You don’t have to be a fan of basketball to know Shaquille O’Neal, perhaps better known as “Shaq.” Aside from being one of the most indelible, acclaimed athletes ever to play for the National Basketball Association (NBA) and Team USA in the Olympics, the unmistakable 7-foot-1 superstar with size-23 sneakers who retired from the NBA in 2011 can still be seen all over the airwaves, from commentary on TNT to cameos in TV shows and movies, including endorsements all over the board — even his own “Shaq-a-Roni” pizza currently on the menu at Papa John’s.
Thanks to a massive, collaborative pond build organized by Aquascape Inc., over the week of Memorial Day 2020, the Hall of Famer is now the proud owner of a 1,000-square-foot luxury water feature that includes a 70-foot stream and large koi pond. Greg Wittstock, CEO of Aquascape, successfully coordinated the project despite facing a litany of challenges, including inclement weather, a condensed schedule and, of course, an ongoing pandemic.
A Five-Year Journey
It may not come as a surprise that this VIP construction project was almost five years in the making. Wittstock and Ed Beaulieu, vice president of field research and contractor development at Aquascape, flew to Orlando, Florida, in 2015 for a design consultation at O’Neal’s 56,000-square-foot, lakefront home. Just before shovels hit the soil on a large pond build near the home’s living area, O’Neal announced that he was selling the house and moving to metropolitan Atlanta, Georgia.
While his plans to install a large-scale water feature on his new property remained a priority, it took a brief backseat to the construction of a $1 million luxury tree house curated by Pete Nelson of Animal Planet’s Treehouse Masters. Featuring a custom-built poker table, fully stocked bar with moonshine-jug decanters and an electric humidor, this jaw-dropping tree house-turned-mancave featured everything O’Neal could possibly want in a recreational space — except a water feature.
That’s where Wittstock and his Aquascape team came in. The long-awaited initial consultation was finally scheduled at the now 3-year-old Atlanta-area home in March 2020, just as COVID-19 cases began to rise in the United States. Wittstock remained undeterred and flew from Chicago to Atlanta to discuss the design and placement of the water feature over FaceTime with O’Neal and his manager, who were in Los Angeles at the time. After a 30-minute video chat, it was determined that the water feature would be sited in front of the tree house.
If this one-of-a-kind design consultation were any indication of how the rest of the project would go, Wittstock knew that it would be one for the ages.
Rallying the Troops
Aquascape is no stranger to high-profile celebrity and collaborative waterscape projects, but the company had never taken on anything quite like this. When news of the build was disseminated throughout the company, more than 100 Certified Aquascape Contractors (CACs) expressed interest in participating on the project.
“It was just literally insane,” Wittstock said. “I knew that based on the time frame and the logistics, as well as the fact that we were in a pandemic, it would not be feasible to have 100 people building on it.”
Thus, for the first time in the company’s history, the collaborative build was limited to former Aquascape Artists of the Year. The plan was for the “Dream Team” of builders and designers to congregate at the O’Neal home the week of Memorial Day 2020 to knock out the estimated three-day build.
In consideration of COVID-19, most participants drove to the Atlanta-area site. This required an overnight drive down from Chicago for the Aquascape team, which included Beaulieu, vice president of construction Brian Helfrich, lead foreman Chris Hanson and foreman Nick Streicher. While social distancing on a project of this magnitude was next to impossible, the construction team took special precautions to ensure everyone’s safety.
“Let’s just say nobody shared beers,” Wittstock quipped.
Aquascape Artist of the Year participants included Alan Decker of Decker Pondscapes in Pattersonville, N.Y.; Jaak Harju of Atlantis Water Gardens in Morris Plains, N.J.; John Adams of Modern Design Aquascaping in Friendsville, Tenn.;
Chris Siewing of Nature’s ReCreations in Arnold, Mo.; Dan Harp of Mark The Pond Guy in Puyallup, Wash.; Weston Zimmerman of Tussey Landscaping in Hollidaysburg, Penn.; and Joey Genovese of Genoscape Inc. Landscaping & Design Services in Markham, Ontario. Other participants included Aquascape Conservationist of the year, Bernie Kerkvliet of Skyline Ponds in Lake Arrowhead, Calif.; and John Magyar of Universal Aquatics in Lawrenceville, Ga. Decker, Adams and Magyar also brought their sons along to take part in this once-in-a-lifetime project.
