The Roundabout

new-house.jpgBig houses on very small properties-a given, in urban areas.  A very small property that is hosting a very large house presents a special set of design considerations.  The entire space is  instantly visible.  This makes it very difficult to create a sense of mystery, or discovery.  There are few opportunities to create “rooms”, each with their own distinct atmosphere.  There is a single view, and few options to generate other views.  It is easy for a large structure placed in a small space to look uneasy or unsettled.  Big buildings loom over small spaces.  They block the light.  They are the dominant landscape feature with a capital L.

concrete-aggregate-driveway.jpgThis particular property is very narrow.  Critical to a successful landscape design is an assessment of how the house sits relative to the grade.  This house is set very high, given that the client wanted window wells that would add light to the basement level rooms.  This meant that a retaining wall and curb was necessary to create a driveway which is level.    A driveway would necessarily be a big feature of this landscape.  There is no room to make it a secondary feature.  Given the stone on the house, I designed a concrete aggregate driveway with a stone curb.  Why so much fuss over a utilitarian feature?  When the driveway occupies a big part of the front yard landscape, that driveway needs to be functional and beautiful.


landscape-design.jpgI like a front walk which begins at the sidewalk, and ends at the front door.  That route may be direct, or meandering.  It is also nice to have a walk from the driveway to the front door.  This is a matter of convenience.  The idea of pair of walkways in this small space seemed overpowering.  I was thinking about a landscape which would be based on an ellipse.  Much like a roundabout that enables traffic to flow, without stopping and starting.  Though I am nervous approaching a roundabout, I find the process goes smoothly once I am in it.  A gravel ellipse would touch the concrete aggregate drive such that a path from the drive to the front door would be visually unobtrusive.


The gravel ellipse would be bordered on each side by garden.  This would help to keep the gravel surface out of view from the street.  The elliptical ring with the blue handled  flat shovel pictured above would have a gravel surface.  The innermost ring would be grass.


The property had been overrun with trucks over the course of the construction of the house.  Given that the soil had been compacted to an extreme, we dug into it with pick axes and shovels.  We would eventually work some compost into the soil, but I subscribe to the idea that plants will thrive if they like the existing planting conditions.

elliptical-fountains.jpgA pair of half elliptical fountains would be installed in the center of the garden. As much sculpture as fountain, they provide a focal point for the landscape. They could be planted with water plants, or not.



The big gestures are strongly horizontal, in contrast to the strong vertical lines of the house.  Once the arcs of Hicks yews adjacent to the house have a chance to settle down and grow in, they will be maintained at a height below the ground floor windows. The gravel path from the drive to the front door is already invisible from the street. The yew, boxwood, and a pair of DeGroot Spires arborvitae will provide evergreen interest over the winter months.

lawn.jpgThe garden adjacent to the lawn features plants that grow three feet tall, or less.  This garden will be dominated by peonies.  Beautiful in bloom, the make compact and glossy leaved shrubs that look good all summer.  The plants are spaced such to permit the additional of taller growing annual plants.

landscape-design.jpgThere is a mix of plants. The outside garden will be taller, once it grows in.  The Little Lime hydrangeas grow 4-5 feet tall, as will the roses. Russian sage and shasta daisies are bordered in the interior by stachys hummelo and Visions in Red astilbe.    This garden will provide a sense of privacy and intimacy for the inner fountain garden.  Adjacent to the sidewalk, a buffer of lamb’s ears and moss phlox. On the lot line, a single Vanderwolf’s flexible pine, a few magnolia stellata, and a grouping of fothergilla gardenii.  A few lilacs, a favorite of the client, were placed where they would have room to grown.  The lilacs are faced down with lespedeza.   Euonymus “Moonlight” is planted behind the yews.  A stand of “Goldner’s Bouquet” daylilies were planted on the south side of the house.

elliptical-fountains.jpgBordering the fountains, a frame of sedum John Creech will help to keep the lawn mower at bay.  Interestingly enough, it is remarkably tolerant of the overspray from the fountains.  This landscape has only one organizing idea.  But rather than a beginning and an end, there is a roundabout.

schematic-=landscape-plan.jpgA schematic landscape plan is a simple series of shapes that indicate what goes where, and how one travels from one place to another.  If the landscape plan works well on a structural level, then the additional of the plants will bring a sculpture to life that is pleasing to the eye.

Delivering The Fountain

steel fountain

A client who had looked a long time for a fountain  fell hard for Buck’s contemporary steel creation.  I ws more than a little surprised, considering her more traditional taste in garden ornament.  But she was certain that this fountain was the perfect choice for her garden.  The job of transporting and setting it in place fell to Steve.  As you can see,  he was planning the move.      

