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Winter Delights
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Winter Delights

Fountains have long been purposeful testimonials to the beauty of moving water and the effect it has on associated sculpture and landscaping. Less deliberate and controllable but still beautiful, say landscape architects and environmental artists Suzanne Roe Dirsmith and Ron Dirsmith, is what occurs when a fountain and its patterns of mist and overspray freeze – effects that open a fresh, unique set of options to watershapers.

Fountains have long been purposeful testimonials to the beauty of moving water and the effect it has on associated sculpture and landscaping.  Less deliberate and controllable but still beautiful, say landscape architects and environmental artists Suzanne Roe Dirsmith and Ron Dirsmith, is what occurs when a fountain and its patterns of mist and overspray freeze - effects that open a fresh, unique set of options to watershapers.

An important part of creating a human environment in harmony with nature is planning for and designing with the cycle of the seasons in mind.

At our company, the Dirsmith Group, we operate with the belief that a blending of fine architecture and landscape design into our natural environment, in careful harmony with human beings, demonstrates both a reverence and a respect for nature. The result of this blended environment is that people feel good: They enjoy being in the space, and we believe it enriches the human spirit.

When it comes to working with the seasons specifically, that’s easier said than done in some locations – such as Chicago, where we live and work. Watershapes here are not typically enjoyed year ’round: Swimming pools are drawn down and covered for the winter, for instance, and public fountains are decommissioned for the season as well. Yet much to our surprise, we’ve found in recent years that the freezing cold of winter has become an environmental factor that is very much in play in our fountain and waterfeature designs.

It happened by accident, as we were observing icy shapes forming in and around natural streams and then soon thereafter in fountains we’d designed. And it didn’t take long before we saw that we could harmonize our work with winter’s cold. The result is a new class of “winter fountain” highlighted in this article that is able not only to function during winter, but is able to play host to a glorious dance between the work of man and the imagination of nature.


As is true in so many aspects of landscape design and environmental art, the inspiration for our freezing fountains and waterfeatures began with nature herself in the course of a wintertime walk along a mountain stream. We noticed that moving water found amazingly intricate and interesting courses through the ice and snow. Back home, we observed the same sort of interaction in a fountain at our Highland Park design studio.

On the simplest conceptual level, we came to appreciate the fact that moving water does not freeze – a simple observation of truth that enables a fountain to operate in the presence of ice if certain design and construction pre-conditions are in place (see both sidebars accompanying this article for details). After watching mountain streams and the forms that accumulated around our own fountain, we began to think of this as something that could be done deliberately.


Of course, making an observation and convincing clients of the viability of an idea are two different things, and we’re the first to admit that only a handful so far have embraced the notion of a fountain in winter. Nonetheless, manipulating the effects of snow and ice on watershapes is now part of what we do and part of the discussions we have with clients looking to adorn or enhance the environments of their homes or offices with aquatic forms.

None of our prospects so far has ever heard of or considered such a thing before, so it’s always unexpected – but some of our more open-minded clients have latched onto the concept with real excitement.

Managing the Cold

The almost magical aesthetic quality described in the accompanying text and seen in the photos can only exist in the presence of specific technical characteristics of the watershape.

The most critical key is to be sure that the fountain or basin does not allow water to freeze inside the system itself: All freezing that occurs must take place outside the circulation system and only on parts of the fountain or the water’s surface and the periphery of the basin. If water freezes where it shouldn’t, the vessel and/or the plumbing will be destroyed by the expansion of the water as it turns to ice.

If you miss the mark on this critical aspect of the design, you’re going to have damage on your hands sooner or later. And it’s likely to be serious in nature.

So the primary design consideration becomes one of keeping the water from freezing, or controlling and limiting where and how it does freeze. We’ve seen systems in which anti-freeze chemicals are added to the water, but this creates a toxic, discolored liquid that will harm animals that may drink from the fountain. Not a good choice. You also might heat the water, but it seems to us that heating a fountain solely for the purpose of allowing it to become sculptural art in the winter is not going to be worth it in terms of cost to most clients.

We use a third option, using motion as the key. This means two things: First, the system has to run all the time; second, the circulation system must provide for complete movement within the vessel and plumbing. Dead spots in a basin exposed to freezing conditions can wreak havoc on things like the floater valves for automatic fill systems. As a result, we spend a lot of time thinking through details of spray dispersion and return and suction patterns.

It’s important to note that a system does not have to run all of the time if certain design, engineering and site conditions exist that would allow for intermittent usage. As an example, we installed a waterfall fountain where the pumps were located at the bottom of a pond and featured a single poly-insulated pipe outfall, properly pitched always to drain back down to the pond; this allowed the system to be shut down without risk of freeze-related damage.

