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Role Playing

These days, watershaper and landscape designer Robert Nonemaker is routinely called on by architects and landscape architects who want his firm to take their aquatic concepts and turn them into reality. Through the years, he says, this supportive participation has evolved to a point where there’s lots of creative give-and-take – and a regular seat at the table for him alongside other top-flight design consultants and construction specialists.

These days, watershaper and landscape designer Robert Nonemaker is routinely called on by architects and landscape architects who want his firm to take their aquatic concepts and turn them into reality.  Through the years, he says, this supportive participation has evolved to a point where there's lots of creative give-and-take - and a regular seat at the table for him alongside other top-flight design consultants and construction specialists.

With few exceptions, the most satisfying projects we’ve undertaken through the years have come when our company has gotten involved with talented architects or landscape architects – and sometimes both – as part of larger project teams.

We embrace this sort of work and enjoy taking a role as a resource for other professionals. Through the years, in fact, these collaborations have developed to a point where many of those we work with will automatically call us whenever one of their projects includes any sort of watershape.

For us at Outerspaces of Glen Mills, Pa., this has resulted in work on outstanding projects for many terrific clients. At the same time, it has also required us to abandon the sort of egocentric approach familiar to watershapers who are accustomed to running the whole show on their own.

Frankly, I believe that this mode of operation accurately reflects the supportive role water most often plays in landscapes – that is, as a wonderful design element that needs to be seamlessly integrated into the rest of the environment. I’ve always thought the best possibility for achieving this full and complete integration comes through capable project teams, if only because it’s an approach in which nobody operates in a vacuum.

This means that, for a majority of our projects, I’m there to provide other professionals with the tools they need to execute their visions and achieve success in both aesthetic and technical terms. To me, that’s sufficient – and by our definition, what being a good watershape designer and contractor is all about.


From our perspective, working with highly educated, highly trained, highly experienced professionals in other fields has afforded us as watershapers and landscape designers the opportunity to grow in what we do and in the quality of our output.

My brother David and I have been running the business since we were teenagers, starting out solidly in the landscape trades and moving into watershapes only after we graduated from college. Every step of the way, we’ve made a point of steadily expanding our knowledge base, and the best way to do that, we’ve always thought, is by hanging around and working with other smart people.

Architects and landscape architects frequently come up with ideas that we would never think of ourselves, the mere fact of which forces us to stretch our capabilities. Not every project is a revelation, of course, but we’ve always been amazed by the frequency of the new twists and turns these designers toss our way. Best of all, that frequency is greatest when we work as part of truly top-notch teams.


Our technical capabilities as watershapers and the design education we apply in our projects enables us to work in a huge range of watershape types and styles, from the completely naturalistic to the austere and modern. Our aim in working with architects and landscape architects is to help them be successful in what they want to do.

As watershapers, we play a key role on these teams, basically because what we do remains a mystery to many of the other participants. We’ve gained that knowledge through often-painful processes of trail and error in building swimming pools, fountains, streams and ponds that the others would never even consider pursuing.

In short, we’ve endured the pain of the learning curve and have gotten good at avoiding mistakes; our role on these teams is to take the visions of architects, landscape architects and others, build on our experience and make them work. Conversely, the designers we support readily accept what they don’t know about watershaping and take comfort that our expertise is a sort of insurance policy against creating something that might look good but has no chance of working properly.

In other words, we succeed by helping others be successful at what they do. Not only has this involved us in spectacular projects, but as a design/build firm, it also puts us in the driver’s seat when it comes to getting construction contracts. Best of all, we’re on the job from the earliest possible stages, which means we can influence the entire process in ways that ensure feasibility and success. As anyone who’s come on site to design and/or build a watershape that’s basically an afterthought knows, there are advantages to being on hand early in a project.

In our case, we can take on as many project elements as the design teams and clients want us to tackle, and sometimes our work includes the entire exterior environment. In other cases, however, we stick with the water – which is fine, because our expertise with watershapes is our best calling card: It’s generally the least understood element of any project, and our expertise puts us in line for a respectable place at the table.


