building the ultimate contemporary water feature


Designing a meaningful water feature can be a complex task, yet exciting all the same. There is always an element of the unknown right up until the moment the new feature is switched on, after weeks of planning and building, to see the effect for the first time. Rarely does such a feature present its maiden glory without glitches. Water is forever alluring, yet elusive - transcending power with romanticism. The range of feelings it evokes is so varied, inspiring calm at one end of the spectrum or evoking agitation at the other. Yet the love and appreciation for sculptural, playful man-made bodies of water is indeed universal. Translating these contexts successfully into a modern garden can achieve not only architectural merits, but also a connection with nature, even more so in the urban environment.

1. Position 2. Structure 3. Materials 4. Flow 5. Sound 6. Planting 7. Mechanics 8. Controls 9. Lighting 10. Maintenance

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Selecting the position for a water feature is one of the most important factors in its design. Whilst furniture, lighting and plants can be relocated, a water feature stays in its designated location. This position needs to be a natural, connective one. I prefer to offset most of my water features to the sides away from an obvious central, seen-at-once position – I want the water feature to be revealed and balance the design asymmetrically. Other environmental factors are important too such as exposure to sun – which is usually better for the oxygenation of the water, overhead trees – which shed leaves into the surface and integration with other structures, plants and the landscape beyond.

contemporary water feature position

Hampstead garden


Structure always relates to its surroundings in scale and materials. Linear garden designs may benefit from an organic shape; a monochrome scheme may be enhanced with colour; and a very small space could be greatly improved with exaggerated scale. At times, a water feature may take little horizontal space but be vertical in order to allow gravity to manipulate the water. The structure of a water feature is also dependant on whether it is incorporated into other elements of the garden or if it is a standalone feature.

contemporary water feature structure

Belgravia small garden


In the contemporary garden we often use natural stone, concrete or render in the fabric of a water feature. Steel, tiles and glass frequently provide intermediate surfaces for the water to run on, through or over. The texture of the background material is important in producing the desired effect for the water cascade. The design can manipulate the flow of water to give either reflection, sound, movement or all of them at once.

contemporary water feature materials

Parsons Green garden

  4. FLOW.

There is nothing more satisfying than a strong beautiful flow in a water feature, a one that is produced with adequate engineering and accurate pump specification. The first thing I try and find out from the client is what kind of effect they are after and once this is clarified the task becomes clear. In my earlier inspirations when studying garden design, the brilliant waterfalls of the American landscape architect Lawrence Halprin were a huge inspiration. The Keller Park Fountain – an iconic water park of the 70’s is a large structure. The project manager once mentioned that such was the trepidation concerning the proper operation of the fountain that it was first switched on at night to avoid any daylight embarrassment.

contemporary water feature flow

Hampstead garden

  5. SOUND.

A small trickle of water on a lofty roof terrace is sometimes all that is needed to bring an extra dimension of serenity, particularly to an urban garden. Most of the time roof terraces are too windy for water to flow properly, ending up in unwanted splash. White noise in the city, where trains and cars pass by is useful in masking this sound and at the same time adding a natural feel to a contemporary space. The sound is invariably established by the height from which the water falls from, the width of the aperture, the strength of the pump and the depth of the collecting pool below. For me, more important than all is to create a dual element in the design so that a water feature looks attractive when idle and fascinating when switched on or lit up. When possible I will try and make further use with the water in the collecting pool by diverting it to another course, adding smaller fountains for a lighter setting or adding a colour dye to add depth and tone.

contemporary water feature sound

Hampstead garden


Every natural water course in nature represents a journey; a voyage which has a source, a course and a final destination. Many sublime man-made bodies of water exist in isolation. Large pools and lakes that reflect the sky in solitude against a natural landscape. Yet it is the reflections in the water of trees and plants, the sky or the clouds or the surrounding gardens and structures that revitalise the body of water. Similarly, in the smaller contemporary urban garden a water feature must be absorbed by the surrounding plants to give it purpose and meaning. It is the interaction and interplay in the design between the water and the plants that brings significance to a contemporary design in a modern outdoor space.

contemporary water feature planting

London Bridge roof terrace


There is a fair amount to consider when first conceiving the design and translating it into site engineering. Does the water feature need a background wall, is the collecting pool to be flush with ground or elevated into a raided bed, does the site have access to bring in oversized components, and so on. Every body of water would need filtration and whilst small feature can be handles manually, bodies of water over a few hundred litres would requite a UV filter. This filter would need to be situated outside the feature and therefore requires the decision on whether to house it neatly underground or externally and therefore visibly. There are consideration to make concerning the quality of water because as we know tap water is high in calcium and this will tarnish surfaces. Installing a soft water device might be feasible, but if complicated or costly it is possible to use citric acid at intervals to neutralise the calcium carbonate.

contemporary water feature mechanics

Highgate roof terrace


A beautifully engineered water feature must benefit from a good set of controls to maximise the enjoyment of its features. I prefer to separate various pumps so that individual cascades can be operated independently. The UV filter must be controlled on its own to be able to halt it at any given time. Lighting ought to be split from the pumps so that lighting does not come on at the daytime which looks odd and certain lights can be allocated to various pumps. This control gives the water feature its theatre and the owner the drama and pleasure.

contemporary water feature controls

Islington roof terrace


Water in all its states is highly conducive to illumination and projecting a light through running or still water adds the most drama in the garden at night. The ability to project silhouettes to great heights and distances and add mystery, movement and intimacy is immeasurably enhanced by adding a set of low voltage lights to the features of a contemporary garden. Similarly to specifying the right pump, it is important to understand the width of the beam of a lamp so an effective fit is tailored to the width of the feature. As with all good garden lighting it is important to conceal the fitting and only allow the effect be visible.

contemporary water feature lighting

Kensington small garden


Small self re-circulating water features are relatively easy to deal with and are inexpensive to purchase off-the-shelf. Large, built-in contemporary garden water features require some understanding of their mechanics to be able to keep them going at a healthy rate. Leaves tend to be a major factor in clogging passages, pipes and pumps so depending on their prevalence they need to be dealt with on an ongoing basis. Using citric acid in the collecting pool is important to reduce calcium carbonate build up on surfaces, steel pipes and the pump itself. Any UV filters must be cleaned regularly to retain their effectiveness. Winter protection of the pipes in necessary in some cold areas where it’s best to release the water from the upper and lower reservoirs and the pump to avoid expanding when frozen.

contemporary water feature maintenance

Twickenham roof garden

amir   Written, photographed (unless indicated) and posted by Amir Schlezinger.

contemporary water feature

Parsons Green roof terrace

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