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Active Zone Profile: Water House Pools

by Maureen Sundberg

Introduce water into the landscape and it brings changes in light and sound. Introduce water in the form of a natural pool, and the results are magical according to Chris Rawlings of Water House Pools. “Take something as ancient as stone and put it with something as alive and precious as water, and it’s just magical. I love creating these environments that weren’t there before, creating a new space and bringing life onto a property that didn’t have it before.”

Chattman Photography ©2010

Chris designs pools for people, pools with water that is safe and inviting. The striking difference in a natural pool is that the water is alive, not sterile. Instead of using chlorine to make the water devoid of life, a natural pool is balanced in a way that supports life. Filtration and water purification are largely handled by beneficial bacteria and microorganisms that colonize within a mesh filter pad. Electrical pumps circulate the water over and through the pads allowing the microorganisms to obtain food from organic material, such as leaf litter and sunscreen, that enters the pool.

In addition to the bio-mechanical filtration provided by the filtering system, plants introduced around the edges of the pool also help purify the water. Chris typically uses 1½ inch round stone around the pool perimeter and introduces plants into these areas. He prefers to use native species that meet hardiness zone requirements, can overwinter in the frozen pool, and do not require a lot of maintenance. During the growing season, these plants collect debris in their root systems and build soil in the round stone as they grow, helping to maintain water quality.

Conserving Resources by Design

Limiting inputs required to maintain a natural pool is an important consideration for Chris. Just as a conventional pool has to keep up with evaporation, so does the natural pool. However, Chris turns to on-site resources. Often he employs the downspout of a nearby building to keep a pool topped off. Limiting resources does not limit creativity. His pool designs may include water features, but they tend to be flowing, subtle features that do not have a lot of water moving through the air that would result in transpiration and evaporation. The pools also require pumps to move the water around. Again, Chris gives consideration to reducing resources and employs low voltage pumps and those that reduce flow rate over time, utilizing timers to limit the amount of energy used.

Chattman Photography ©2010

Chris emphasizes that every project is a little different. Part of his job is to match the pool to the client in order to find one that “really fits their house and their lifestyle.” And every pool is site specific, though he tries always to place the pool as close to the house as possible. “My thinking is that people will get more out of it if it’s right next to their house; whereas, if I put it 100 feet away, they are less likely to go over to it and interact with it.”

Natural pools bring life to a property and provide not only aesthetic and emotional appeal, but peace of mind. Chris points to a recent project for a CSA farm. The 40,000 gallon pool he built not only served as a swimming hole for employees, but performs as a rain water retention pool that can provide irrigation water for greenhouses and other beds. The pool has allowed the owner to cut back on use of municipal water and also offers a secure source for water in case of drought.

Working with Water

Chris arrived at natural pool construction through his excavation business and his close proximity to several stone quarries in western Massachusetts. Chris notes that in excavation work, “You’re dealing with water. If you’re digging a foundation for a house or a driveway, you’ve got to keep the thing dry, so I was always dealing with surface water and groundwater.” Chris had also renovated some small ponds, but then he discovered Michael Littlewood’s book, Natural Swimming Pools. “It just hit me. Building [pools] from scratch was really what I wanted to do – moving from something that livestock would use to something with more sculptural elements to it.” With four large stone quarries within a 10 mile radius, Chris has an ample source to incorporate native stone as a beautiful element to his pools.

Chattman Photography ©2010

The result of Chris’s exploration into building natural pools is beautiful habitats that welcome all life. Swimmers can open their eyes under water without that familiar sting. Dragonflies can take a non-toxic dip. Birds take a safe drink. Chris includes lots of stone work in his designs and they provide shelves for swimmers to sit and stand. “Setting those large stones really adds a sense of place,” he notes. The result is something similar to a spring fed lake – a pool that changes with the seasons at one’s own back door.

Visit Chris in his Active Zone exhibit at the ELA Conference & Eco-Marketplace on March 8th in order to learn more about natural pools and to see more of his projects.

About the Author

Maureen Sundberg edits the ELA newsletter from her home in Andover, MA where she also practices sustainable gardening. A member of the ELA Board of Directors since 2007, Maureen serves on the ELA Conference Committee.