Make an Impact With Small Water Features

Published on April 29, 2015

Water. The most abundant compound on the planet, it makes up 70 percent of our bodies; it drives our weather patterns; it supplies nourishing rains for our crops; it allows our bodies to actually function and it’s used in manufacturing everything in some way, shape or form.

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150 man hours were required to create this one-of-a-kind, custom-designed, custom-built, dry-stacked slate fountain. (Click to Expand Image)
150 man hours were required to create this one-of-a-kind, custom-designed, custom-built, dry-stacked slate fountain.

Just think about it. Everything around us has been created or shaped by water. We flock to beaches, lakes, rivers and streams for a wide variety of recreational activities. In fact, aquatic destinations are ranked #1 for vacation locations.

Why? There’s an invisible bond between us and water. Just ask anybody about their favorite aquatic experience and you’ll get a poetic description of a past memory or details of a future adventure. We crave it to such an extreme that we want to experience it on a daily basis.

I know what you’re thinking … we bathe in it, drink and flush it every day, but that’s not what I’m talking about!

I’m talking about fresh water in its basic form as a small, decorative water feature. The options are truly limitless, as our imaginations can run wild with this exciting medium. Water features can come in a variety of sizes and volumes, but I want to focus on small features because, gallon for gallon, they have the greatest impact of them all!

Hard-wired for Water

Growing up in the Midwest, I was in awe of Lake Michigan. To this day I can spend days along the spectacular coastline of this inland ocean. Of course it’s spectacular; it’s huge! The amount of wildlife and diversity is just as incredible as the sunsets.

So how do we convey all of this in a small package? Easy: Just Add Water.

Patio bubblers are an easy way to add a splash of water in any hardscape. (Click to Expand Image)
Patio bubblers are an easy way to add a splash of water in any hardscape.

That’s right. As simple as it sounds, just add a touch of water to any environment and you will see an immediate change. Literally! As soon as it’s completed you’ll see people slow down and stop what they’re doing to investigate this microcosm of life.
The edges of a water feature will become home to a wide variety of organisms, all searching for a fresh supply of the clear, odorless and for the most part, tasteless liquid. Water is hard-wired within every living creature as a critical, life-giving compound, so when we’re near it we unknowingly stop, look and listen.

There have actually been studies on the physical effects our bodies undergo in the presence of water. Our heart rates slow down, our minds are cleared of clutter and we can just … be. This is why waterfront property fetches a premium. The good news: we now have the ability to create that phenomenon anywhere!

Here are a few simple projects that can transform any space into an aquatic oasis.


Fountains have been used throughout history to supply fresh water to villages using nothing but gravity. They have endured throughout the centuries and can be found in a variety of locations. The soothing sounds are an audible delight, filling courtyards and spaces with a sound that needs to be heard to be understood.

There are two main forms for fountains. The first is a standalone fountain structure, and you’ve seen them before: precast concrete, resin or, if you’re lucky, carved stone. They have a lower basin or bowl that houses the recirculating pump, which moves the water to the top. The water will then fill a small bowl until it overflows, raining down into the bowl below it and repeating this process until the water reaches the lowest point and the location of the pump.
 There are hundreds if not thousands of variations, and they all have a common function despite the artistic differences.

The other fountain form is integrated into the landscape. The water-holding reservoir and pump are located underground, so the only thing that the viewers see is the artistic portion of the fountain itself.

Within this style there are two variations. The first is a solid, watertight container with a specific volume of water, designed to operate a particular size of fountain feature on top of it. These are small, easily installed containers for quaint, bubbling features with progressively larger containers to match the increasing scale of the fountains.

A simple ribbon of water is the perfect accent to an intimate patio setting. (Click to Expand Image)
A simple ribbon of water is the perfect accent to an intimate patio setting.

Then there’s the modular, underground reservoir in which the basin is created according to the dreams of the client. A variety of materials can be incorporated for use in conjunction with the underground reservoirs. Resin and plastic features have been steadily increasing in popularity due to the cost-effectiveness of the feature. The simplistic installation processes, durability and lightweight nature of this medium is bringing them into a wide variety of homes throughout North America.

Wooden forms, ceramic urns and metal sculptures are also used in a variety of settings to bring an artistic element into the garden that captivates all of the senses.

Streams and Waterfalls

The next step for a water shaper separates you from the rest of the pack: creating a stream and waterfall from a pile of rock!

The underground reservoirs that we’ve been talking about have the ability to operate a full-blown stream and recirculating waterfall. The required skill level and understanding of flowing water increases exponentially here, as you’ll need to conjure up your hidden artistic abilities to create a representation of a fully functioning watershed within the space of a few square feet!

Small features will challenge you like no other feature. Every element of a small feature needs to be carefully thought out in order for it to not only function properly, but also create the illusion of a much larger space. The key to a successful stream and waterfall is to keep it in scale with the space and, if possible, try to disguise or hide the water’s point of origin. This will reinforce the illusion of what we are trying to accomplish.

Beauty and Sustainability

The great part about customizable reservoirs is that they can be designed to capture and recirculate rainwater, creating a sustainable water feature that never needs a supplemental source of water. Careful planning and understanding of the precipitation patterns for the area is necessary for this to work properly. A sustainable fountain can be upgraded into a full-blown rainwater capture system in which the underground reservoir is designed to catch and store a surplus of water, which can then be used for irrigation or other outdoor water usage.

Spillway bowl installations (can be completed using simple techniques and tools. (Click to Expand Image)
Spillway bowl installations (can be completed using simple techniques and tools.

One of my personal favorites is the option of going deep with the reservoir. If the reservoir is excavated to a depth at which the pump is located below the frost line, the fountain is able to operate 365 days a year, even in the frigid northern climates. The beauty of doing this is that it will create an ever-changing ice sculpture that’s sure to have an impact during any season! And with the simple addition of a well-designed lighting package, this fountain will become the focal point of the garden.

The infrastructure of an underground reservoir consists of an EPDM rubber membrane or similar impermeable membrane sandwiched between two layers of geotechnical fabrics that increase the puncture resistance and lifespan of the system. Aquablox are commonly used to create a structural void space within the liner. By increasing or decreasing the number of Aquablox we can create a reservoir of any capacity to meet the goals and budget of the client.

The pump or pumps are housed within a pump vault designed to fit within the Aquablox, allowing easy access to the mechanical components for maintenance.

A 1,500-gallon rainwater capture system is used as the reservoir for a stacked slate urn fountain. The pumping system for the fountain doubles as the delivery system for the captured water, allowing it to be used for the surrounding gardens. (Click Image to Expand)
A 1,500-gallon rainwater capture system is used as the reservoir for a stacked slate urn fountain. The pumping system for the fountain doubles as the delivery system for the captured water, allowing it to be used for the surrounding gardens.

The decorative element sits on top of the reservoir and is connected to the pump with a piping system, allowing the feature to come to life as water spills in all directions from the fountain. Depending on the architecture of the home and desires of the clients, the feature can be as simple as a stone with a hole drilled through it. This will allow the water to bubble freely over the natural contours and rugged characteristics of the stone itself.

The simplicity of this type of feature should not be overlooked, as it can have a powerful effect on viewers; the focus is on the rock and its relationship with the water. This is one of the most powerful forces on our planet! The fact that water, a shapeless compound that spills between your fingers, can carve through solid rock is mind boggling! But anyone who has viewed the grandeur of the Grand Canyon can attest that, given enough time, water will shape the world—and our lives—one drop at a time.

Aqua UV

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