Once he drained the fountain, he wrapped the fountain stem with heavy woven landscape straps.  As the fountain weighed in at about 400 pounds, and the site was not particularly friendly to the use of a front end loader, we would have to move the piece by hand.  12 hands, to be exact.  Each of three straps had a person at each end.  The straps would be a lot simpler to grasp that the smooth side of the bowl.  My crew can lift a lot, provided they are able to get a good grasp.

We excavates the soil from the spot where the fountain was to be placed, and filled it with coarse gravel.  A square concrete tile was placed over top.  This made it much easier to check to be sure the spot was level.  It is also much easier to adjust this tile to get it level, as opposed to the fountain.  It seemed like the fountain would be a good fit in this circle of boxwood-but we wouldn’t know for sure until we got it there.

The fountains we have manufactured at Branch of late come race ready.  The jet inside this fountain is attached to a steel plate, and comes with a valve that regulates the height of the jet.  Having a special event?  Open up the valve.  A tee fitting off the jet pipe is attached to the pump.  The cord for the pump comes through a hole in the base of the fountain.  The jet and pump assembly sits in the bottom of the fountain, making it easy to level the jet.  All the customer needs to supply is a source of electricity.

Getting the fountain through the gate was a challenge.  Luckily the gate itself was easy to lift off its hinges. Once the fountain base was resting on the second step up, the fountain would be flipped over on its side. The fountain has 4 eye hooks inside should the fountain ever have to be lifted.  It proved handy for tying the jet in place for the move.

There were but a few inches of room to spare, but that proved to be enough.  Luckily, any circular or hemispherical shape is not only very stable, but it is very strong.  This steel is relatively thin, considering how large an object it is, but there was no worry that the edge would be damaged.  At this point, we were rolling the fountain on its edge, rather than carrying it. I roll pots around the shop that I could never lift off the ground.

The last stage of the journey did involve lifting the fountain over a boxwood hedge.  My crew made it look like no big deal. 

They left me to fill the fountain-my pleasure, and my worry.  If the level were the least bit off, the water would tell that tale.  Water is always level-it’s people that get things crooked.  As I cannot abide a statue or pot that isn’t sitting level, I was willing to wait.   

I needn’t have worried.  It read perfectly level to my eye.  The wide rim of the fountain finishes the shape in a beautiful way, but it also masks any little bit it might be out of level.  The fountain was filled with water to just under that rim.  My client did very well with this-the fountain looks remarkably good in her garden. She had had an electrical box installed a long time ago, so an hour after our arrival, the fountain was running. 

The entire garden made more visual sense given a centerpiece.  The peach trees have a much more opulent and exotic look. I am standing on her porch, looking out.  The water seems to be at just the right height.  After trying the jet at a number of levels, she decided on this.  Just enough height to make for a great sound.

My client thinks it looks like I designed this fountain especially for her garden.  Since I would have never considered it for her, I realize that giving clients the chance to look without prejudice can result in an interesting outcome.   


Finished Fountain

The welding studio has been busy the last 3 weeks.  Buck had a special order for a fountain, and a matching urn for a client in California, and a destination in Fort Worth Texas.  The sheer size of the fountain meant the base and scuppers needed to be very strong, and the steel thick and heavy.

The project under construction has a landscape architect on retainer.  He designed both pieces, and we fabricated from his designs.  The drawing from the LA needed to be drawn in CAD-this is short for computer assisted design.  It is an enormous skill in and of itself to master the CAD program.  Buck is an expert, given his 30 year experience as an architect specializing in technical design. That CAD drawing enables him to fabricate an object true to every dimension specified in the design.  

The hemispherical fountain bowl is 60 inches in diameter. Creating this shape from a solid piece of steel involves a lot of technology, a surprising amount of finesse, and loads of skill.  This bowl is not perfectly hemsipherical, but it is extremely close.  Close enough to convince the eye. 

Once the bowl had a 2 inch thick lip of steel, interrupted by 4 evenly spaced scuppers, it was ready to be welded to the base.  Scuppers? The steel lip keeps the water inside the bowl.  The scupper is that place where the steel dam had been breached, allowing water to flow and fall over the edge. Once the steel is galvanized, Buck applies our finish.  He finished the inside of the bowl, and the base first.  Then the entire fountain, with the aid of a bridge crane, would be flipped up side down for the finishing of the bowl. 

The fountain design is very simple, but massive.  The finished piece weighs close to 1/2 a ton.  It will be placed in a large pool-I am not sure of any of the installation details.  It will take some skill to size the pump properly, so the water sheets over the side without runing back under the scupper, and down the side of the bowl.  Fountain design, fabrication and installation takes a lot of skill. 

The urn, on the forklift in the foreground, is much smaller than the fountain, and will be placed in some other location on the project.  This piece will be planted.  Both pieces were shipped up side down, for obvious reasons.  All of the weight of the steel is at the top.

The fountain does not have a jet.  The pump will push water hard enough to keep the water flowing fast over the 4 scuppers and into the pool.  The contractor for the project wanted this copper pipe and stop valve installed just as you see here.  

