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WaterShapesBy Mark Holden

Have you had just about enough of the current chatter about the environment?  Have the terms “global warming,” “carbon footprint” and “sustainable landscape” become more irritating to you than they are inspiring?

If so, all I can say is that I don’t think you’ll like the future.  Indeed, for those of you who’ve spent the last little while waiting for the Green Revolution to fade away need to set aside any hope that it’s just a fad – just some trumped-up, pop-culture phenomenon that will go away as suddenly as it came to prominence.

In fact, the green movement – or whatever you want to call it – is rapidly on its way to becoming a mainstay of our shared cultural consciousness.  While there are certain political and social aspects of the discussion that are undeniably annoying, the phenomenon is being driven by practicalities to such an extent that the revolution is, I think, here to stay.

And don’t just take my word for it:  Talk with your children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews:  The college students I’ve taught, for example, take their seats in the classroom with a near-uniform dedication to the preservation of natural resources and the environment.  In my dialogue with them, I’ve learned forcefully that this isn’t about politics; instead, they see these issues as having direct, tangible, global influence on the quality of their lives and their future standard of living.  

And in some instances, they take it so seriously that they see it as a matter of survival – for themselves and the planet.


If you wonder why, well, take a look at the world into which they’re emerging:  All their lives, these kids have borne witness to skyrocketing energy costs and a steady string of news stories about environmental disasters from the Exxon Valdez to the destruction of the Brazilian rainforests.  It transcends liberal vs. conservative, and it’s much more than youthful idealism.

In fact, my gut sense tells me that once this generation really gets rolling in the workplace, they are going to press at the common assumptions their parents and governments have made and will come at perceived barriers with tremendous force – both as professionals and as consumers.

I’ve seen and heard enough in my classrooms that, as never before, I often find myself thinking about those barriers (and the assumptions and conventions that support them) with a fresh, open attitude.

Back in October 2009 – the last time I wrote about the ecological effects of watershapes on our environment – I engaged in that sort of wide-open thinking in a discussion of the carbon footprints our beautiful creations carry.  If you’ll recall, I brought my discussion to its turning point by asking, “How do we shape water in planet-friendly ways?”  

The cynic in me knew that many of you would likely dismiss or even ridicule my “green-tinged ravings,” but to my surprise, most of the immediate feedback I received was from watershapers who told me that they are already building with the planet in mind.  

I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised, given the fact that there’s already a whole, new “green industry” out there, complete with its own publications, educational programs, trades shows and product lines.  And from what I can see, that industry is already thriving and is rapidly becoming profitable – a real surprise considering the vacuum in which it so recently arose.

As a teacher, it’s abundantly clear that landscape architecture students (and young people I encounter everywhere I go) already see the green industry as their home base – the foundation for their way of seeing things and pursuing their options.  And they’re far from passive:  They are figuring out how to use what’s available in beautiful, surprising and compelling ways.  

The reality is that this is going on right now, despite the fact that the greater watershaping industry has done little to get involved.  Yes, some suppliers, designers and builders are putting little green leaves or globes on their ads or handouts or business cards, but what I see mostly is new marketing of old approaches rather than the sort of reconsideration and new thinking my students are pursuing and demanding.


A former student recently called me to discuss my October 2009 column and asked me, point blank, “Where do I start?”  In response, I challenged him to abandon conventional thinking and to consider ways of building a watershape without using any manufactured or mass-distributed equipment or material – in other words, to start over from scratch with a watershape without barcodes or serial numbers.  

To say he was puzzled would be to put it mildly, so I put on my teacher’s robes and began to help him follow some specific pathways around and through the concept I’d proposed.  Why, for instance, don’t we all use photovoltaic technology to power our electrical systems?  Entire houses and commercial operations run on them, so why can’t we do the same with pool pumps?  

The obvious observation we came around to is that we live in a world where almost all of the electrical products are designed around the wonderful, spinning turbines that give us AC current and send it across mile after mile of transmission lines.  It’s the infrastructure we’ve had for more than a century – and it severely limits what we can accomplish.  

So what we need in order to install greener pools (that run off photovoltaic cells that power DC pump motors) is a retooling of our own industry and several more industries besides – retooled manufacturing, reconstituted utilities and reorganized assumptions – to make suitable (greener) products generally available at comparable prices.  

My hope is that our industry’s more forward-looking companies are already on this path and that such products will be attainable before long.  If they’re not, the likelihood is that a new generation of clients, designers and builders will find other ways to get what they want.

Let’s take this in another direction and look at pipe.  I teach an architectural history class for Genesis 3 a couple times a year, and in that college-level course we look at watershapes that, for centuries, worked without the convenience or benefit of modern equipment or products.  Indeed, the wonders of head pressure and mechanical ingenuity were all these early watershapers had to work with.  

Today, we’re wedded to PVC and other plastics because we have high-pressure systems and those pipes offer us reliable, affordable ways to contain and control the water moving through our systems.  What would happen if we stepped back and started using low-pressure mechanical networks to achieve our effects – and did so with piping that was much less detrimental to the environment?  The energy savings alone might make such systems worth considering.  

The Moors made such systems work at the Alhambra in Spain 1,000 years ago, and the Romans did, too, all around the Mediterranean more than 1,000 years before them.  Heck, Rome at its height in 300 AD had more than a million cubic meters of water running through its systems at any one time – no pumps, no PVC.  


