Using water as a design element

March 1, 2011

Poolscape-faux river[1]
Natural pond water in this faux river appears to be flowing into the pool. In actuality, pool water runs the last few feet.

By Barry Justus

Most people have had the pleasure of walking in the woods and enjoying the beauty of a natural stream, meandering river or magnificent waterfall. These natural water features share a number of common traits.

Water is very much affected by gravity, always running downhill; both subtle and more abrupt changes in grade in a natural setting can result in a waterfall. Of course, in nature, the ‘building materials’ are local, blending in with the surrounding environment and often including aquatic life, such as fish, moss, algae and a whole range of creatures, such as butterflies, birds and mammals.

There are also a number of elements not found in nature’s water features. Mortar joints are not visible between the rocks of a natural waterfall. In a forest, it is rare to see a waterfall without a visible source for its cascading volumes of water. And there is certainly no fibreglass, concrete or plastic in a natural setting.

A pale imitation

It is easy to see why the stunning natural beauty of a water feature is difficult to represent in landscaping and aquatic projects. While many pool and landscape contractors include waterfalls as part of their designs, they often fall short of truly replicating nature. In fact, many waterfalls constructed around residential pools can be accurately described as a ‘pile of rocks.’ These features share few of the traits that make naturally occurring waterfalls beautiful. There are several common drawbacks to the traditional ‘pile of rocks’ waterfall:

While these waterfalls fail to inspire with their natural beauty, they also often fail clients in a number of ways. Leaks are a common problem in poorly designed, inadequately constructed water features. Depending on the size of the water feature, an engineered design may be required, taking into account the prevailing soil conditions. Also, there is often no consideration given to the massive amount of weight placed on the pool deck adjacent to the pool wall.

Poolscape waterfall2-hi res[2]
Leaks are a common problem in poorly designed pile-of-rocks waterfall features.

A waterfall is normally constructed of stone weighing upwards of 878.8 kg/m2 (180 lbs/cf). This massive weight must be supported by substantial concrete footings and deck supports. An ‘A’ frame, doubled up on the side of a panel pool, is not a substitute for proper design. Some of these waterfalls leak so much they can only operate for a limited time before there is a noticeable drop in the pool’s water level. The leaking water can also wreak havoc on the underground structure of the pool and surrounding areas.

There are various methods of preventing leaks in these waterfalls. By starting with a proper foundation shifting can be prevented. Structural concrete with various types of waterproofing admixes such (e.g. Xypex, Aquafin) will result in minimal water loss, while steel or aluminium pans can prevent water from leaking into the surrounding ground.

In these waterfalls, giant boulders are typically just carefully stacked on a rubber liner to avoid any damage. However, the normal method of positioning the boulders used is to mortar the rocks together, often resulting in large, highly visible mortar joints. To remedy this, builders can colour the mortar in an attempt to help them blend in the rocks. Spray foam can be used to control leaking in joints, but only when used in conjunction with a structural leak prevention system.

A common problem occurs in the industry when the pool contractor ‘prepares’ for a waterfall by installing a single, 51-mm (2-in.) line to the location of the water feature. At this point, a separate landscaping company takes over the project. Often there is little or no communication between the two companies with regards to hydraulic requirements and the desired esthetic qualities of the water feature. Project management and proper design will eliminate these types of problems.

A new kind of waterfall

Thankfully, there are alternatives to a rock-pile waterfalls. There are a select few true artists who can sculpt concrete into incredible, realistic water features that mimic nature. Some of these artists cast their faux rocks in nature. These specially designed water features look very realistic when combined with plantings, natural pebbles and subtle project design.

Poolscape-Cat- 43B[3]
The natural reflective qualities of perfectly still water, along with the subtle sound of water spilling over the edge, bring a sense of calm to the viewer.

One simple technique to consider is constructing the waterfall so it does not use pool water. A stone water feature can be constructed so that a faux stream of treated pool water actually enters the swimming pool; the bulk of water cascading over the rocks can come from a separate non-chlorinated water source. This allows moss and algae to grow, more closely mimicking nature. Plantings and fish can also be added, even in close proximity to a chlorinated pool.

These types of waterfalls attract butterflies, birds and amphibians. They also have the added advantage of not dumping heat, water or chemicals from the pool, since only a minimal amount of pool water flows from the faux stream.