Wittstock’s original design following the remote consultation consisted of a simple waterfall that led into a large pond on one side. However, once the Artists of the Year arrived on the scene, the design took on a life of its own, turning into a collaboration of ideas that required each contributor to provide their own input and personal touches.
“There wasn’t one single person who designed this pond,” Wittstock said.
The dynamic design led to a sharp increase in supplies and stone, requiring a lot of improvisation and driving around Atlanta to visit local material suppliers.
“My main job was to make sure I was always one step ahead of the guys so they didn’t get slowed down with anything,” Wittstock said. “We were, for the most part, able to achieve that.”
On Tuesday morning, the Dream Team began implementing the design, breaking ground on a much larger waterfall that would be visible from the front driveway upon entering the property. A 70-foot stream would flow by the main house and over to a 22-by-50-foot ecosystem pond situated in front of the luxury tree house. With cooperation from the weather forecast and the spirit of camaraderie among all the contractors in attendance, day one ended with the project ahead of schedule.
Unfortunately, the weather started to unravel on day two, bringing eight consecutive hours of torrential rain and leaving the construction team in a sea of mud and muck. As a result, a local landscaping team hired to curate the area surrounding the water feature decided to opt out of the job at the last minute.
The Dream Team, however, remained steadfast and undeterred. Wittstock procured all the landscaping materials and equipment they needed, and the aquatic artists worked together to landscape the area themselves. While this added considerable time and effort, it allowed the project to manifest exactly as the designers envisioned it. The three-day project was extended to four days, with the finishing touches completed on Friday evening.
The entire project required 85 tons of moss rock and 35 tons of river rock. The 3-foot-deep pond pushes 25,000 gallons of water per hour. Standout features of the pond include a 25-inch architectural block wall with a gas fire pit, and three custom stacked slate sphere fountains flowing into the waterfalls and stream, which in total required nearly a quarter-million pounds of stone. One of the fountains sports a Superman symbol — one of O’Neal’s many monikers — to clearly distinguish the property as the Shaq family compound.
For this build, Yancey Bros., the oldest Cat dealer, provided excavation equipment, including a 289D3 compact track loader, 308, and 305.5 E2 mini excavators. SEMCO and Illinois Brick Company also took part in the build by partnering to supply two trucks with 48 tons of stone for the project.
The real star of the show, though, might be “Diesel,” a jumbo 34-inch Ochiba koi that now serves as head honcho of the new pond. Diesel was delivered by “Big Rich” Price of Ohio Fish Rescue, who was instrumental in the safe transport of O’Neal’s new collection of swimming pets.
Wittstock estimates that the retail value of the project was about $200,000.
Several of the Artists of the Year brought their children along with them for an unforgettable glimpse into working for a high-profile client. O’Neal himself emerged from the main house several times during the week to greet and spend time with the artisans in his yard, taking a special interest in the younger hands helping out on the project. From storytelling to sharing workout ideas, O’Neal made all the guests on his property feel welcome and at home.
Several youngsters said the experience inspired them to consider pond building as a profession.
“Working together as a team reminded me of my sports team,” one CAC’s son remarked. “I could actually consider building ponds for a career now.”
O’Neal took a particular interest in his new koi, expressing excitement at hanging out in his tree house to overlook the pond. Wittstock anticipates delivering more koi to the pond in the fall.
Shaq’s mother, who lives on the property, may be the biggest pond fan. After the project was completed, she requested that the pathway be extended to the front door of the main house so that she could easily make her way down to the pond whenever she wanted. Aquascape was happy to comply, and 11 pavers later, Mrs. O’Neal now has exclusive, dedicated access to her own slice of paradise.
The project was documented in real time on YouTube and received more than 6 million views. Despite the extremely long hours, rough weather and challenges of working during a pandemic, Wittstock considers the project critical to expanding the worldwide audience and fan base for waterscapes, and not to mention an overall huge success for Aquascape.
“It was worth every effort that we put into it and every piece of sweat equity,” Wittstock said.
In fact, Aquascape has already made plans to return to the property in the fall to build a large-scale recreation pond for O’Neal’s children and grandchildren, who regularly visit the home.
While O’Neal seems to have merely gotten his feet wet with his newest hobby, only time will tell how being a proud pond owner will treat the pond bug’s newest (and largest-ever) victim.