Buck did not crate this piece-what crate would be stronger than this steel?  Circular shapes are very stable and incredibly strong-even more so when they are made of steel.  I have heard I will get pictures of the installation once it is finished and running.  I have my fingers crossed about that. Buck tells me the level of the base and the level of the top of the fountain is within a 1/16 of an inch of being dead on.  Dead on and level is very important where water is concerned.  In a perfect world, water will fall over all 4 sides equally.  In an imperfect world, within  1/16 of an inch of perfect will work. Buck and his crew make lots of things that are a part of something bigger.  If no pictures are forthcoming, I have some help.  Buck has family in Fort Worth.  What fun, that they will get to see something he made, available for the looking,  just across town.


My fountain has given me so much pleasure; I would not want to have to do without water in my garden.  As I have written before, I built it with some money my Mom left me.  She disapproved of my habit of working long days and every day, such that her last birthday present to me was a set of beach towels.  I think this body of water not only honors her wish for me, but proves her right.  A little relaxation and reverie is a very good thing.  For six serene years all was well, until this spring.     

Barely visible in this picture-a white line some three inches below the bottom step of the pool.  I have been in the landscape business long enough to know leaching concrete when I see it-I can only describe my feeling seeing this as pure and unadulterated dread.  It appeared that the fountain had developed a crack-running all the way around the inside.  I was especially taken aback, as we had had a particularly mild winter.  What had happened?

The only way to find out-dig it up.  It did take me a week to get to this point-the shock, I suppose.  Who would be looking for a giant mess at the start of spring?  Though the timing of this trouble was terrible, I did not have a choice.  Buck was sure the pool would leak, and leak a lot.  My crew excavated a 20 inch deep trench all the way around.  I called Wes Gillette, from Gillette Brothers Pools-who else would I call?  He and his company have an excellent reputation.  They build pools and spas and fountains; they do repair.

The first step was to fill the pool with water, and observe.  I was holding my breath-as if holding my breath would make the pool hold water.  Wes did not build this fountain-it was done by a stone mason.  In retrospect, this was a bad decision.  If you need something to first and foremost hold water, hire a professional pool contractor. That is what I would advise any client-what was my problem?  In all fairness, said stone contractor did build other fountains that do not leak.  I frankly would much rather the leaker to be mine, and not a client.

It was not long before water was pouring through the wall into the trench.  Wes’ brother Carter supervises and runs the repair division.  He suspected that when the original concrete pour was finished, it was not level.  A layer of mortar-3″ thick at one end, and 1/2 inch thick at the other, was applied to level the surface.  A cold pour, they call this-and a non-bonding pour.  No steel reinforcing.  The mortar layer you see squishing out wider than the finish stone-this is called a hip.  Imagine the frost coming out of  and heaving up the ground-that frost took hold of that hip, lifted and cracked the entire top of the pool along that weak mortar joint.  To put it mildly, this was not proper construction. 

Though the corgis thought it was great fun to leap over the trench, I was heartsick.  I do know that the force of frost action is considerable, and implacable.  This is why in early April, when the frost is coming out of the ground, trucks above a certain weight are banned from using our roads.  The frost laws help keep the roads from cracking and breaking up.   

Mercifully, they did the demolition, hauled away all the debris, and prepared the lower surface to bond with the new one-in one day. This new concrete cookie would have no mortar-cream filling.  They sawcut a trench in the original foundation, so the new concrete would interlock with the old.  They inserted steel rebar into the existing concrete, and formed it tall enough to reinforce the layer that was to come.  They covered the drains with rubber stoppers, so as to keep stone debris out of the filtration lines. 

The next day, Carter and crew were there to build the new forms.  Getting the forms level with the horizon-crucial to any vessel holding water.   Almost none of the original stone survived the jack hammering that went on.  Everything had to be removed down to the crack, so the pool step could be redone-properly, and professionally. 

It was an education to watch how they handled putting to right was was not done right.  It is hard for anyone to consider redoing that which is already done; I have had lots of clients with plants placed improperly, or over irrigated, or sick; I have seen lots of just poor design.  It is very hard to convince a client to put more good money to that which took a batch of perfectly good money in the first place.  I understand this now, in a different way.

Yesterday, they took one wheelbarrow load after another to the back yard.  By time I got home, the new concrete was poured.  This will need to sit, to cure.  Not that there will not be time; it will take 3 weeks to get the replacement stone cut and shipped. 

It could be that by the middle of May, my fountain will be back up and running; I have hope.  Like replacing a furnace, or hot water heater, or air conditioning unit-a lot of money gets spent, and things just stay the same.  This is very different than taking home a new pot, or sundial.  Carter tells me the fountain will look exactly as it did; this part I like. This may be more than you ever wanted to know about concrete, frost and fountains, but thanks for listening to my story.