Human Touches

photo of Liquid Designz project
Waterfeatures provide more than just pretty scenery. When designed with human access in mind they take on an enhanced role in the landscape, as is the case with this pond and its sandy beach. (Jerry Romano, Liquid Designz)

New Jersey-based waterfeature designer and installer Jerry Romano of Liquid Designz creates environments that feature points of access designed to invite close human interaction. Here he discusses some of the elements he offers to clients that add the specter of the human touch.

When I look at swimming pools these days, one of the features I admire the most are the shallow tanning shelves that invite bathers to lounge in shallow water as they enjoy their surroundings. With naturalistic waterfeatures, like the ones our company designs and installs, we’re actively working to achieve the same kind of interactive intimacy with the water and the environment. And the more we’ve gone down that path, the better we’ve been able to excite prospective buyers and satisfy our clients.

There’s a tendency to look at these types of features as strictly visual or aural elements in the garden; as such, ponds, waterfalls and streams are mostly regarded as purely decorative. And while the beauty, tranquility and interest these features offer is a huge part of why they exist in the first place, we’ve found that when you add simple elements that entice homeowners and their families and friends to come closer and even get wet, the projects take on a whole new dimension that in many ways blurs the lines between naturalistic features and swimming pools.

Here I’ll share a handful of elements — some extremely simple, others more complex — that generate the type of interaction that ultimately gives our projects greater dimension and value to our clients.

Before I get too specific, it’s important to first realize that this kind of waterfeature design requires the designer to embrace the human element and remember human beings are naturally drawn to water. Through that lens you can create features that not only look great, but also afford clients safe and easy ways to enjoy their features on a more visceral level.

ON THE BEACH

photo of Liquid Designz project
When you design and install waterfeatures with fine details, it’s important to find ways to draw visitors to key focal points where they can take in the scene up close. (Jerry Romano, Liquid Designz)

One of the most immediate ways to encourage interaction with the water is to dedicate a portion of the space to a sandy beach. It’s no reach at all to realize that when the majority of people think about luxuriating in and around water, the first thing that comes to mind are memories of times spent in the sand by oceans, lakes and rivers.

That’s why in some of our projects we gently slope the surrounding area and conceal the liner below a layer of sand. It’s a simple trick that’s easily executed even in relatively small spaces, but one that in essence brings the vacation experience right into the homeowner’s backyard. Although the sand slopes toward the water, the actual grade below should slope slightly away in order prevent runoff from entering the pond or migrating below the liner.

From a visual standpoint, the sandy beach provides an alternative edge treatment that provides a natural transition from the surrounding landscape to the aquatic environment. It creates a great space to place a lounge chair or beach towel by the water where adults can relax and enjoy the setting while also creating a space for kids to do all the things they love to do in sand.

In our work, we’ve taken that concept a step further by extending the sand surface into the pond itself. One of the things that prevent people from stepping into the water is the presence of rock material on the bottom. We’re certainly not opposed to rock bottoms, and many of our features have them, but when your intent is to draw people into the water, the sandy beach and sand bottom make for a perfect point of entry.

We’ve found that creating a shallow, sand-covered shelf area inside the vessel is an easy way to create a sort of kiddy wading area right by the beach entrance. Not only do kids love the easy access to shallow water, adults can also enjoy lounging in the shallows much the same way they do in swimming pool tanning shelves.

With sandy surfaces, you do have to take measures to ensure that water moves through the sand to avoid the buildup of organic material and bacterial colonies and avoid stratification. That’s why we strategically position return jets to slowly mix the water column and gently stir the sand. We also encourage our clients to frequently take a dip because the action of walking, lounging or moving over this surface helps stir the sand and remove debris.

(Maintaining great water quality and clarity are key elements in inviting interaction and involve a number of measures that go beyond the scope of this discussion.)

Creating a beach is not terribly difficult, but you do have to be cognizant of the pitch of grade. The sand needs to slope gently to the water without being so steep that people feel they are sliding downward. We typically lay two layers of fabric over the soil and put down a layer of Jersey Shore beach sand at a depth of about 15 inches, plenty deep enough for kids to dig but not so deep that you’re wasting sand, which can be a somewhat expensive material depending on your region of the country.

THE BUBBLING BOULDER

As much I love beaches, it occurred to me last year that we could take the beach experience a step further by creating a new type of feature we call the “bubbling sunbather boulder.”

The idea was to create an interactive opportunity that combined the appeal of the sandy beach with shade, beautiful stone material and an inviting waterfeature designed for children. I was also influenced by the natural beauty and tantalizing fluid textures that are created by a small flow of water moving over a stone surface, which is one of the “movements” we use when creating interesting waterfall structures.

With that in mind, we selected a beautiful piece of Bermuda sandstone with a rich, pinkish hue and an irregular shape about 6 feet across and 10 inches thick. It sits in the middle of the sandy beach we have at our pond at our company’s outdoor display area, which is a sort of interactive laboratory. It’s placed several feet back from the water’s edge and at first glance looks like a boulder placed for its beauty and perhaps a place to sit above the sand, but it’s much more than just that.

We core-drilled a vertical hole at the boulder’s center and plumbed it via bulkhead liner penetration to the system’s circulation pump with a valve. It’s a wet/dry feature that allows you to place a commercial umbrella in the hole when it’s in dry mode, making it a great place for kids to play and escape the sun. Or, you can remove the umbrella, actuate the valve and send a bubbling flow up through the hole, creating an inviting laminar flow over the stone surface. Water flows over the surface and down through a concealed trough that encircles the boulder, providing a place for kids to play in the water and adults to lounge in the sun, cooled by the gentle flow.

