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Outdoor water features add to a home's sense of shelter
by Dr. Oneida Cramer

To open a window and hear the sound of water running outside adds a sense of shelter to your house, i.e., what a house is supposed to be, according to Kevin Sloan, landscape architect and architect, AIA, with the Hillier Group.

Water features, as such, offer tremendous expressive potential and aesthetic value to the home, especially when the water stays close to its natural habitat?a concept that explains the higher asking prices of waterfront properties. So, you shouldn?t confuse architectural outdoor water systems with the experience of having a small desktop fountain in your sight.

?You have the proximity to the sound and the comfort of the water near you, but outside,? said Sloan. ?I think that very much touches a chord in all of us because?tens of thousands of years ago, being near water, meant survival. That?s why the nearness of water is still a comfort to us. We?re near the water hole; we?re near the stream; we?re near the source of life. Likewise, being inside, being sheltered and protected from the weather, which human beings need, and hearing the water outside are kind of primal forces. I truly believe that these things are not just philosophical nonsense. Otherwise our bodies wouldn?t be made of 75% water. So, when you have a swimming pool in your back yard and you?re splashing around with your family, recreation and enjoyment are on your mind. But, underneath, I believe there is an embedded memory long ago and far away of the cabin and the waterhole.?

?Interior fountains are somewhat of a challenge,? Sloan said. ?There is a curious improbability to it, and it just doesn?t look right. The water seems out of place. It confuses the issues of what?s inside and outside the house. In the hands of a skilled designer, where you have a screened in porch or kind of open backyard veranda, where you?re really under part of the building, but you?re still exposed to part of the elements, you can have water weaving in and out of the house. If you?re knowledgeable of these sort of responses, you can create an extraordinary set of experiences of bringing the outside in or taking the inside out.?

A water feature in its natural environment doesn?t imply that fountain design and formal expression must always resemble a babbling brook, for instance, a lump of rocks grafted onto the corner of a rectangular swimming pool.

?You can create the experiential equivalent of being in a natural place by using clearly architectural features and architectural shapes that express water over their edges and surfaces,? Sloan said. To get the greatest impact, the components of a water feature should complement the surrounding environment, both visually and audibly.

?Water is like a musical instrument,? Sloan said. ?One needs to be attentive that there are many voices?sounds to water?and that the sounds like the musical instruments in a symphony?have different effects on a listener.? The various sounds come from the relationship in the two levels of water as the water drops from high to low. For example dropping water over a hollow cavity, like a small grotto, actually works like a musical instrument?to make a hollow sound. When the water stays in contact with a surface such as stone or slate, there arises a very soft creamy sound, and visually there is a curtain of water flowing down a beautiful vertical plane, thus, creating a glass-like sense of movement that almost always invites you to be very close. And because the water stays in contact with the surface, the auditory component is also inviting, quite a contrast to the splattering, crisp combustive firecracker kind of sound from the same amount of water dropped eight feet into a pool.

?When I?m working with water, I often think of myself as a kind of musical composer because there?s a very clear palette of different kinds of affects and different kinds of techniques, and I?m comparing those against a very specific layout of a location and the size and scale of the spaces,? Sloan said. ?I conjure up, so to speak, what instruments need to play in this kind of acoustical water ballet.? Included in this gathering of sounds are also environmental sound problems, all of which can be compensated with water. ?In fact, I?m working with that idea on a project with someone who lives very near the Tollway and is using water to create a kind of second landscape?the one they actually perceive as opposed to the background noise. In this case, water is actively dropping from one level to another and generating a lot of the appropriate kind of sound.?

?When water is not managed well in design, like a variant, ambitious water feature with lots of water running, lots of splashing, it can become akin to being near a jet engine,? Sloan said. Especially in cold months, running water can be repelling; so what works on a hot summer day can psychologically chill to the bone on a cold shady day in the winter.

?I can tell you an absolute that you never want to do,? Sloan said. ?Put a fountain where it can?t get into the sun. I find that very sad when clients basically never even gave their fountain a chance because they made the most important first move incorrectly by putting the fountain on the north side of the building, and it?s forever buried in the shade. A brook cutting through a glade of trees is the natural drainage of the site; so, it doesn?t look wrong. But a fountain is clearly man-made, and I think that we intuitively understand the logic of nature, and we intuitively identify the work of a human?the work of our own hand.?

By employing an awareness of sunlight and wind direction, people have designed stunning water structures, for example?(1) a smooth overflowing pool on a western horizon that fills up with liquid lines of light reflected from the evening setting sun or (2) a water tower jet that spreads out a rooster tail of mist in the breezes with rainbows of color cast from the sunlight. In general, you can divide the world of water effects into two categories: (1) fountains about water, and (2) fountains that are objects (tiered bowls or birdbaths or statures) with water as an accent.

?Fountains?they always should be designed intelligently?are, to a great degree, luxury items,? Sloan said. ?They require upkeep and maintenance. It?s the same with having a nice garden. You?re entering a long-term relationship with that environment. So, accept the fact that if you?re emotionally going to make the commitment to having some kind of fountain or water feature, then do it right in the first place. I see too many people make a kind of half-hearted investment in a fountain and after a couple of years they get frustrated and give up and it turns into a flower planter.?

-by Dr. Oneida Cramer
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