When Size Matters: Small Contractor, Texas-Sized Water Feature Project

koi pond water feature design

This is the view from the main patio. Soon, the homeowner will be looking across his front yard taking in the native stone, the outdoor lighting and the koi pond — not to mention the sunset reflecting off the water.

As water feature designers, specifiers and installers, we always get the most gasps. Guests will migrate through the landscape, over the hardscape, day or night, and will always wind up interacting with the water feature. What a joy! This is what building water features is all about. They entertain, enthuse and heal us while giving us much-needed ambiance and serenity.

A water feature should give its owners a sense of pride, and it has to be easy to maintain. For this reason, it is critical that every water feature builder provide their clients with the features and benefits mentioned here, even when the water feature is built by a smaller or less-experienced contractor. Colin Melton, the owner of Dig This Landscape, and designer Karen Richardson accomplished all of this and more as they literally left no stone unturned when they installed a large, double koi pond with a connecting stream at a ranch home owned by their clients in Hamilton, Texas.

Deep in the Heart of Texas

Hamilton is a small town positioned right in the heart of Texas. It is south of Dallas-Fort Worth, north of Austin and west of Waco. My family and I have driven through Hamilton many times traveling to West Texas and New Mexico. The town is rich with quaint restaurants, rolling hills and incredible views. I was excited when I got a call that a small-town contractor needed help with a large water feature in this little Texas town.
Colin, a Texas-licensed irrigator and landscape architect, worked in our industry for many years as a grounds supervisor at some prominent golf courses in and around Austin. He started his landscaping business in 1999 and has since expanded into being a grower, nursery and retail garden center. Karen is a landscape architect who has a great appreciation for plants that are native to Central Texas and understands the importance of compost subsoil. She works diligently to blend the beauty of the Texas Hill Country into every landscape project.

pond construction

Overall, the excavation went well. We spent some time later that day working with the transit to determine overall depth and the high water mark. We had to pull out the backhoe one more time to excavate a spot for the skimmer, left. Next time, right, we will know to put the liner down in the morning, especially in August! 

Colin had done all kinds of landscape construction, but when it came to water features, he had only installed a few of the ornamental variety and a couple of small waterfalls. His largest water feature to date was smaller than a typical 8-by-11-foot pond and did not include any of the modern filtration techniques that we have all become accustomed to. All of a sudden, he was faced with the challenge of building a large, sophisticated ecosystem koi pond right in the middle of a huge front yard, surrounded by the landscape, hardscape and lighting that he had already installed.

Hamilton, We Have a Problem

It’s always a daunting task when a small contractor lands a large project. Many of us have been through the emotional stress and technical insecurity that the first large project can bring. Colin felt no different, because this job presented a lot of challenges.

 First, the pond would be installed in full sun. Central Texas gets very hot in the summertime, so how would he be able to keep the water quality in check? Second, he had to dig through multiple layers of rock to reach the desired depth of 5 feet. How was he going to be able to excavate and carve the rock so that the pond walls and shelves would be stable and the skimmer would sit level and at proper grade? Third, how would he install all the components, including aeration and ultraviolet lights, to be sure that the water feature provided years of enjoyment and allowed the koi to continue to grow and thrive in their environment? Finally, he had a very expectant client that was looking forward to seeing the crowning jewel of this project completed.

Get Back to the Basics

So, what are the secrets that a small contractor needs to know in order to build a large, award-winning water feature? First of all, every water feature builder should know that what we are actually selling and building is the aquatic lifestyle. To end users, water features are a personal amenity that they have become accustomed to enjoying on a daily basis. They enjoy the look and sound of flowing water. They appreciate the texture and color of aquatic plants. They relish the grace and beauty of fish and turtles. They also value the quality of time spent interacting with family and friends near the water feature, a source of adventure, comfort and entertainment.

water feature designSecondly, every contractor needs to understand the technical aspects that go into the project. They need to have a grasp on water circulation and aeration. They need to know how to perform a proper excavation. They need to understand how to lay out and shape a stream. They need to have an eye for choosing rocks and plants, and then placing them. They need to have knowledge about how to size liner, skimmers, biofalls, basins, vaults and piping. What about the pumps? The pumps for this project had to be very low-amperage, because this ranch was totally off the grid, operating solely on solar power.

Third, small contractors need to know how to integrate the water feature into the rest of the landscape. They should be able to determine the best location for the water feature, transitioning from turf, hardscape and structures to the water feature, so that the entire property flows as one seamless landscape.

Finally, they need to do all of these things and still be profitable. Colin had never budgeted or built a water feature this large before, so every hour was going to count. There was a lot to learn.

Going to Work

I joined Colin for my first visit to the site in July 2016. We began by sizing up the project just like any other — by going back to the basics. We measured and marked. We determined depth. We sized underlayment, liner, skimmers, filters, piping and pumps based on water volume and desired circulation rates. When it came to choosing the rocks and plants, we got lucky. Colin and Karen were able to collect all the rocks and plants from the ranch, making them native to the site.

The excavation began in August 2016, an even hotter month than July was. Colin had already run the power, water and aeration tubing. He wisely used a transit to determine depth, water level and skimmer placement. He was off to a great start! They began to excavate stones from the natural terrain on-site, determining how they would be used and where they would be placed. Three men finished all the plumbing in one day. Then, Colin took a two-week scheduled vacation to go fishing.

When he returned, they laid the underlayment and the liner. Laying the liner took much longer than expected, because the Texas sun had literally made it too hot to handle. His excitement ramped up. The only thing left, it seemed, was the rock placement. We had discussed how to strap, place and turn the stones while not damaging the liner. The rocks went in without a hitch. Finally, the rock placement was finished, and it was looking great! Now it was time to add the water and turn it on.

Pond Jitters

Just like anyone building his first big pond, Colin anticipated and started this job with a lot of anxiety. He commented that he was sweating bullets and felt like he was an “egg in a frying pan” — he being the egg, and the rubber liner being the pan. He experienced a big sigh of relief when they finally turned on the water, and everything looked great. His anxiety turned into pride and a sense of accomplishment. But how long would this feeling last?

finished pond design

Here’s the view from the patio of the beautiful Texas sunset.

A few days later, I got the call. “Rick, the one thing that I didn’t want to happen has happened. We’re losing water fast, and my client has a dinner party coming up!”

The entire project immediately became a giant burden weighing down on Colin’s shoulders, and worse, his heart. After discussing the problem for a few minutes, we were able to determine a course of action to find out why the pond was losing water.

Then, the second call came. “Rick, we found the leak. One of the larger stones caused a tear in the liner about 6 inches long. But we were able to fix it with some of the leftover seam and cover tape we had.”

“Excellent,” I said. “So it’s all good?”

“Yes, it’s all good,” he replied. I could tell he had taken a few deep breaths, and his excitement had returned.

Lessons in Success

Colin wound up putting some of his own fish in the pond. He attended the dinner party and was able to share his new passion for ponds and all things landscaping with some of the guests. His clients are ecstatic!

This experience taught Colin, Karen and me a lot of valuable lessons. I believe the most important lesson is that whether you are a small or large water feature builder, you will be successful as long as you are willing to learn and implement the proven methods that our industry has promoted for many years.

It reminds me of the “Six Ps of Pond Building” that I always share with my customers: “People love Ponds because they are Pretty and they will Pay you to Put one in, earning you a nice Profit.”

It’s all good, indeed!

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