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His clients wanted a home that reflected their refined tastes, writes Randy Beard. The fact that, for a change, others were focused on the challenge of working on a difficult slope freed him to get everything just right with their large spa and understated entryway fountain.
His clients wanted a home that reflected their refined tastes, writes Randy Beard.  The fact that, for a change, others were focused on the challenge of working on a difficult slope freed him to get everything just right with their large spa and understated entryway fountain.
By Randy Beard

It’s rare, but it happens:  Every once in a while, a client’s desires align perfectly with the capabilities of a watershape designer and builder – so much so that the collaboration becomes a study in how powerful creative harmony can be.

This sort of synergy was a hallmark of the hillside project under discussion here.  Early in the process, we were brought aboard to work on an unusually large spa as well as a small entryway fountain.  Both watershapes were meant to complement the refined Asian design sensibility that dominated the home’s design as well as the client’s personal style.

In many projects of the hillside variety, our work happens out on a precipice, with nothing but a big drop to consider.  As a result, our focus tends to be split between the engineering and the finer installation details.  In this case, however, the spa and fountain were entirely integrated within the home’s structural envelope, so for a change the geotechnical considerations were handled by others.

That was a relief, of course, but it still left us with plenty to do.


The property is situated atop a steep, geologically challenged slope in a rift in Orange County known as Buck Gully.  The home cascades down the side of the slope along five stories and is built atop a supporting network of caissons that reaches down far enough to achieve the stability required by the engineers.

We were aware from past experience that this particular gully is quite unstable:  Although it is densely developed and has been for years, conditions are tricky enough that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers comes through occasionally to review and upgrade the infrastructure that helps to keep these insanely valuable homes up where they belong.  

(Just recently, in fact, the Corps came through and redid the overall drainage system to meet the increasing problems posed by irrigation runoff from one end of the gully to the other.)

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Our watershapes were integral parts of the structure, so our focus was entirely on the finer points of the installation process.  The spa, which hangs off a balcony overlooking the gully, had a simple shape and a beautiful all-tile finish that extended out of the water and over the small deck (left and middle left).  The fountain, equally simple in design, was prepared in a transitional spot just inside the home’s main entrance (middle right and right).

As mentioned above, this unstable geology wasn’t among our direct concerns, so we focused all of our energy on getting the materials, textures, colors and finishes just right.  Our process was aided by the inspiration that came from the clients, the interior décor and their approach to the home’s exterior – particularly the deep rose color of the exterior stucco.

Fire Watch

The engineers have figured out what it takes to keep homes like this one up on the slope where they belong, but they’re powerless to deal with the other great force that dictates life in coastal canyons such as Buck Gully:  fire.

With the spa structurally secure on the front edge of the home, we helped address this worrisome second force by inserting a valve at the spa’s low point that feeds a three-inch-diameter line attached to a fire hose.  It’s gravity-fed, and nothing could be much simpler.  In fact, we included it as no charge – although we let the homeowners know that they’d be responsible for picking up a fire hose, which they did with no hesitation at all.

Granted, the spa’s 10,000 gallons won’t last long in the event of a serious conflagration, but it’s enough to soak the slope below the home and might help keep things under control until firefighters arrive on the scene.

-- R.B.

Lots of clients and designers would be inclined to use stone in such an application, and I’m certain we could have found something suitable.  But our preference lately has been to work with the wonderful array of porcelain tiles that are now available in the marketplace:  They are easy to clean, maintain their good looks indefinitely and, most important, aren’t susceptible to the kinds of deterioration you can see with stone and even glass tile when water chemistry isn’t managed to perfection.

In this case, we took the gray porcelain material we selected for the decking around the spa and carried it down into the water, giving the space a calm, uniform appearance when the spa’s jets aren’t on.  That’s most of the time, of course; the rest of the time, the still water offers a beautiful mirror surface that flows uninterrupted to a vanishing edge that is so dead-on level that even a very modest flow of water breaks over the weir without causing any significant disturbance of the main reflective surface.


Up a few levels, just inside the home’s front entry, we installed a second watershape in the form of a small, bubbling fountain. 

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The spa features a vanishing edge with a flow so precise and measured that it has no detrimental effects on the water’s reflecting capability from any angle inside the home or out on the balcony – a key factor when you consider that the spa will be seen much more often than it will be used.


It’s about as simple as can be, with three copper pipes overflowing with water to make the gentlest of splashing noises and mark the change from the exterior to the interior space.  It’s all in keeping with the Asian tradition of feng shui, and again it’s wrapped in gray porcelain tile.

The bottom of the fountain appears at first glance to be large beach pebbles, but it’s actually a flat tile to ease maintenance of the small basin.  This choice of material gave us an opportunity to mask the drain covers by filling their trays with the same tile.

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The homeowners and any guests who arrive at the front door make their transition from outdoors to indoors by approaching and passing this modest bubbling fountain.  It’s great feng shui and was simply finished using the same gray porcelain tile we used in and around the spa.


In retrospect, this project was among the most straightforward we’ve ever executed with respect to site assessment and engineering.  And I can’t even say it was difficult with respect to aesthetics, because the client and the home gave us so much inspiration.  

Ultimately, what makes this project worth describing is how it all came together in functional and visual terms – nice, untroubled watershapes made with beautiful materials in great colors, well executed for the benefit of wonderful clients.

Every project should have all this going for it!  


Randy Beard operates Pure Water Pools, a construction/service firm based in Costa Mesa, Calif. He may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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