From Vision to Execution (a Three-Part Series)

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water feature design

Have you ever wondered what goes into the making of a water feature? Delivering a beautiful fountain, cascading waterfall, reflecting pool, or other water feature is a multi-layered process that is part art and part science.

In this three-part series, OTL will describe the creation of our water features from start to finish. In Part 1, below, we discuss the intricacies of our design process. Part 2 will focus on how our water features are constructed, and Part 3 will describe how we bring each water feature to life.

Part 1: Amazing Places Begin With The Right Water Feature Design

By Chris Roy, Director of Creative Design

Today’s property owners understand the power of creating iconic, amazing places.

At the heart of these places, there is often a central gathering spot – an area where people congregate to take in the beauty and the energy of their surroundings.

More and more, these central gathering spots are incorporating show fountains, sculpted water features, and artfully designed landscapes – elevating commercial buildings and public spaces to a new level, and increasing both foot traffic and length of stay.

The key to this success lies in thoughtful and strategic water feature design.

At OTL, our design process is an amalgam of the creative and the practical.

Beginning with a unique concept for each project, we draw upon visualization and expert engineering to create a water feature design that fits the energy, aesthetic, and function of the site in which it is constructed.


It all starts with inspiration.

“Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attraction.”

–Albert Einstein

Designing a water feature is an artistic process that begins with a seed of inspiration.

To find this guiding principle, our team pores through research and architectural drawings, absorbing the history and nuances of a site, as well as the developer’s vision, in order to identify the driving force that will produce an amazing result.

We accomplish this by:

Conferring with stakeholders early on
Throughout hundreds of projects across the globe, our team has learned that bringing all stakeholders – owners, architects, landscape architects, and developers – together from the start will always deliver the highest and best result. In these discussions, we learn about each stakeholder’s interest in and objectives for the project and seek inspiration within their style and the site’s history.

In this stage, we also work with stakeholders to shape the project vision in accordance with available budget. By getting involved early, we can help developers and owners to plan for a water feature that accomplishes all project goals while also satisfying budgetary constraints.

Putting boots on the ground

Because the design process is both thoughtful and emotional, it is essential to stand on the site, feel its energy, and take a macro look at how the new water feature design will complement the surrounding environment. Here, we evaluate the site’s condition and existing systems, look carefully at sightlines and access, and identify any challenges the site may pose; whenever possible, we try to find solutions that turn challenges into opportunities, further enhancing a water feature’s site-specific design and character.

Establishing context

After our thoughtful information-gathering, OTL’s design team collaborates to define the context of the project. This singular theme or idea will guide the design, and ultimately the construction, of the water feature, ensuring that it is innovative, unique, and tailored to achieve the specific goals of the project.

Next: Visualization

“Visualization is daydreaming with a purpose.”

–Bo Bennett

Building on the unifying concept that connects the project to the site and its stakeholders’ vision, the OTL team begins to visualize how the water feature design will come to fruition.

In this stage, we flesh out and breathe life into the concept. This manifests in:

Bringing the proverbial “mood board” to life

During visualization, we build on the nuggets of inspiration we have assembled, including imagery or videos depicting faraway lands from which we draw ideas; textures and materials that evoke the feeling we plan to achieve; sounds and sights that marry the project theme with its surroundings, among others.

Mapping out water movement

We also visualize the movement of water through a site, based on a project’s topography and grading. Creating streams and ponds based on careful observation of naturally occurring water elements delivers authenticity, while the creation of geologically realistic rockwork, or Geo-Believability®, will deepen guests’ connection to the property.

Envisioning the visitor experience

Considering the guest experience is crucial in the development of amazing places. During visualization, the OTL team steps inside visitors’ shoes to see the future water feature from a guest’s perspective. We study views from various angles, evaluate the nature and volume of the sounds the water feature will produce, examine nearby seating or amenities to better understand the full experience, note how light might reflect from pools, and the various effects of different jet heights. Each of these elements may fluctuate depending upon how well they support the unifying project theme.