Let’s take things to an even grittier level with the observation that watershapers dump immense volumes of concrete and hardscape waste into landfills with most projects – especially renovations.  

We start by ripping up a driveway and taking the concrete to a local disposal site – then we bring the exact same material back to the job site in a semi-liquid form and let it harden into the same traversable flat stuff.  To be sure, there are some who reuse that broken concrete to form garden walls and others who take the waste to a recycling center where it is crushed to be used in aggregate in new concrete; for the most part, however, the material is carted away, never to be seen again.  

Thinking about the process at this level opens all sorts of new doors in watershape design and construction.  Maybe our plans, for example, should have more to do with methods and less with materials.  If, for example, we were to specify how big the chunks were to be from that doomed driveway and in what shapes they were to be cut, perhaps we might use that readily available material to make garden walks or retaining walls.  

This is not a new concept – I picked it up in college 20 years ago – but it’s never come close to being a priority, let alone a standard practice.   

We also need to look at the sources of our hardscape materials.  Some flagstones are stripped at such a rate and in such a manner that the process destroys ecosystems completely.  If you don’t believe me, visit a mass-production quarry sometime and see if anything thrives there beyond guard dogs and heavy equipment.

If we started reclaiming and reusing instead of dumping and buying, we’d actually be falling in line with a strong (if quirky) impulse of the Western design tradition:  In Renaissance Rome, for example, sculptors who needed marble for a statue asked the Pope for permission to remove materials from ancient pagan temples.  This might be seen as horrible desecration by modern standards, but it makes the point that, faced with limited resources, we often find alternative ways to create our art.

In a variation on that theme, I built a project in Montecito, Calif., many years ago in which we used indigenous Santa Barbara Sandstone boulders we’d found on site – a common building practice in the area.  Why pay someone in some other county for a material you have in abundance in your own backyard?  It’s a huge step toward reducing a project’s carbon footprint, that’s for sure.

So can these various measures be combined to complete a project “without using any manufactured or mass-distributed equipment or material”?  When I offered that thought above, it might have seemed outrageous, even dangerous.  A few quick paragraphs later, however, and I think it’s possible to offer a reasonable, practical, positive response to the challenge.


First, I would suggest approaching projects with enhanced design plans.  That is, our watershape specifications should focus on reducing the project’s effects on a site and the world.  Equipment, pipe and hardscape all can still be obtained, but whenever we can do so, we should proceed using different, more responsible methods.  (If we can imagine how to do it, ultimately we can do it.)

As I mentioned at the outset, there’s already an entire Green Industry that has arisen to deal with just these sorts of issues, complete with products and techniques for us to learn and apply.  As I see it, we can (and should) join forces with it and set a course for an approach to watershaping that will dominate the future.  

And for those of you who can’t let go of the good old days, a time is coming when you may have no choice.  If you doubt that, just try building a great big pool with waterfalls in San Francisco:  Water is so scarce there that only a handful of watershapers can find enough work to keep their businesses afloat.  

As water resources seem to be dwindling everywhere, we should all observe what’s happened in the Bay Area and recognize the handwriting on the wall we’re about to smack into headlong:  I’m not suggesting that we all go out and hug trees for a living, but as a matter of survival I believe our industry needs to shoulder a greater level of responsibility for what we do in a grander environmental context.

As I just mentioned, design is the first step.  Our plans must provide exact instructions on how to demolish, reuse and recycle existing materials.  They must hold builders to a strict set of standards that, I think, almost inevitably will become legal requirements before too much more time passes.  

In small ways, this is already happening.  In Santa Monica, Calif., for example, the building department requires installation of solar heating systems with every residential pool.  Those sorts of requirements are popping up in jurisdictions from coast to coast, and it’ll be up to us to conform or get into another line of work.

In my book, however, I think we’d all do better by pushing the envelope along ourselves, farther and faster.  And I know there are watershapers out there who are doing exactly this, getting out ahead of the curve and setting their own standards for methods and performance.  (In fact, I’d love to hear from you so we can all speed the process together:  See my contact information at the end of this column.)

My final questions are these:  If we start supporting DC pump manufacturers and align ourselves with those who make photovoltaic-cell power systems, will they respond by making better products?  If we demand that level of innovation from our usual suppliers, will they respond with genuine innovation, or will it all be about fresh, green packaging and marketing of the same old stuff?

As I’ve stood in front of classrooms filled with aspiring landscape architects, I get a sense that the answers to those questions have already been determined.  If the products they are demanding are available to them when they need them, then watershaping has a future.  If not, these professionals will move along to other decorative or functional possibilities and the watershaping industry as we know it will fade away.

If that sounds apocalyptic, well, I guess it is.  My hope is that a positive, engaged response will be forthcoming and we can all move ahead together in a world in which a new, green way of thinking will become a pillar supporting us and our businesses.


Mark Holden is a landscape architect and a landscape and pool contractor specializing in watershapes and their environments.  He has been designing and building watershapes for nearly two decades, and his firm, Holdenwater of Fullerton, Calif., assists other professionals with their projects.  He is also an instructor for the Genesis 3 schools and at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona.  He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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