Water Character and the Art of Fountain Design

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water feature design

By: Chris Roy, Director of Creative Design, OTL, Inc.

When it comes to designing water features, broadly speaking, there are two approaches: one which we will call “fountain design,” and the other which we will refer to as “water feature design.” While all fountains are water features (Or are they? That’s a topic for another post, though….) all water features are not fountains – at least not in the traditional sense.

Fountain design can be approached as product design or designing a “thing.” The word fountain carries certain connotations and cultural cues; when you think of a fountain, an image probably quickly comes to mind – often round, perhaps with a center bowl above a basin, water jets and cascades. This sort of a fountain is very much a “thing” – it could be plopped down in a number of places, and/or in a wide variety of projects, and be at home.

Fountains like this can be quite beautiful, and beloved by visitors enjoying the views and sounds or perhaps tossing in a coin and hoping for good luck.
Chris Roy, Director of Creative Design for OTL.

A fountain certainly does not need to be cookie-cutter; an endless variety of forms, materials, and water effects can relate a fountain to its place and/or ensure its uniqueness.

Water feature design is often much more site-specific. Pools and cascades that are designed to address paths and grading, for example, or streams and waterfalls that enhance a more natural landscape.

Whether it’s designing a traditional fountain or a cutting-edge water feature, the best projects are created when the designers have a solid understanding of and ability to focus on water character. Water should always be a foremost consideration in water design, and celebrating the unique properties of water will elevate the aesthetics and experience of a water feature above what is achieved in project where water character is not considered.

Water character means the physical properties of water – the way it looks and the way it acts. It’s very common in fountain design to consider a very narrow range of characteristics – smooth-bore nozzles or frothy, splash radius, and containment. Important considerations to be sure, though only a very narrow range in a much broader spectrum. Considering a wider range of water character allows designers to be more creative and create more unique projects. When project designs are driven by a focus on water character, the design can evolve in unanticipated directions.

Water characteristics to consider are:

  • Depth – “Typical” fountain depth is 18,” but this should not be treated as a de facto standard. Depth can range from a 1/8” membrane pool to much deeper basins (with proper protection and guardrails). Different water depths are perceived in different ways, and can highlight basin floor materials or enhance other aspects of the project’s design such as reflectivity, splash, and color.
  • Water texture – The surface texture of water within a water feature. Can range from glassy-smooth to very choppy, and everywhere between. Smoother water better reflects its surroundings; introducing weirs will let ripples and waves escape from a basin, creating smooth water. Encircling water with basin walls will reflect waves back into the pool, keeping a choppy surface.
  • Reflection – As described above, smooth water will better reflect its surroundings. Dark finishes also enhance reflectivity. Specular reflection is the name given to mirror-like reflection; another reflective property is glitter, the sparkling highlights seen when moving water catches the sun or other light sources. A glittering sparkle will also highlight water flowing over a weir.
  • Caustics – These are moving light reflections, which can be seen through water on a pool floor as well as reflected and/or projected up onto adjacent building walls and overhangs. Locating pools of water with this effect in mind is a great way to ensure that the effects of the water feature can be seen from a great distance, even though the water itself may remain out of view. The human eye is very sensitive to the reflections generated by moving water, a sense that harkens back to our most basic survival instincts.
  • Laminar flow – Water that has been calmed and is all flowing in the same direction will exhibit laminar characteristics, whether in laminar jets or sheet flow over a smooth weir. Laminar sheets must be given special consideration, as they are prone to “flutter” at the point that the sheet breaks into droplets. Fluttering can throw splash further than expected and create an undesirable sound. The distance from the weir to this laminar break point can be controlled, to a certain extent, by varying the amount of flow over the weir. Generally speaking, higher cascades need more flow.
  • Jet effects – As mentioned above, the “generic” options for jets are smooth or frothy, but there are many more options available within either of these distinctions:
    • Smooth bore jets can be high-velocity or low-velocity, laminar, or hollow-column. The same nozzle operating at high-velocity will have a very different water character then it will flowing at low-velocity. Nozzle size selection is often based on choosing the smallest nozzle rated to reach a desired spray height; selecting a larger nozzle to reach the same desired height will require a larger pump to handle additional flow, though the decreased nozzle velocity will create a smoother, glassier water jet with a softer, more rounded appearance.
    • Hollow-column nozzles are another means of achieving a larger diameter column of water, and use less water in proportion to their diameter (making them a very efficient choice for certain applications). At lower heights, the water at the top of a hollow jet will mushroom outward, creating a unique visual effect.
    • Fan jets are available in a range of spray patterns and flow rates, and offer great contrast to typical fountain jets.
    • Frothy or aerated jets also are available in several styles. Nozzles are available as water level dependent and independent, which has to do with how they pull air into the nozzle and entrain it in the water stream. Numerous types of aerated jets are available – foamy nozzles, cascade nozzles, geyser nozzles, aerator jets, cluster jets, and others – each with strengths and weaknesses which should be evaluated on a per-project basis. One aspect of these jets that should not be overlooked is sound; some jets make a very noticeably sucking sound. They’re fine for water features that are seen from a distance, but can be quite distracting in fountains that are meant to be appreciated close-up.
  • Natural water – Natural water systems have a charm all their own, with aquatic plants, moss, and no chemical odors. Natural systems can be used to great effect in architectural fountains as well as streams and ponds.
  • Sound – From babbling brooks to roaring water falls to crashing waves, water features can generate a wide range of sound, and these effects should definitely not go without careful consideration. While a fountain with choreographed flow changes can reproduce the soothing rhythms of the ocean, a fountain that is too loud will be shunned; the volume levels generated by a water feature must be appropriate for the space it’s located in. Furthermore, sound is something that can be capitalized on; cascades and jets of different heights and sizes can generate sounds covering a wide tonal range, creating harmonious sounds almost like nature’s version of chords.
  • Mist – From fine sprays to fog, mist can be a strong foil to reflective pools and heavy jets. Fog and mist can have a soft, fuzzy feel, can serve as masking elements, and take lighting beautifully.

This list barely scratches the surface, but hopefully it helps get you thinking of all the options and combinations of options available when designing a water feature, and to consider water character as a starting point that very interesting and truly unique fountain concepts can be built around.