Poolside waterfeatures are awesome, says Bruce Riley, filling an area with sound and controlling key views into and out of the yard and around the water. Here's a look at ways to assess what clients need from these details -- and address a few issues they might not anticipate.
By Bruce Riley
Waterfeatures make beautiful additions to just about any outdoor living space. Whether they accompany a pool, a spa or a pond or stand alone in a backyard or forecourt, the subtle noises they make can fill a space with soothing sounds that conjure memories of streams and waterways that homeowners have experienced through their lifetimes.
But it’s not just about tranquil sounds and how they can define a space while masking out external noises: Depending on their type and size, waterfeatures also provide physical barriers that block unwanted views and, on the flip side, keep outside eyes from seeing into a private space.
As we’ll discuss in this article, the tranquil sounds and visual benefits of waterfeatures play integral parts in backyards of all descriptions. And it works best if the designer or builder gets the ball rolling by spending a fair amount of time in clients’ yards not only to figure out what the homeowners want, but also to get a clear sense of how neighbors and neighboring properties influence the character of a setting.
And when you consider the fact that most new-home developments are offering larger houses with smaller yard spaces, these issues become all the more important in today’s marketplace of design ideas.
It doesn’t take much more than a couple questions to figure out the local particulars: Do the neighbors have dogs or children or both? Is there a school nearby? Do the neighbor’s kids have a trampoline or sports court in a nearby corner of their yard? Where is the neighbor’s patio located? Do they entertain frequently? How close is the neighbor’s driveway? Is there a busy road near the property? Are there any other sources of external noise that challenge a sense of calm?
And there should be more to this information acquisition than just asking questions. In fact, there’s something to be said for spending time in the backyard at several different points during the day. Are the sonic challenges so steady that a robust white-noise system is required? Or are they intermittent enough that more measured or flexible responses are possible?
|Designed to bring subtle sounds to an enclosed space, this resonant grotto has a relatively small profile and needs only a limited flow of water to knock down unwanted local noise.|
Another factor to consider: Some clients have young children of their own who run riot from the time they get home from school until they’re called in for supper. These folks can feel guilty enough that they’ll put up with a lot from neighbors, at which point it’s your role to size up the situation and make recommendations to clients who may not perceive an immediate need for relief from external sources of noise.
Whatever your observations, there are solutions to sonic issues that mainly involve persuading your clients to fight noise with noise in ways that mask disruptions due to traffic, loud play, yapping dogs, annoying music and more – all in the name of creating a private, secluded refuge from the outside world.
This is a realm in which rain curtains, sheer-descent waterfalls, deck jets and laminar water features can be used to generate varying forms of white noise. In general terms, the greater the drop and the higher the flow rate, the more countering sound is generated within a backyard environment. And the white noise gets even more efficient if there’s a solid surface behind the water to amplify its sonic power.
|This feature is meant to overcome a good bit of traffic sound and does so through multiple waterfalls that create white noise with a pleasing variety of soothing tones.|
As a rule, if lots of sound is needed, it’s better to think in terms of waterfalls, grottoes, caves and big slide structures that will allow water to move in high volumes and produce a variety of sounds as it falls directly and indirectly into a pool, spa or pond. Grottoes and caves in particular make a lot of sense here, because their structures create simple resonating chambers that distinctly amplify the sounds of falling water.
Of course, if the sounds created by these means are too raucous, they can make being in the backyard space a bit of a trial. The key here is positioning and angling waterfeaures and “sounding boards” so they point away from main sitting or dining areas.
But there’s more: First, you want to enable homeowners to “tune” their white noise by giving them control of flow rates; second, you’ll want to include strategically placed noise absorbers such as trees and planting beds to manage the overall soundscape; and third, you want to do all you can to create a variety of sounds so the white noise never devolves into an unpleasant sort of monotony.
Clients need guidance in all of this and must rely on a watershaper’s professional experience. Making videos of past projects can be a huge help here in helping homeowners understand the levels of noise involved and enabling them to decide just how far they want or need to go in choosing among their many options.
In addition to relieving concerns about annoying ambient sounds, vertically oriented waterfeatures can also help in covering up unwanted visuals – or simply creating effective barriers between clients and their neighbors. This is a particularly important possibility where homes are situated on small lots and neighbors can often peer too easily into each other’s backyards.
