Although the uninitiated might consider water features to be little more than glorified plumbing, creating an impressive water feature that lasts with minimal maintenance is far more complex.
We talk to Steve Scrivens, managing director of specialist water feature design and construction firm Hydrotechnology, about the company's methods and whether a cost-obsessed market has any room for beautiful but expensive water installations.
Hydrotechnology was born out of frustration in the mid-1980s. Scrivens founded the company to support his landscape architecture firm Technical Landscapes as he was unable to find UK water feature designers with the required expertise. "I was doing some very complicated atrium projects that required water," he says. "I found at that time I just couldn't find subcontractors in the UK that could produce the quality of work that I wanted. I was aiming for a high American standard that just wasn't there."
Hydrotechnology built up much of its early work from water features that were required on Technical Landscapes' existing projects. But the company quickly gained momentum and was soon standing on its own two feet, as Scrivens attests.
"We got to the point in about 1990 when the tail was wagging the dog and Technical Landscapes, which was the landscape architecture side of the business, was actually smaller than the contracting side, which was Hydrotechnology."
Hydrotechnology has done design and contract work on a host of water feature installations since its conception.
Completed projects include three lakes and a fountain outside Sony's UK headquarters in Surrey, cascading pools at Pinners Hall in the City of London and granite waterways at the Royal Victoria Place shopping centre in Tunbridge Wells.
Water feature innovations
Since Hydrotechnology's early days, the technology behind water features has evolved to incorporate sophisticated computer systems. "We've used hydraulics and pneumatics for controlling effects and some very complicated computer circuitry with CPUs running the operation," says Scrivens. "I revisited a very old job in Manchester that they asked me to go back and look at. It was nearly 30 years old when I went there. The control panels were so simple in those days. You look at a control panel now and it's a bit like a double wardrobe, full of controls from top to bottom and everything talks to everything else. It's interesting to see how the technology's moved along. Most of the more advanced panels now are basically run by a computer."
Many of these advances come thanks to innovation in the 80s and 90s, and Scrivens says his company has played a major role in pushing new technology in water feature design. Fibreglass pools, excellent for remaining waterproof, may be commonplace in the 21st century, but Hydrotechnology was an early adopter of this material.
"We were the first company that I'm aware of that was actually doing this stuff 30 years ago in fibreglass and we developed technology for applying finishes to fibreglass that are so good that if I held up a piece of granite and a piece of fibreglass in front of you, you couldn't tell the difference. There has been a huge amount of R&D to get to that stage."
Hydrotechnology was also ahead of the curve in underwater lighting, one of the most visually resplendent elements of water feature design. The company's innovations were particularly useful for interior atrium water features.
"We were producing underwater light fittings that would run at 6V. They'd actually shine light right the way up the inside of an atrium of a building without spreading any light sideways, so they were like searchlights. They were a way of shining light up the atrium without dazzling everybody that was looking down into the atrium from the offices at the side."
Cut-price water features: a false economy?
Scrivens watched as the heady, big-spending days of the 80s gave way to an increasingly thrifty corporate culture that inevitably rewards firms willing to drop their prices and make promises they know they can't keep. "A lot of people who I've been tendering against have actually been winning contracts on price, at a price which I can't even buy the materials for, let alone do the job," he says. "Of course, what they're doing is they're winning the job and then not doing what is specified. And so you've got an awful lot of very low-grade stuff going in at the moment because people are just going in to win anything, at any price."
As a result, much of Hydrotechnology's time is spent repairing shoddy workmanship on features that were contracted at a cut price ("In early 2000, that was virtually what our work was," Scrivens says). The endless procession of repeated mistakes even inspired Scrivens to collect the data in a single technical document that details many of the complex considerations involved in designing a water feature that will last.
The secret to creating easily maintainable water features is installing systems to manage water flow and keep it circulating. For smaller interior water features, this can be achieved with a healthy dose of oxygen and sunlight. On a recent residential project, Hydrotechnolgy used a custom-designed natural circulation system to keep water clean and fresh without the use of chemicals. Nozzles suck air from the outside and channel it into the water to create a froth that ensures fresh oxygen is being constantly circulated and there are no dead patches or scummy areas.
Similar principles apply on larger outdoor lakes and ponds, but on a much larger scale. The water in Hydrotechnology's lakes outside the Sony headquarters is recirculated by pumps that take water from the end of the feature back to the beginning, ensuring constant movement and a hospitable habitat for flora and fauna. "The lakes at Sony's headquarters will grow fish that the Environment Agency can't grow in their fish farms," says Scrivens.
Scrivens says clients that choose contractors based on unrealistic estimates are setting themselves up for significant costs down the road, a problem that can be remedied by making a larger initial investment for a quality feature. "That's what a lot of building managers comment about our work – our kit always starts perfectly, runs perfectly and shuts down perfectly," he says. "In my experience, we're about the only company in the country that can actually make that claim. Why? It's because we're expensive. We're not expensive because I drive a Porsche or something; it's expensive because we put all the equipment in and do it properly. But in the current climate, everybody's just interested in getting the nicest job possible for the lowest money."
In today's price-oriented corporate environment, Scrivens has found that the balance of cost and expectation has been thrown out when it comes to water features. This, combined with the tough economic conditions that have led companies to question the wisdom of paying for an aesthetic addition, contributes to Scrivens' slightly pessimistic edge when considering the future of the industry. "If you go back to the 80s, all the clients I used to know would say, 'I want my building to be special, I want to it to be unusual, I want the very best.' That's all gone now. People say, 'I want all the costs very well controlled, but I still want a good quality job.' You can't have cheap and quality, they don't go together, so what you've got at the moment is that people will just be cutting corners at every opportunity."