The St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park is a historic institution in our nation’s oldest city. Since he was a child, zoo director John Brueggen’s passion for reptiles has grown into a highly regarded career engaged in and overseeing education and research on reptiles, birds and other animals at the zoo and in expeditions around the globe.
He recently sought out technical support from Aquascape Inc., and Earth Works to improve ecosystems at the zoo and build a recreational ecosystem pond at his home, which he shares with his wife Jenn, a biologist who also works at the zoo.
Brueggen contacted Earth Works, which presented a more exciting proposition — a recreational pond. He loved the concept of swimming in a natural-looking pond with wildlife in it, like fish and frogs. Plus, it could look great in his yard throughout the year, even when was too cold to swim.
“You get this natural environment that’s not so sterile,” Brueggen added. “I know a lot about recycling and filtering water, and these guys know exactly how to do it so that it’s not labor intensive. It’s a beautiful experience all year round.”
Earth Works introduced Brueggen to the Aquascape lifestyle, and before he knew it, Aquascape founder and CEO Greg Wittstock, whom Brueggen recognized from YouTube, had agreed to design the project and hold a class in their backyard for prospective Certified Aquascape Contractors (CACs) interested in learning how to build something more exciting than the average swimming pool.
“We have two primary missions,” said Colleen Heitler, president of Aquascape Inc. “The first is to connect people with water the way nature intended. We believe in the power of nature, relationships and getting outside. This is such an important part of what we love and are passionate about. “The second most important mission of Aquascape is to train contractors to install the best, most ecologically sound, low-maintenance water feature by hosting training events,” she added.
Aquascape scheduled training builds for CACs from around the country to participate in hands-on learning experiences at the St. Augustine Zoo and Brueggen residence between Feb. 3-5, 2021.
Staging material, including four tractor-trailer loads of Tennessee fieldstone, river rounds and Tremron wall block, began Christmas week 2020. The first phase of construction for the recreational pond began the week of Feb. 18, 2021. Team Aquascape’s Pond Professor Ed Beaulieu and Chris Hanson joined the Earth Works pond crew to excavate, address groundwater issues, construct the intake bay and wetland filter infrastructure, and complete much of the rock work.
All around the property are signs of the Brueggens’ passion for nature, as they raise chickens, pitcher plants, cacti, ground bromeliads and more. The initial planning for the dimensions came to a 20-by-25-foot pond. During excavation, while sizing up the boulders and proper slope to the desired depth of 4 ½ inches, the pond length increased by a few feet.
“We are going 2 feet down rather than our typical 18 inches,” said Michael Quatromoni, Earth Works designer and pond construction foreman. “And then we have our bigger drop — probably around 3 feet.” Within 6 feet of the back door to the house, this 2 and 3-foot elevation forms the foundation for large stones, creating a staircase into the pond.
“We all knew it was going to happen,” said Beaulieu. “Once we start going down 4½ to 5 feet deep, we are going to hit groundwater.”
The construction team recessed a drainage pipe into the bottom and put down a layer of geotextile fabric. They came in with clear #57 stone, which compacts well, as a base to build structural walls on top of the liner. Then, another geotextile layer was put down to increase the load-bearing capacity before the installation of the EPDM rubber liner and yet another layer of geotextile on top.
According to Aquascape, designing for ecosystem ponds requires as much biological understanding as adherence to solid engineering principles.
“What I love about this whole concept of a recreational pond is engaging people with water the way nature intended,” said Beaulieu. “We are talking about living water.” He added that being in Florida, they wanted to create a living, breathing ecosystem unto itself, because Brueggen had planned to have unique reptiles living inside it.
“Reptiles are looking for that same experience,” Beaulieu continued. “They don’t want chlorinated water; they want to immerse themselves in a springlike atmosphere. So, natural filtration, covering every square inch with rock and gravel, having a large wetland filter — all that stuff is going to come into play.”
Sculpting the Waterscape
A key engineering component in this project was the intake bay constructed with 16 large Aquascape AquaBlox. The AquaBlox provide 500 gallons of water storage (equal to one minute’s worth of prefiltration) for the pump system in two vaults that are pulled through two 3-inch suction lines to feed the wetland filter, underwater jets and waterfalls. The direction of the waterfall, presence of peninsulas, backwater areas and deep sections could cause water-circulation problems.
“It creates some dead zones, which is fine if you know how to eliminate them,” Hanson said. “You have to increase circulation so you don’t have these static areas in the pond where debris will accumulate.”
The architectural walls they constructed were necessary to get to the 4 ½-foot depth, and they wanted to eliminate any static underneath.
“Everything on the top layer of water will move just fine through here, but we still wanted to increase circulation to prevent any sediment from falling to the bottom,” Hanson added. “We ran a 2-inch trunk line that we spidered off in a variety of places coming in from the waterfall area into 1-inch jet lines.”
Jets pointed clockwise at the wall block level form a swirl chamber that works in unison with a jet pointed upward from within the wall level that pushes the swirling water, carrying any debris out of the deepest area and into the current that flows toward the intake bay. Similarly, they installed jets in regions throughout the pond as needed, including the shallow area nearest the house by the steps leading down into the pond, to push the debris into the current toward the intake bay. Even though it was a small area that a screen enclosure would cover, they said they “over-engineered” it as a teaching opportunity for the other CACs — and to hook up the homeowners!
Natural Beauty, Created
Incorporating natural elements from the area was essential to the design. “I love the look of that beautiful cypress log,” said Beaulieu. “It’s transitioning from the outside area, from the terrestrial plantings down underwater.”
The waterfall dropping in behind the cypress log creates some interesting dynamics from both a visual and a water flow standpoint. The construction team placed large boulders in front of the log with flat areas on top to form an aquatic planting area.
“I love designing and building like this, because here in Florida, you are in a hurricane zone,” Beaulieu said. “You get lots of storm surges of wind and bad weather. It’s always knocking down trees.
“Whenever I go exploring the local lakes, rivers and incredible springs of northern Florida, I see exactly that kind of look,” Beaulieu continued. “Trees that have been knocked down create these little backwater areas that are exactly where different types of aquatic vegetation start to sprout up, because it’s a small, sheltered area. I love talking about bio-mimicry techniques, and this is it at its finest.”
The landscaping around the recreational pond within the enclosure is continuing to be done by the Brueggen family and is especially suited for the cactuses and reptiles that will enjoy the enclosed recreational pond together.
It’s extremely satisfying seeing the results of the homeowners’ creativity coupled with professional collaboration.