Privacy and sound generation are behind this small waterfeature, which backs up on a golf course where the patrons can get loud as they play through.
When tall fences and walls aren’t an option by code or homeowners’ association rules, waterfeatures are often a solid solution regardless of whether it’s new construction or a renovation.
Anyone who’s been in business for a while knows how important a sense of privacy is to clients who want to swim laps, bask in their shallow lounging areas or relax in their spas. Some grotto, cave and waterfeature structures can be upwards of five feet tall in appropriate settings, and that’s generally enough to deliver the degree of isolation these clients desire.
But that word “appropriate” is crucial: Nothing sticks out like a sore thumb more than a large waterfeature tacked onto a small pool or pond: It may get the privacy factors right and generate the desired white noise, but it can overwhelm the pool or pond visually and can throw a backyard space completely out of balance.
|Blocking off the view from the neighbor’s yard was a driving force in this design, which also introduces sound to the composition and makes the children happy with its slide.|
Of course, you can ease this situation by adding planting pockets and softening the structure’s appearance in other ways, but it’s best to think carefully about scale with these projects and take a deep breath before discussing possibilities with privacy-craving clients.
A Landscaping Assist
As is mentioned in the accompanying text, watershapers have another possibility when it comes to masking sounds and blocking views: A property that is well landscaped with plants – especially specimens with substantial mass – can be a great help in managing both soundscapes and viewscapes.
Plants can’t do it on their own, but they absorb enough noise to supplement a waterfeature – and the same can be said for their potential to offer privacy and cut off undesirable views. In fact, thoughtful combinations of waterfeatures and plants may offer the most comprehensive possible approach when it’s time to put clients at ease in their backyard spaces.
As with the waterfeature’s sonic components, it’s also important to place these visual features carefully in relation to patios, doorways and windows – and also to take careful stock of these viewpoints on neighboring homes. Done the right way, a waterfeature such as a slide built into a rock structure can cover a wide swath of space in the yard, creating an area where a new or relocated patio or seating area might be just the ticket.
These features can be built with real stone, but the site must be engineered to support what can be massive loads with a structure of any substantial size – and particularly a composition on the scale of a slide meant to block out a 15- or 20-foot section of a neighbor’s view into a yard.
We at Rico Rock (Orlando, Fla.) are among suppliers that manufacture cast-concrete components for creating waterfalls and grottoes, with some incorporating slides, planting pockets, fire features and more. These lightweight components can be used in a variety of settings without adding huge surcharges to a deck or concrete shell. And because these systems are designed for easy assembly, they take much less time to install than natural-stone waterfeatures.
Homeowners also have options that don’t involve either real or simulated stonework: Water walls offer more streamlined possibilities and can be prepared from masonry materials or by using kits that we and other firms manufacture for the purpose. These solutions can be particularly helpful in smaller yards and can be set up as self-contained systems or as part of an overall watershape array.
Both soundscaping and viewscaping are relative newcomers to the lengthening list of watershape-design considerations, but they’re becoming more and more important as clients gain in sophistication, awareness of what can be done and insistence on having their homes’ exteriors become full extensions of their indoor lives.
The kids make a fair share of noise in this pool and enjoy its grotto. The rockwork sets up a barrier that keeps playtime from becoming too much for the neighbors while it also blocks a good part of the neighbors’ view into the yard.
From real stonework and masonry structures to artificial rockwork and prefabricated waterfeatures and water walls, homeowners’ eyes are opening to all sorts of possibilities that can help them gain greater control of how they use – and how much the enjoy – their backyard spaces.
The tranquil sounds that emanate from a waterfeature can be used to mask external sources of noise, from traffic to neighboring families and pets, while the structures that contain them can block out unwanted views and enhance privacy. It’s a one-two combination that homeowners love – and watershapers can deliver.
Bruce Riley is owner and managing director at Rico Rock in Orlando, Fla. He has been in the rock and waterfeature business since 1976 and was a pioneer in the use of artificial rock in conjunction with swimming pools. The company markets rock castings in addition to training contractors in their use. For more information, visit his web site: ricorock.com.