In some cases, of course, we’re not the only water-related firm on a project. Through the years, for example, we’ve worked in several instances with Toronto’s Crystal Fountains, an outfit that includes some of the most knowledgeable people we’ve ever encountered in the watershaping industry.

Right now, in fact, we’re working on a project in which Crystal Fountains completely designed and specified a complex fountain system that we will install. In cases such as these, our understanding of complex hydraulic and mechanical systems is a big help – and so is our knowledge of finish materials.

Indeed, this familiarity with materials used in and around water is one of the big advantages we have, and we often end up making recommendations for certain types of materials while advising against others. We also acknowledge when we’re trying something new and often suggest construction of some sort of mock-up to test out the systems and see if the given materials and features work, that they look the way we want them to and that they will hold up for the long haul.

All of this give-and-take and multi-layered interaction can seem complicated, but it’s not unlike simpler projects in that it all boils down to setting and managing expectations and making adjustments to designs that enable them to work aesthetically and functionally. This requires being involved from day one (as discussed above). It also requires, we strongly believe, access to the client.

In fact, I make no bones about it: If we aren’t granted direct contact with the clients, we tell everyone in very direct terms that we cannot provide any assurance that the clients will truly be happy with the outcome.

We’ve been in situations, of course, where the client is shielded from various project participants. That’s always seemed foolish, because we can’t really know what they want unless we speak with them directly and have the chance to ask some questions. These exchanges often help us address issues and develop solutions that architects and landscape architects wouldn’t even consider.

To me, when a client is paying hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of dollars to make a dream come true, it only makes sense to make certain their resources are being properly applied. Fortunately, we engage in few projects these days in which we’re cut off from the client. The designers we work with understand our role and have no desire to keep us out of the loop.

Ten years ago, it would’ve been rare for a watershaper to sit down with a client as an equal of the architect. In my opinion, the expansion in use of water as a creative element – coupled with the growth in capability of the design sector of the watershaping industry – has caused major shifts in this thinking, especially among forward-looking designers who are interested in breaking new ground.


In many situations, the input we offer is fairly straightforward, but we’ve found that the smallest details often make the biggest difference.

Last year, for example, we completed our first-ever project with Jonathon Alderson, a prominent landscape architect from Wayne, Pa. He brought us into the project (based on a referral) just as he was designing the swimming pool. His idea was simple – a large, L-shaped pool with a raised spa – and all he passed us was the familiar blue spot on a drawing. That was it.

After speaking with the clients, we offered Alderson some feedback on a range of details he was considering, including the straight-weir effect that was to pour from the spa into the pool. The clients had given us the clear impression that they wanted something special, so we suggested a more elegant approach incorporating the small spillways used often by my friend, David Tisherman of David Tisherman’s Visuals (Manhattan Beach, Calif.).

The client loved the idea, and Alderson’s willingness to roll with it resulted in a subtle yet critical difference in the look of the job. In less obvious ways, we also helped by suggesting some interesting step and bench details that added aesthetic value while making the pool more usable to the increasingly happy clients.


This is a project in which we worked with a basic concept by landscape architect Jonathon Alderson and were able to incorporate details that made the project special for his clients – including an elegant set of spillways inspired by the designs of watershaper David Tisherman.

Alderson was sufficiently satisfied with the outcome of our work together that we’re now involved with him on some of his more adventurous projects. This includes a swimming pond for a client who wants an entirely naturalistic look without any chemical treatment. In this case, I’m certain we’ll be applying ideas picked up from Copake Falls, N.Y.-based Anthony Archer Wills, another watershaper I greatly admire and probably the world’s leading expert in creating self-sustaining (and incredibly beautiful) bodies of water.

In both of these cases, we’ve brought our expertise to bear in ways that even a top-flight designer such as Alderson would have been unlikely to consider had he tackled the watershapes on his own. It’s a great symbiotic relationship: We’re making it possible for him to get even more creative in his design work because he knows we can deliver on the design decisions and commitments he makes.