On jobs where this constant motion is required, it’s critical to provide power back-up in case of a loss of utility service. In many cases, our commercial and high-end residential customers already have emergency power generators on hand, so it’s easy to tie in the circuitry of the watershape’s circulation system. Without that broad resource, you may have to insist on your clients’ buying a dedicated generator.

It’s more work all the way around, but the dazzling results are, it seems, well worth it.

— S.R.D. & R.D.

What we and this forward-thinking group of clients can see is that as winter progresses, a winter fountain does its own, ongoing sort of “sculpting.” Day by day, the forms change as water freezes, melts slightly and then re-freezes. There’s also a delicate, wonderful interplay with light and wind and drifting snow as icicles, drifts and plumes of frozen spray are interlaced with channels and contours made by the flow of the moving liquid.

And although we’ve only just begun to witness and learn about all of this, we have a sense that we’re coming to know some of the forms that will emerge and are now becoming attuned to some of their secrets.


So far, we’ve found a good bit of fun in designing aesthetic effects with freezing in mind. Naturally, you can’t anticipate everything that will happen or what forms will emerge as cold weather advances through the season, but we’re convinced already that you can guide the process.

The most spectacular forms occur with mist and overspray. During times of extreme cold, these airborne water droplets and particles coalesce to form a range of veils, hoods and eruptions.


So far, we’ve learned that smaller water effects lend themselves to the most reliable dramatic results. Large jets of water, though they have a drama all their own, tend to send their spray over large areas and do not freeze readily, especially not in windy areas like ours. By contrast, modest jets sending small amounts of spray and droplets into the air will create interesting and shifting forms.

We’ve found as well that lighting and sunlight take on whole new dimensions as they interplay with our frozen structures. The translucent ice reveals fascinating textures, surfaces and contours, and the effects are intensified as the ice interacts with whirling snow to create unusual drifts. As circumstances change (a warming trend or a change in wind direction, for example), the moving water that originally formed the ice will carve it in new patterns with interlaced rivulets and channels.

Enduring Structures

As with a great many forms of construction in areas with freeze/thaw conditions, the structural elements of our “winter fountains” must be designed to withstand the pressures of expanding and contracting soils. This is no more complicated than for a standard outdoor swimming pool built in the Midwest or any other cold weather environs.

In cases where a liner is the primary watertight structure, there’s not much need to worry. But in systems made with poured-in-place, pre-cast or pneumatically applied concrete, it is crucial that the system be designed to match prevailing geological conditions. In freezing environments, that means extending the physical structure below grade to the frost line. (In our area, that’s typically 42 inches. We surpass that to 48 inches to ensure structural integrity.)

The structural characteristics of every vessel will differ from job to job, but it’s not unusual for our basins to include 10-inch walls with 1/2- to 3/8-inch steel on 6-inch centers. In deciding how much concrete and steel to use, we are invariably guided by our structural engineers. And if there’s ever any doubt about the depth of the frost line or other soil conditions, we bring in a geologist.

In our work around the country and internationally, we rely to an extent on our own experience and expertise, but we also rely heavily on the experience and recommendations of good local contractors and builders who have constructed such projects in their areas.

We sometimes will end up insulating our underground plumbing. In one recent case, for example, we installed a stream with an extended underground plumbing run. Because the customer wanted to be able to shut off the system from time to time (there was no threat of structural damage because the system used a liner), we had to insulate portions of the buried plumbing with neoprene wrappings – and use heating cables around portions of the plumbing where water would tend to settle with the system turned off.

— S.R.D. & R.D.

It’s amazing – and rewarding to watch from one day to the next.

We’ll grant that winter fountains are not for everyone and that there are certain construction issues that require significant attention. But if the client has the right spirit of adventure and imagination and is willing to pay for a system that stands up to the cold, then planning for a freezing fountain is an option that can strike a beautiful chord in the harmonic structure of a design.

Ron Dirsmith is principal architect and co-founder of The Dirsmith Group, an architecture firm based in Highland Park, Ill., with operations worldwide. He and wife Suzanne established the firm in 1971 following employment with the prestigious firms Perkins and Will and Ed Dart Inc. He has a BS in Architectural Engineering and a Masters in Architecture and Design from the University of Illinois. He is also a Fellow in Architecture of the American Academy in Rome, which for over 100 years has been a research and study center for America’s most promising artists and scholars. Dirsmith is one of only 172 architects to have been granted this honor. Suzanne Roe Dirsmith, president of the firm, holds a BS in Education from the University of Illinois and a Masters in Education from National-Louis University. She heads the education division of The Dirsmith Group, a effort dedicated to forwarding design and architecture education within the architectural community and to foster new thinking and raise awareness of architecture and landscape design as a blended whole.

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