Designers can also use a stone bridge or similar device to separate the natural water from the pool water, to create the illusion of a continuous flowing water source. Streams and waterfalls can be run any distance from the pool to create a landscape that more closely resembles a natural environment. These types of water features can also be kept running 24 hours a day to create a soothing retreat.

Additionally, variable-drive pumps, combined with proper hydraulics, can result in extremely energy-efficient features. Conversely, traditional rock-pile waterfalls typically require high-horsepower pumps to operate the few hours a month they are used.

Are waterfalls necessary?

Designers have traditionally used fountains, runnels, rills, sheers, spouts and edge treatments to showcase their talents. However, there is a growing trend among designers and architects for clean, sleek, sophisticated designs. A review of top industry awards show a growing number of pools without significant traditional water features (and very few, if any, rock-pile waterfalls).

Overflow pools

Among the common replacement for traditional water features are various types of overflow pools. Overflow type pools can be thought of as a large water feature without the inherent drawbacks. A well-designed and accurately constructed overflow pool can be subtle, visual art, producing a soothing white noise. The natural reflective qualities of perfectly still water, along with the subtle sound of water spilling over the edge, bring a sense of calm to the viewer.

In these types of applications, designers are not trying to mimic nature, only to create an environment conducive for relaxation. A rill or runnel can be part of these sophisticated projects; a faux stream can be used to control energy costs associated with moving water, dumping heat from the pool. The rill can move from inside the home, inviting the viewer outside to the experience the work of art. In addition, a small variable-drive pump combined with exact construction, adequate hydraulics and automation can boost energy efficiency. Advances in automated cover designs allow these types of pools to be both safe and energy-efficient.

Vanishing edge pools

With the right location, accurate construction and proper design, a vanishing edge pool can result in very low flow rates and subtle sounds from a wet wall of water slowly running over the edge of the pool. However, poorly designed and constructed vanishing edge pools share all of the negative characteristics of a rock-pile waterfall, dumping heat, losing water through evaporation and creating thundering noise pollution.

Bigger is not always better. A subtle design will often win over a large cascade of water. If the client insists on going big, be sure to take into account the long-term care and energy costs associated with a large-scale water feature.

Wet walls

Wet walls are subtle water features, commonly found in indoor environments, with similar qualities to overflow pools. These features can be located in or adjacent to the pool, or as a separate feature. Normally built using concrete and tile, they can also be constructed as a stainless steel standalone feature.

Sitting near a wet wall brings a soothing sense of calm and produces pleasant background noise. Variable-drive pumps are ideal for the small amounts of water running over a wet wall. Some systems avoid the problems of maintaining a relatively small body of water by regularly dumping the water and replacing it from a freshwater source. When located indoors, the water quality of wet walls must be carefully maintained in order to prevent the spread of airborne illnesses.

Spouts and sheers

Water spouts and sheers are often found in modern pools and fountains, though large-volume sheers tend to have the same problems as rock-pile waterfalls. The large volume of water cascading into the pool wastes large amounts of heat and water; the amount of noise generated by a large volume sheer is also significant.

Large sheers look great in photos, but are often not used on a regular basis by the client. Designers might be better served by incorporating a number of smaller sheers into their projects. David Tisherman uses this technique frequently in his often-imitated ‘Tishways’ spilling from spas into the pools below. Smaller sheers dump less heat, produce less noise and require smaller pumps and water volumes. The biggest advantage of sheers is that they look good when they are turned off, blending into the background until the homeowner is ready to use them.


Poolscape foam jets 1-hi res[4]
Foam jets also have the ability to blend into the water feature and look stunning at night when lit from below.

Laminar jets also have the ability to completely blend into the background until springing to life. These water features are anything but subtle. Normally used sparingly by clients, they give the desired ‘wow’ effect without being an eyesore while turned off.

Foam jets also have the ability to blend into the water feature until turned on. These features look stunning at night when lit from below, but have a tendency to disturb the water surface and create standing waves in a pool. This can be eliminated with proper design and location of the jets in their own spill-over body of water.

Try something new

Constructors and designers of aquatic environments have the ability to provide clients with alternatives to traditional rock-pile water features. Professionals should explore and provide alternatives to the consumer and avoid the temptation to include a water feature in every project. Often the most elegant and beautiful projects are simplistic in design, subtle in creation and stunning in presentation.


Justus_HeadshotBarry Justus is the owner of Poolscape Inc., a landscape contractor and pool designing and building company based in Burlington, Ont. He can be reached at[5] or by visiting[6].

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