The boulder is placed over a sub-grade reservoir, basically a separate vinyl-lined vessel using a 45-mil liner that functions as a catch basin. The boulder is supported by retaining wall blocks wrapped in fabric. The trough was a somewhat tricky detail we developed with stone and river rock covered in sand. Water flows over the sides and neatly disappears into the sand without any visible pooling. Gravity then pulls the water through a two-inch line, also bulkheaded, that connects back to the kiddy pool vanishing edge area.

It’s a relatively simple design, but one we had to play with in order to achieve the proper flow back to the pond. So far, the feature has proven popular with kids and parents alike, and we’re confident it will soon be a part of upcoming installations.

FLAT ACCESS

One of the most popular interactive elements, one that we’ve installed on numerous projects, is the array of flat boulders located on the water’s edge.

Through my study of truly natural ponds and streams, I’ve noticed that wherever you find pieces of flat stone at the water’s edge, you’re almost certain to find people. There’s something very attractive about flat stone surfaces at the water’s edge. Visitors feel comfortable sitting or lounging on these boulders, dangling their feet in the water, sunbathing or laying prostrate while peering into the water, watching fish and the unfolding drama of aquatic environments below the surface.

In terms of waterfeature design, these boulders create visual variety at the water’s edge, disrupting the “string of pearls” effect that you see in many features where uniform boulders are placed in a row along the edge. That look is not only a dead give away that the feature is manmade, it also serves as a visual and functional barrier between the water and the surrounding landscape.

Placing large, flat pieces along the edge enables you to not only create a more natural look, but it brings people right to the water’s edge with a feeling of comfort and stability. We like to place these boulders with the edges half buried in the sand or soil so that the stones appear as though they are part of subsurface rock structures, which contributes to the drama and natural appearance.

We often place these flat boulders in places where you have a great view of the entire feature. By drawing people to these locations, we’re orchestrating their focal points.

AROUND AND ACROSS

Part of the art of creating waterfeatures with interaction in mind involves creating pathways leading toward the feature and then around the water’s edge. Most people like to move in predetermined patterns, especially around the water. Simple pathways accomplish this while enabling the designer to lead them to desired locations, such as the aforementioned flat stones or beach areas.

photo of Liquid Designz project
Flat boulders provide a great way to provide access at the water’s edge. Such is the case for the pond pictured here. (Jerry Romano, Liquid Designz)

By governing where people walk, you can lead them to focal points where you might place a bench or stones suitable for seating. You can direct them to spots adjacent to waterfalls or interesting stream features, places where you can easily view fish or private alcoves for conversation or quiet, personal reflection and relaxation.

Paths can be established with bands of decomposed granite, stepping-stones or even wooden planks, depending on the homeowner’s preferences. However you choose to create such foot pathways, it’s always important to keep in mind that you are directing the unfolding experience of moving through the garden.

You can take that concept several steps further, both literally and figuratively, by creating walkways across the water itself. This is a wonderful effect that works equally well for both architectural features, such as pools or formal fountain areas, or in naturalistic waterfeatures.

photo of Liquid Designz project
(Jerry Romano, Liquid Designz)

Here again we make use of flat stone pieces that emerge just above the water’s surface and are carefully positioned and wide enough so people can walk with ease and confidence across the water. It’s a great way to create shortcuts to destinations across the water or bring people close to waterfalls and other points of interest.

Walking across the water creates tremendous interest and small feeling of adventure. It’s a great way to invite intimate interaction with the water without having to get wet.

Another similar treatment is to create stepping paths that cross directly over waterfalls or steams. Again, you might create this effect with emergent flat stones or a fallen log. (We did this in a recent project; we created flat surfaces along the log and then notched it to create a series of small weirs that you step over.)

Generating places where people move by or over the water is a terrific place to exercise creative ideas you may have that take advantage of the surrounding, while adding a sense of drama and interest to those take the small journeys you’ve laid out for them in advance.

THE PATIO SCENE

Working with patios and decks is something that pool and spa contractor/designers have been doing with great effect for as long at people have been building pools. With naturalistic waterfeatures, it’s a landscape element that is equally important and full of wonderful possibilities.

I’ve always believed it’s common sense to locate patios near water. These spaces are widely used by homeowners, so why not maximize the value of the waterfeature and the patios themselves by locating them in fairly close proximity to the water. When you take that fundamental approach, the patio becomes the ultimate interactive feature.

These days, we’re taking the patio concept a step further by installing permeable surface material that enables rainwater to flow into subsurface reservoirs, and also plumbing those reservoirs to rain gutter systems so that rain falling on the roof as well as the patio is captured for later use in irrigation, a great feature for areas prone to drought.

At our facility, along with the bubbling sunbather boulder, we’ve recently installed a rainwater capture patio that also features an interactive splash pad at the center. This way, the patio itself can become an attractive interactive feature adding to the fun and excitement of spending time outdoors.

CUSTOMER INPUT

One of the things I love most about this genre of interactive elements is the way that talking about all of these possibilities enhances discussions with potential clients.

We all know every client is different, and going into the sales and planning process, you can never be sure what’s going to appeal to someone. We bring all of these possible features into the discussion and work to open up the clients’ minds to the spectrum of possibilities available to them.

Oftentimes, homeowners are not completely aware of the nuances of creating interactive elements in their projects, but when they learn about these options, they light up and start imagining different ways they can use the feature that stretch far beyond simply enjoying its appearance.

Through these basic strategies, homeowners are able to see the greater value of their investment in fun, relaxation and the beauty of human interaction.

Comments or thoughts on this article? Please e-mail [email protected].

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