At this point, the flow of referrals and levels of involvement run in all sorts of different directions. Just recently, for example, we were brought into a project by an architect working on an ultra-modern home that will include highly sculptural watershapes that will be absolutely critical to the overall look of the home. I saw right away that expressing the details of his vision was beyond anything we could deliver because of the time it would take, so I suggested Alderson as one who could take the landscape design from concept to a set of construction plans we could work with when the time came.


It’s as though the work is getting more fun and more challenging on almost a daily basis.

We’ve been running, for example, into what appears to be a new wave of architects who are looking to push the envelope with sheer creativity, including a gentleman named Zack Davis, who works near us in Chadd’s Ford, Pa. The first project we undertook with him had to do with an ultra-modern home on a hillside property – and a pool that’s essentially a pie-shaped affair with a round patio in the middle of it.

It was an interesting project made inordinately challenging by a nine-foot elevation change in the area where the pool is situated. The structure we designed in AutoCAD uses portions of the pool as retaining walls, and we developed a set of three-dimensional renderings from a variety of angles to show how it would work structurally and aesthetically.

All this was needed to help the clients visualize the setting, but it was also required because Davis let us know he was in over his head when it came to technical execution of such a vessel – so we naturally fit in. (By the same token, there’s no way I would have ever conjured such a design, so the arrangement is mutually beneficial.) The upshot is that Davis has told us we’ll be working on all of his future projects that include water.


Architect Zack Davis called us in on this project because he needed help with the technical aspects of executing the watershapes he wanted to include. In this case, our ability to work with computerized design tools was critical, enabling the clients to visualize what we were after and speeding communication within the design team.

It certainly helped that we were up to speed when it came to the use of state-of-the-art design tools and technologies. We’ve worked on a number of projects that have hooked us up with architects who are extremely young (in their early 20s in some cases). It would be impossible to relate to these up-and-comers if we weren’t knowledgeable about computers, and it’s a clear case of our desire to push our own capabilities that has positioned us to be ready when these calls come.

By extension and by virtue of our familiarity with modern design tools, I see our company as being among a new breed of watershaping businesses that is ready to assume a position at the table with other top designers. In much the way electrical and structural engineers will take “ownership” of the detailed documentation required to build a given project, we have become just that sort of resource for creative watershape design and construction.

It’s nice work, and it’s coming our way with greater and greater frequency.


Architects and landscape architects are generally smart enough to know what they don’t know. That is, they typically don’t get involved in the details of designing air-conditioning systems or creating wiring schematics for electrical service or drawing up layouts for lighting designs because they know there are professionals out there who specialize in those tasks and do them well.

In recent times, we’ve been good at demonstrating that level of expertise and raw competence when it comes to the watershapes these designers want to include in their projects as well.

To be effective in this role, we as watershapers have to flexible when it comes to dealing with different personalities and the occasional outsized ego. We also need technical savvy on the one hand and a background in the world of design on the other. Travel and education help, too, because we need a vocabulary that makes it easier for us to participate in the design process without feeling compromised or intimidated by the broad knowledge that top architects and landscape architects (and their clients) all seem to have.

It has taken our company time to reach the level we’ve attained, but time shouldn’t be a barrier to anyone willing to build relationships, pay attention, get educated and develop the sets of skills required to deliver quality results. If you can do the work at the required level, there’s no reason you won’t eventually be invited to pull up a chair at a team meeting.

That’s where the fun starts.

Robert Nonemaker is co-owner of Outerspaces, Inc., a business he started with his brother David at the age of 12. After a college career during which he studied construction management, communications, engineering and business, he decided to resume his work in the landscaping business, adding the watershaping that now dominates the brothers’ business shortly thereafter. Their company now employs 27 people and specializes in large, ultra-high-end, technically complex residential pool, fountain and landscape construction projects. He is also owner of Robert Nonemaker Exterior Design, a firm that offers design and construction consulting to architects and landscape architects throughout the country.

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