How to Build an Elephant

Published on January 1, 2014

1_pond_construction Any pond builder can tell you that the pond construction business is rife with choices. What you may not know, though, is that those choices become even more pressing — and sometimes more difficult to answer — when you’re tackling larger projects. Liner or no liner? Rocks and gravel or just bare liner? Do you use bentonite or clay? Filtration, aeration or both?

Tough questions, all. What do the experts say? Wait … I’m a pond expert! Perhaps I’ll just tell you what worked for us on a recent large pond project.

The call for this particular project was referred to us by Greg Wittstock and Ed Beaulieu of Aquascape Inc. We at Ponds Inc. have been involved with Aquascape and their team for many years and have built many of their large water features and landscapes as a subcontractor in the past. Having good relationships and experience with like-minded contractors in your region is always beneficial in the pond industry.

When I spoke with the potential client over the phone, he mentioned that he had visited the large pond at the Aquascape headquarters in St. Charles, Ill. and wanted something similar in size installed at his farm in Galena, Ill. Some of you may know Aquascape’s elaborate pond, a third of an acre in size with a cost well into the six-figure range. We at Ponds Inc. had a major role in its construction.
Of course, I wasn’t quite sure what to think of this gentleman’s request and was hesitant to imagine a pond of that magnitude installed on a farm! I quickly decided to shelve my assumptions and set up a meeting at the farm.

## A trip to the Country ##
Galena is a magical little town nestled in the sprawling hills of northwest Illinois. Unfortunately, it is three hours from the home of Ponds Inc., which is based in Gilberts, Ill. There are no fast ways to Galena and the drive is mostly hilly, two-lane roads.

Three and a half hours after parting ways with my cell phone’s navigation, I arrived onsite. The farm was
not a wide-open, sprawling area as one normally pictures Illinois farms. It was much closer to an old, Wisconsin-style farm set into a hillside.
Pulling into the narrow gravel drive, there was a decently sloped hill on my left and a nicely refurbished farmhouse on my right. I could see a large pole barn off in the distance, built into another hillside. A beautiful valley area opened up to what looked like an attempt at a pond, but was, at the moment, more like a dry retention area.

The gravel drive was built on top of an embankment, which divided the retention area on the left from an old silo on the right. There wasn’t a barn any longer and I wondered where it could have been in the past. It must have been difficult to have livestock with this layout and you sure wouldn’t want to have an accident driving off this road!

I imagined that the client must have intended the pond to go within the retention-like area, but it still seemed odd for this elaborate pond to be installed here. “Enough wondering,” I thought. It was time to meet the client and find out his primary objectives for this project!

## Meeting the Elephant ##
“Jason,” the client said as we began to walk around the property. “I have big plans for this place!” My first thought in hearing that was not an optimistic one, and I began wondering if Galena had a good place for lunch that would make the six-hour round trip worthwhile! We have all heard enormous ideas from clients before and normally it doesn’t bode well.

Again, I decided to put that thought — and any other bad thoughts — on the shelf too. We can be our own worst enemies at times and you should never underestimate a person’s ambitions.

The client intended this property to be a second home to visit and enjoy when he and his family were not in the Chicago suburbs, where they normally reside. He also said that he wanted a home large enough to hold several people and still be comfortable so that he could have employees and their families there too. Now I was getting a much clearer picture of what his ambitions were.

We turned around and faced the hill opposite the farmhouse and he explained that he was going to build a large home that would look like a barn. He planned to cut into the hillside to create a platform, and the finished home would overlook the valley and pond.

“The problem I have,” he said, “is that my wife and kids think it’s boring here on the farm and that the pond is ugly. They really don’t want to be here or bring anyone here. I want a nice-looking pond and they want a pond that is clean and interesting.”

So far, the current pond was none of those things! The hillsides that formed two sides of this retention area leveled out into a large, sloping bottom. The gravel road was built on an embankment that appeared to be like a dam. The very bottom was holding about two feet of water with an incredibly large tree stump lying sideways, mostly out of the water. The rest was overgrown weeds.

The client explained that he had hired a local excavating company that was very reputable for building ponds. That excavator had built the road and formed this area that was supposed to be a pond. It was supposed to be 18 feet deep, and the stump served as a fish habitat because the client enjoyed fishing. He also said that even when the pond was full, it had murky water and his wife and kids didn’t really like it. However, the pond was rarely full!

