Liquid Assets

Water features create a soothing outdoor environment.
Pool waterfalls and ponds
Waterfalls and ponds add ambience and attract birds and wildlife. Photography courtesy MeadowGreen Group

Outdoor rooms have gone mainstream, and Michigan is no exception. The increasingly popular trend often includes at least one water feature to set the tone, whether it’s in smaller form like a fountain or as posh as an inground pool.

No matter how you envision your outdoor oasis, water features add a luxurious and relaxing touch.

“People want to have a water feature in the backyard either to swim, soak or have ambient noise,” says Matt Schmuker, designer with Grand Rapids-based MeadowGreen Group, with a second location in Holland. “It might be just one or all three of these reasons, or just to expand their outdoor living space.”

Mike Mills, MeadowGreen’s creative director, explains function comes first.

“More clients are asking for a usable water feature instead of a natural water feature,” he says. “A lot of what we’re doing is pool-related with integrated technology, like lighting and sound. Even in urban settings, clients want moving water for white noise that’s peaceful and drowns out the sounds of traffic and neighbors.”

It can be as small as a fountain or as large as a pool with automated waterfalls and other features, adds Schmuker.

“In terms of general outdoor living, the range is pretty broad depending on the budget, the space you have to work with and your goals,” he says.

A family might want an adaptable space that can accommodate 20 guests when entertaining.

Hot tub
Create a backyard oasis and escape the day’s stresses with waterfalls, pools and hot tubs that are automated and ready for relaxation or entertainment. Photography courtesy Jacuzzi

“You have to be able to design multiple spaces that are intimate enough for a family and big enough for a group. We tend to do that with an outdoor living room and dining room, and a water feature we can bring in to not just feel like one big blob in the backyard,” Schmuker says.

They also try to shift the way people think about landscaping around these features. “It’s all about creating an environment and outdoor living — not slapping on some grass and some plants,” he says.

Treating outdoor spaces like interiors means designing living areas that are functional. For instance, adding a fire feature can provide an additional 1,500 to 2,000 square feet of living space that can be used in late fall and early spring.

Hot tub design has come a long way, and some have a sleek, modern look worthy of taking center stage on a deck or patio. Landscaping is only one way to hide a prefab hot tub.

According to Mills, the latest design trends in residential water features are often driven by those who stay at resorts and are inspired by the commercial features they see there.

“We focus on a smaller version of the resort experience, like a sun shelf in a pool that allows you to sit in 4 inches of water,” he says.

The latest pool automation includes high-tech features like automatic covers, in-floor cleaning systems, automated systems that let you heat up an integrated hot tub in advance, energy-efficiency technologies and lighting.

Today’s pools usually don’t revolve around a physical activity like swimming laps.

“They’re more of a place to hang out and create a sun shelf or oversized steps, so there is a lot of usable space rather than a big rectangular water feature. They want to spend a little time in them and have a lot more fun,” says Schmuker.

“If you’re going to spend money to have a waterfall, why not be able to swim in it? If you’re going to have a dramatic water feature, make it dual purpose,” he adds.

High end doesn’t have to mean expensive. “You can work with some very basic materials and make it look high end. Even concrete can be visually interesting if it’s designed and done properly. Thoughtful design equals high end,” according to Mills.

What looks amazing by day only gets better at night with unique lighting features. “It doesn’t even look like the same place at that point,” he says.

Natural flow

Jeremy Christianson, who owns Plymouth-based Michigan Landscape Design Services, gets many requests for natural water features like ponds for those who want to recreate nature in their own backyards.

“However, a lot of folks like the idea of a more formal water feature like a reflecting pond that’s rectilinear or round in shape instead of organic,” he says.

A smaller swim spa, with an adjustable current that lets people swim in place like a treadmill, is another popular option that can be integrated into the backyard with a raised patio. They offer dual function — aquatic fitness and hydrotherapy — but also entertain family and friends without the hassle or expense of a pool.

Many of today’s swim spas and hot tubs have optional control systems that work with mobile apps or via remote control. For one Christianson designed on Lake Michigan, the homeowners can heat up the hot tub with a smartphone before they arrive, which is commonplace with high-end models.

Backyard with pool with a waterslide and patio
Water features give people a reason to go outside and connect with the natural world. This well-landscaped backyard features a pool with a waterslide and patio, which provides a nice view of a shared neighborhood lake. Photography courtesy MeadowGreen Group

Hot tub design has come a long way, and some have a sleek, modern look worthy of taking center stage on a deck or patio. Landscaping is only one way to hide a prefab hot tub.

“You can surround it with other accessories like a pergola or fireplace so it doesn’t look like something from outer space. It becomes part of your outdoor room,” says Christianson.

With a pool or spa, the intention is outdoor recreation. Most natural water features are installed to create a place to attract wildlife, and formal ponds and fountains are meant to make a statement that becomes a strong focal point.

Though add-on features are available, when it comes to natural water features, Christianson says less is more. Adding lights to a pond creates a fun atmosphere and a basic pump and filter system keeps it looking great.

“If it’s a natural feature, it should look natural,” he says.

Christianson says water features give people a reason to come outside, along with promoting relaxation. With a pond, they can take in the view, feed the fish and listen to the waterfall. A pool or spa will attract those who want to go in the water or create a fun center for family and friends, especially at a cottage or vacation home.

A surrounding patio or deck should accommodate the homeowner’s needs rather than act as a barrier between them and the water.

Whether it’s the negative-edge pool he designed for a residence in southeast Michigan or a variety of natural ponds and more formal water features, “every water feature is unique and creates a statement when it is installed,” says Christianson.

Hot Stuff

Though it depends on the consumer, the reasons for having a hot tub can range from hydrotherapy for aches and pains or muscle treatment for athletes, to unwinding from a stressful day and spending quality time with family and friends.

What used to be an eyesore has become highly stylized, like the state-of-the-art Jacuzzi J-500 Collection that offers a mobile app, glass touch-screen controls, a distinctively curved design and architectural lighting.

“It has a unique shape that’s innovative and new technology that you can control from an iPhone,” says Scott Bollitier, general manager for Allstate Home Leisure with four locations in Metro Detroit.

Pools with sun shelf
Pools with a sun shelf are another hot trend. Photography courtesy MeadowGreen Group

“It can also be monitored by our spa service department to make sure it’s operating properly,” he says. “They’ve really pushed the limits by changing the interior and exterior. Hot tubs are evolving.”

Other high-end hot tub features include full-color mood lighting, cascading waterfalls, crisp audio that connects to Bluetooth technology so there’s no need for a stereo, and holders for iPads and other electronics.

While most popular in fall and winter, a hot tub can be used year-round for a spa-like escape, entertaining or relaxation in a three-season room, deck or patio.

“They come in all sizes, shapes and price points and there are a lot of health benefits,” Bollitier says. “The key for consumers is that they’re easy to operate, energy efficient and cost effective.”

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Jeanine Matlow is a freelance writer who lives in the Detroit area.

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