Skip to main content

Designing water features

Designing water features

A timeless design – Paley Park in NYC designed in 1967 by Robert Zion; a ‘pocket park’ featuring a wonderful water wall. Photo: Annie Guilfoyle


Annie Guilfoyle discovers ways to introduce water into gardens


There are so many different ways that designers can include water in the landscape – by creating tranquil or reflective pools, somewhere to relax or swim, or simply providing movement and sound in the environment. Incorporating water into a design is also the best way to encourage wildlife into the garden.

When designing with water, it is advisable to work with skilled contractors or water specialists, even if only to consult with them about your plans and specifications. Martin Kelley, MD of Fairwater, says: “Designers should ask themselves if it is to be a pond or feature. Will the pond have plants and enjoy all of the benefits of a natural ecosystem with dragonflies and waterlilies? Or is it to be a chemically treated body of water, shiny and algae free?


Natural swimming ponds require close collaboration with specialists such as Biotop. Photo: Ian Thwaites


The former will have the downside of allowing algae to grow, and will require greater depth, but can be left almost to its own devices; whereas the latter will require a cleansing pump circuit and the room to house this, but will not grow any nuisance plants, providing the chlorine is kept topped up.”

From a technical point of view, Kelley suggests that unless you are building a pond with plants and wildlife, establishing a balanced ecosystem for a water feature will require some form of equipment. “Depending on how complex the installation is, this may include water-level control, chemical dosing, external filtration and feature pumps to move the water,” he says.


A former swimming pool repurposed into a wildlife pond with contemporary waterfall feature. Photo: Annie Guilfoyle


“This all needs to live somewhere – as a minimum, a manhole alongside the pool, but more complex choreographed pavement jets, for example, will require a dry accessible plant room of 3m x 2m x 2m. As contractors and technical designers, we spend a lot of time fighting for space to house the equipment needed to operate the feature. If you are planning something fancy, think about where we can house the kit.”

With water, safety is of tantamount importance, and clients may need to be given some protection from their new water features. This can be offered with ground patterning, raised kerbs and sensible siting of the pool – all mechanical methods of reducing risk and preferable to the unsightly grilles and cages sometimes seen adorning ponds.


Large, contemporary concrete basins featured in Cleve West’s gold-medal-winning Saga Insurance garden at Chelsea in 2006. Photo: Annie Guilfoyle


The current perceived wisdom with a formal feature near the house is to control the space with gates; into a walled garden, for example. For larger ponds and lakes, a good adage is, “If you can walk in, you can walk out”, so wide, gentle margins will make a pond safer for both humans and wildlife.

It is often somewhat of a challenge to source modestly priced water features or fountains that are not only visually pleasing but also will stand the test of time. For this reason, I generally design my own water features – I enjoy the process of collaborating with makers and specialists.

My advice when designing bespoke water features is that water never ever does what you expect it to. I thoroughly recommend taking the time to create a mock up of your design and try it out as best you can before you finally install it and turn on the water, otherwise you may experience some interesting and very unexpected results. 


Australian designer Phillip Johnson specialises in natural streams such as this one for a memorial garden. Photo: Claire Takacs 

You might like

Design about 5 years ago

How to write a garden design book

Design about 5 years ago

Japan’s intriguing indoor garden

Design over 2 years ago

Sub-bases for paving: a basic guide

Most recent features