Putting the 'Fun' in Function

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Tim Krzeminski, president of Laughing Waters, believes in the power of adaptation. That's why his Chicago-based firm has expanded from its original roots as a pond builder into the broader spectrum of comprehensive exterior environments. For example, the project profiled here encompassed a range of amenities for clients who value both quiet private time and large gatherings of extended family and friends.

It's true — the old adage that in business, change is the only constant. At least, that's certainly been the case for us at Laughing Waters. Our company's roots may be in the pond/water gardening niche of the aquatics industry, but over the years, we've learned that in order to expand our business, we needed to broaden the palette of options we offer our clients.

We still build ponds and streams, and that remains our primary business focus, but these days, some of our projects encompass much, much more. Just as many traditional pool builders have moved beyond the water's edge, we now use the water features we design and build as a point of departure. The project pictured here is a prime example of that approach.


Although the design intent for this project was not "naturalistic" per se, it still incorporates many basic natural elements including fire, water, plants and rock. It's located in an upscale neighborhood in the Chicago suburbs on a half-acre lot.

We became involved after the homeowners paid a visit to my parents' backyard where we had installed a truly stunning naturalistic aquatic environment. It was something of a coincidence that at the time they just happened to be looking for a company that could take on their project. It wasn't long before we were working together to develop the spaces they felt would meet their needs.

One of the key elements in the project was developing amenities that would be suitable for their young son, who has autism, and required features that were accessible and safe. Their son is a very sensory-oriented person who responds to the colors, textures, sights and sounds of nature.

As a result, we used plantings that were colorful and pleasing to the touch and laid out everything out so he could come in contact with the plants and rocks with ease and comfort. We also created a sandbox in which we hid dinosaur fossils; it's kind of like a make-believe archeological dig. Although there's a lot going on in the backyard, we also left large grass areas to give space for a variety of play activities.

The spaces are decidedly "built," meaning we weren't trying to mimic nature so much as represent it, a modality we're turning to with increasing frequency. That fit perfectly with the clients who wanted a rustic feel. Ultimately, that meant we would use copious amounts of natural stone and mature plantings.

That stone and flora softened the architectural elements — the fireplace, outdoor kitchen, fire pit, play areas and spa — and gave the structures an appearance of age and the effects of exposure to the elements.


The spa area is probably the centerpiece of the entire project, and in some respects the most unusual.

The clients had originally considered installing a pool or a pool/spa combination, but ultimately thought that they'd be best suited with a large spa that would in effect extend the season. They were also concerned about the maintenance of a pool as well as the risk a swimming pool might present to their special-needs child. With the spa, their kids are able to wade into the water while still near to a bench or steps. Obviously all children must always be supervised when using any body of water, but the clients thought the smaller confines of a spa made more sense from a safety standpoint.

The spa is large, almost commercial sized with its 12-foot inside diameter. It's circular with a cut out for the steps. When we shot the pool, we created a broad shallow shelf that would support the massive limestone coping slabs. In effect, the slabs are sitting inside the spa.

Again, the visual weight of the stone material supports the rustic overtone. We were also aware of the need for comfort, and painstakingly chiseled the inside edges of the coping to avoid having a piece of rock poking you in the back of the neck when lounging in the warm water.

While most pool/spa installations are visibly accessible from the house or other parts of the landscape, we wanted this spa to be private and secluded. That in turn led us to the outdoor fireplace, which is situated right by the water.

The fireplace is flanked by low stone walls that embrace the spa area. The entire structure functions as a privacy wall that separates the area from the rest of the landscape. But we didn't want the space to feel too confined. With that in mind, the large fireplace is see-through, and to further enhance the sense of outer interconnection, we took the unusual step of positioning a TV in the cabana so that it's visible through the fire place. That may sound strange, but most are surprised by how well it works visually.


The design is also unusual in the way we positioned the fireplace next to the water. In most other projects that include a fireplace, the area immediately in front of it is used for lounging in outdoor furniture. In this case, the spa itself functions as the lounge area.

By locating the fireplace so close to the spa, we created a more intimate relationship between the fire and water. This not only generates a romantic ambiance, it also adds warmth, which further extends the season.

While the spa itself is clearly architectural, we also wanted it to suggest the feeling of a natural spring. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's "pond-like," but the deep blue plaster combined with the subtle beauty of the rough-hewn stone creates a unique natural look.

All told, it's an extremely cozy atmosphere that feels separate and apart from the other areas, while at the same time ties it all in together. Although the clients always thought the spa was a good idea, they admitted they didn't really know how often they would use it, especially given the harsh winters we have here in the Chicago area. In the months following completion, they've told us that they're in it almost every night.

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

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