Illustrating that experience

The final step in visualization is the production of a visual representation of the water feature, demonstrating each of the nuances that will make it exceptional.

In this stage, we create mock-ups and conduct thorough research and development to test and confirm the desired water feature effects, and often we deliver deeper innovation by developing new effects.

Using renderings, drawings, 3D models and detailed animation sequences, we capture the essence of the experience, while also demonstrating the precise functionality that will serve the site and maintain sustainability for the long term.

The visualization process is essential because it allows us to fine-tune the design and address any potential challenges while the concept is at its most fluid and least costly stage—before we embark on construction.

Getting Technical: Engineering

“Science can amuse and fascinate us all, but it is engineering that changes the world.”
—Isaac Asimov

A thoughtful and thorough visualization process sets the stage for a well-oiled engineering phase in water feature design. Engineering takes the design to the next level and codifies how the project will actually be constructed.

This process involves:

Technical understanding of the concept

Water feature engineering creates a roadmap that builders and artisans will follow to ensure that the concept is realized and operates in accordance with the design intent. In order to do so, the engineers must first understand the desired character to be delivered by the various water elements comprising the project so they can begin applying numeric values for things like flow rate over weirs and cascades, flow and pressure requirements for fountain nozzles, and light fixture quantities and requirements.

Tying individual elements into systems

Design elements can vary greatly with each project.  As the flow rates for streams, waterfalls, and/or fountain nozzles are tallied up, these totals begin informing the design of the rest of the system – pipe sizing, pump sizing, wire and conduit sizing, control system requirements, and so forth. Architectural and show fountains typically require an adequately sized filtration and chemical sanitation system, while streams and ponds are likely to receive a biofiltration system; for the latter systems, engineers must know whether aquatic plantings and/or fish are to inhabit the final installation, as these also have specific requirements affecting the system’s design.

Coordinating with project partners

In this part of the process, OTL coordinates with the projects’ architects and engineers to ensure that they include proper utilities connections in their plans, as well as any other infrastructure such as equipment rooms, ventilation, and (in the case of fountains built over structure), appropriate structural consideration, detailing, and primary waterproofing. We also establish a plan for long-term maintenance.

Navigating Building Codes

Throughout the design process, the OTL team is continually navigating codes to ensure we are compliant with all codes and regulations while remaining true to the essence of the design. Building codes affect details like water depth, whether railings are required, slip resistance, suction-intake detailing, and a myriad of electrical items such as bonding, wire sizes, GFCI protection, and proximity to adjacent, non-fountain electrical work such as lighting and outlets. Safety is always our number one priority, and everything we design and construct is held to the very highest level of safety standards.

While we often say design is the first phase of creating a water feature, this creative work continues throughout the entire construction process. Finishes such as stone and tile are coordinated between OTL, the project design team, and the owners, ensuring that the final product truly fits into the project for which it has been designed. By ensuring an open communication process and creating detailed drawings and submittals, we are able to consistently create unique water features that look beautiful and work efficiently for years to come.

The Big Picture

“Design adds value faster than it adds costs.”

Joel Spolsky

Water feature design truly is a blend of art and science.

The best designs will always add to the overall value of a property or site with innovation; creativity; environmental, social, and economic sustainability; and overall excellence.

Beginning with a spark of inspiration, nurturing that spark into a unifying concept, visualizing the form and function from the perspective of visitors and stakeholders, and carefully engineering each aspect of the water feature, our design and engineering teams create a set of deliverables which are handed off to begin our next phase: construction.

By coupling the creative, innovative, out-of-the-box solutions for which OTL is known with the precise engineering that our clients know and trust, we are able to navigate these phases effectively to design water features that transport, entertain, thrill, relax, and attract visitors time and time again.

Stay tuned for Part 2 in our three-part series “From Vision to Execution,” which explores the construction phase of our water features.