“It never held water and continued to drain completely,” he explained. After several unfruitful repeat visits for repairs, he had parted ways with the local farm pond builder.

“I’m very frustrated,” the client told me. “I’ve wasted a lot of money already and what you see is the result. But that’s where you come in! I want a large, natural pond that looks like a quarry. I don’t want it to look anything like the one in St. Charles. I want this one much larger and it has to take up this area here,” he said, pointing to the retention area. “Can you handle that?” I gazed over the area and said, “Absolutely!”

Then I realized that I had just blurted out that we could build his massive project as if it were a normal backyard water feature. There was nothing normal about this! I felt like I had decided to bring home an elephant as if it were a puppy!

## A Plan Begins to Form ##
I knew this was a tall order, but I thought that if we stuck with what we know about small water gardens, it could also work on a large scale.
I explained to the client that we could reshape the area and use a liner. We could make shelves in the pond and install rocks and cover the entire liner with gravel. I told him that we would need to use large stones if he wanted it to appear like a quarry and that we could make it look very pleasing, with a beach area and cliff-like walls to jump off of.

I also said that we could build beautiful waterfalls that were fed by a massive filtration system and have a creek that came from the hills! My excitement was overloading my logic again, but I am passionate about ponds and just love forming the vision and natural painting in my mind!

His expression was a mix of interest and skepticism.

“So,” he said. “You’re telling me that you can build a pond that looks like a quarry; has a liner, stream and waterfalls; uses a filter and has big rocks … and I’m supposed to trust that it will hold water? I don’t want to end up with the same problems I had before.”

“I understand and can appreciate your concerns,” I replied. “But we came highly recommended and have the experience to do this. We can build your pond … and it will hold water if you have the budget for it.”

He nodded, then took off on his four-wheeler so I could begin measuring. The space was about 50,000 square feet! A big elephant indeed!

## Objectives and Concerns ##
After measuring, I flagged down the potential client on his ATV and we discussed our project objectives and concerns. Ponds Inc. does this with all of our projects, large or small.


Some of the key objectives are:

* ■ Owner priorities and requirements

* ■ Entertainment, family and guest experiences

■ Environmental concerns and aquatic life expectations

■ Maintenance objectives

* ■ Sustainability options and goals

■ Time frame and budget requirements

The information gathered from these discussions is the key to having well-informed, satisfied clients. On large projects like this one, you may need to gather more information and discuss design options and logistics prior to submitting your final proposal.

7_pond_construcion I told the client that I felt 18 feet was far too deep and wasn’t necessary to have a beautiful pond. I figured a majority depth of six feet with a deeper section dropping to eight feet would suffice. He said he preferred 10 feet, and that wasn’t an issue. The shelves would be at three-, six-, eight- and 10-foot elevations throughout the entire pond. I figured that we could obtain six-foot clarity throughout the pond with a decent wetlands bog filter.

I asked him to have the local excavator fill in the pond to a depth of six feet. I also requested that they create a compacted, 15-foot ledge around the entire perimeter from the soils that would need to be excavated from the hillside during the construction of the new home. I said that he could stockpile any ledge rock from the hill excavation to be used in the pond.

8_pond_construction Galena is known for its dramatic rock cliffs jutting from the hills, and I was sure that this hill wasn’t much different than any other beneath the surface. These options solved great obstacles for both of us. He would have had to haul soil and stones a long distance to disperse them elsewhere on the 1,400-acre farm, and we needed a platform to work from with ledges of soil that didn’t have bedrock to deal with. I figured that if the 18-foot depth of the original pond was filled in to six feet, we could excavate the soils to 10-foot depth and place the excavated soils where we wanted. This would make the instructions very simple for the excavator who would dig the hillside during the new house construction. I wouldn’t need to be there showing him exactly how to form a pond when I wasn’t exactly sure of its final design anyway.

This is why discussing objectives is important for any size project prior to your proposal. Because of the cost and time savings in hauling the materials, money saved from one job could now be used to build our pond to its fullest potential, which makes both client and contractor happy!

Driving home, I began to brainstorm ideas and put them on my voice recorder to be retrieved later when I was in the office. We had a location. We had the enthusiasm of builder and client. We had the beginnings of a plan. Now it was time to go to work.

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