Building pretty pools with real rock

Ojj 508 Aq Some of the world's greatest architectural achievements, like the Egyptian Pyramids and Stonehenge, come to mind when incorporating real rock into a waterscape. Without the tools we've become accustomed to today, how exactly could these phenomena come to be?

With machines named John Deere or Bobcat or Caterpillar, builders can scoop, lift and place thousands of tons of rock into a backyard design. Using the real stuff theoretically appears easier to do than it was thousands of years ago: go to a quarry or rock yard, fill up your dump truck and get to work. Not so fast, say the experts. Incorporating rock takes a certain skill, not to mention dedication and knowledge, to make a project look as if it, too, deserves being dubbed one the Seven Wonders of the World.

Of All The Rocks

Like a painter who's partial to pastels over acrylics, rock artisans also have their own preference of the kind of stone that plays a pivotal role in their masterpieces.

"Most of the time, we are using either moss rock or Pennsylvania fieldstone boulders," says Tom Fitzsimmons, vice president of Artisan Pools in Pine Brook, N.J. "Both are mined in the Pennsylvania area, it's just two different looks. One is a bit more indigenous to the area, the other one is more gnarled up and allows for some interesting water features."

A layperson may not understand the unending possibilities rock can give the aesthetics of a waterscape, so trusting designers to use their knowledge is key.

"We have used granite, and we do some blue stone and some other mixes," says Fitzsimmons, "but I do try to steer clients to [moss rock or Pennsylvania fieldstone boulders] because I think they work best." Plus, Fitzsimmons notes, the two are readily available in the Northeast, which could reduce transportation or import costs.

Bill Renter, owner of The Deck and Patio Company in Huntington Station, N.Y., also likes moss rock, preferably imported from New Jersey. "We have a different effect that we do with moss rock. We sometimes create sheets of water, and I like to make water change direction like it does in nature. I make water [move] to the left, right, splitting streams."

Favoring a specific rock is common in the realm of landscape architecture. It's important for a designer to know how a rock will age with the landscape before deciding which one will work best for the client.

"I like [quarry rock] because it has the reds and the dark tones in it," says Sean Cooley, co-owner of Cooley's Custom Pools, Oakdale, Calif. "Especially at sunset and at night, the color, the deep reds really come out in it. I think it's one of the most beautiful rocks out there.

"I like those because they are kind of angular, with a very sharp edge for the most part. What I tell homeowners when I'm selling one of those is the more dangerous the rock looks in place - sharp, sharp edges, drop-offs, very square, very angular - the better the waterfall looks."

Are You Ready To Rock?

Pool design continues to reach innovative heights as the years go by. Kidney-shaped pools are a thing of the past as are plain-Jane backyards that offer nothing more than a shiny white hole with water in it. Clients want pizazz. They want to walk outside and for the brief moment between leaving their interior haven and entering an outside paradise, they want to feel as if they've truly stepped into another environment, far away from anything ordinary.

Be it waterfalls, caves or multi-tiered water features, natural rock can make it come to life in a way that leaves clients doing a double take.

"This one project I am thinking of, we actually dropped the boulders to the bottom of the pool from the deep end to the shallow end, so it was a boulder wall that lifted up all the way out of the water, and then the waterfall was constructed on top of it," says Fitzsimmons.

"So it looked great when you were in the water with a mask. But also standing above the water outside the pool, looking down into the water it was an interesting reflection below the rocks, all the way to the bottom of the pool."

Cooley recently worked with a couple that wanted a poolscape inspired by their many visits to Thailand. "They brought a picture back to me, kind of an idea they wanted. So when I designed the pool, I kept that in mind as much as possible with what they want and what you can actually build. So we had a pretty good idea with where we wanted to go with the rock and that sort of thing."

It's common knowledge that real rock is going to affect the wallet on a grander scale than artificial rock. So what do you say to the client who really, really wants the real thing but doesn't have the funds in the budget?

"A real popular thing in pools down here right now," says Sarah Kennedy, pool construction coordinator at Gilbert, Ariz.-based Red Rock Pools & Spas, "is even if there's no water feature or anything, just insert a boulder in a couple key places around the pool edge itself. So if there's an area where a deck might run into a rolled bond beam, we put a boulder in that intersection to break up the two sections. That's a really popular style right now."

Fitzsimmons also provides clients who don't have unlimited budgets options that will still allow for real rock. "We can shoot a shelf just below water level so that there's maybe one rock 6 to 12 inches below the water. It still gives the same illusion without going to the extreme. Or, one step less than that would be just to mortar the boulders onto the pool beam, above the water."

Show And Tell

All artists know a portfolio is everything. And life in the world of rock is no different. But trying to show clients just what the rock will look like takes more than just a photo of a pretty waterscape. Giving clients different avenues to explore your work really allows them to see the versatility of rock.

"I make [my clients] visit my Web site prior to meeting them. I use it a lot as a sales and training tool," says Fitzsimmons. "I have a section just on boulders where I'll show clients boulders under the water and out of water - two completely different animals."

When all is said and done, there really is only one way for a client to truly witness the beauty of real rock in a landscape: seeing it firsthand on site and fully functional.

"Pictures are great, but they don't show everything," says Cooley. "The job in its entirety is a totally different experience versus just one picture of one area. So we try and get people out as much as possible to see some of the pools we've built, see the quality we do, the kind of rockwork that we do. That really helps me explain to them because then they can actually see the rock; it's not in a picture now. It's a whole job and you can see the water running over it."

Making It Happen | Tips from the pros

"The best tip is to always use a 45-mil EPDM liner under every waterfall," says Bill Renter, The Deck and Patio Company, Huntington Station, N.Y., "and make sure it overhangs the pool so all of the water returns to the pool. We also use Biofalls from Aquascape to slow the water down to allow it to spread over the waterfall. Waterfalls need high volume but low pressure, and Biofalls allows the water to slow down."

Brett Blauvelt, co-owner of Red Rock Pools & Spas in Gilbert, Ariz., recommends placing rocks in and around the pool in the most natural way possible so it looks like it's part of the environment. "I think if you set them above-beam - that's where they are out of water - it's not as natural. Boulders in the water give it a natural look."

"When we spend $6,000 on rock, I want to see as much of that $6,000 as possible," says Sean Cooley, co-owner of Cooley's Custom Pools, Oakdale, Calif. Cooley says he uses less-expensive concrete for creating the height of the waterfall, then sets the purchased rocks on top of the veneer covering created with gunite. "I don't want to find that there is an $800 boulder under everything you can't see."
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