presence of the naturalistic body of water is driving the swimming pool design, with all design cues emerging from the look of the naturalistic waterscape.

Deep down, I think that if these clients were forced for some reason to pick which watershape was more essential to their re-imagined vision of the space, the pool would come in a distant second to the stream and pond.  They still want all the beauty, luxury, interest and recreation that pools and spas have to offer, but they’re more committed to a naturalistic composition – and are willing to dedicate significant resources into realizing their vision.

It’s a fascinating project and a new approach that’s forcing me to embrace naturalistic design in all new ways.  It has also led me to collaborate with a landscape designer to execute the work – in this case, a talented professional from Miami named Debra DeMarco.

COMING TOGETHER

This Miami project is just one of many recent examples in which naturalistic watershapes are major features in my work, and it boggles my mind to think that there are people in the pool and spa industry who have yet to perceive and on some level embrace this trend.  

There are plenty of educational opportunities out there that can help all of us get up to speed, so that’s no excuse.  Indeed, all it takes is opening our eyes to the great traditions of naturalistic watershaping to see that what has gone before speaks volumes about what can be done today.  And the best thing from my pool/spa perspective is that almost all of the pond/stream features are neatly related to work I’ve been doing throughout my career.

My conversations with people from the green side of things tells me they’re on the same track and now see opportunities in designing and installing pools and spas as parts of their designs.  Some might view this intermingling of industries as a threat; I choose to view it as a wonderful opportunity to become more ambitious and inclusive than I already am – and make some of my best clients even happier along the way.

 

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 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. 

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