Tranquil Trickle

Fountains can create an ambiance for any setting. Whether it’s the sound of water falling from one tier to the next, or dancing and changing color to the sound of a melodic tune, fountains typically evoke feelings of joy and peace.

While all of these feel-good terms sound like characteristics of amenities that parks and recreation departments should provide, there are many things to consider when contemplating adding a public fountain to facilities, or renovating an existing one. A fountain is a long-term, complicated commitment that requires making good initial choices to avoid problems later.

Practical Design

Let’s begin with some design basics:

  1. Design and build what you can actually afford, and what you truly will be able to maintain. Grand ambitions are lovely, but building an elaborate fountain with intricate water and lighting effects will lead to trouble if the initial budget does not allow for the best design and the best materials, or if the maintenance budget does not allow for specialized expert support, sufficient staff time, and material replacements. Assuming that a large maintenance budget will be available is unrealistic, given that parks and recreation budgets are being stretched thinner, and that trend doesn’t seem likely to change. Make thoughtful decisions about the expected maintenance level, and design for half that level.
  1. The popular term “value engineering” really means devaluing a project. Design for the real construction budget. If the budget doesn’t allow for the grand initial plan, change the plan. Don’t cut the quality of the materials! Make the fountain smaller, less complicated, etc. Substituting inferior materials will ultimately cost more in repairs and retrofits. It is actually easier to tell people up front that the budget does not allow for the five-tier marble feature, 10 bronze sculptures, or the 100-foot-high dancing water display than it is to explain 5 years later why none of it works. Fountains have become very complicated and elaborate. But truthfully, a beautiful, well-built structure with excellent artistic design and relatively simple water and lighting features will provide a timeless, well-loved icon for a city. And the easier the fountain is to maintain, the better the condition it will usually be in, and the more people will enjoy it.

Location

Are you in a freeze-thaw climate or near ocean salt spray? Is the project on a road where it might be hit by cars or road salt, or near trees that will drop leaves and pollen into the water and clog the filters? Fitting the design and materials of the fountain to the climate and the particular location will result in a better-lasting and more easily maintained improvement.

Keep It Local

Try to employ elements of the design that have nearby representatives and sources. A light or nozzle that has to be ordered directly from the manufacturer in another country could mean a fountain will be down—or dark—for months while waiting for proposals, purchase orders, and shipping. That delay often translates to someone having to get something local and jury-rig it, possibly altering the design or function of the fountain. A lot of retrofitting happens over the years, and it’s often based on what part someone could find in a hurry at the local hardware store, and get installed before some impending deadline, like a wedding or photo shoot scheduled at a particular site!

Avoid Setting Artificial Deadlines

Of course, sometimes we respond to a number of external demands, like political or social expectations. People naturally want to tie the opening of a new improvement like a fountain to some holiday or local tradition. That may be unavoidable. But setting a dedication or opening date before actually starting construction is dangerous. As the brilliant landscape architect (and father of Kansas City’s Park and Boulevard system), George Kessler once wrote, “We are charged with the duty of developing a plan that shall not only meet present, but future wants. … It is far better to plan comprehensively … and proceed with actual construction leisurely, than to attempt economy in the original plans.” Almost no construction will go exactly as planned because of surprises or necessary alterations during the process. Having a dedication scheduled with dignitaries, marching bands, and speakers from out of town on a certain date when there is no guarantee the project will be completed creates unnecessary stress and may encourage corners to be cut, resulting in later repairs. Many materials used in fountains (like caulk, mortar, waterproof coatings, etc.) are temperature-sensitive. Forcing a contractor to apply materials when the timing is not right may compromise the functioning of those materials, and negate warranties. There will be plenty of time to schedule a dedication once the end of construction is clearly in sight.

Sculpture

The sculptures in Kansas City’s fountains are mostly bronze, but some sculptures are stainless steel, various types of stone, or concrete. Beware of cheap “pot metal” sculptures and other poor-quality pieces that may look like bronze but are not as strong or well-made. The city regularly contracts with qualified professional art conservators to treat the sculptures. Ideally, this should be done annually, though the budget rarely allows for it. That means a more expensive—and extensive—treatment is needed whenever funding is available. All sculptures—and the bases—are inspected regularly for structural integrity, patina condition, vandalism damage, etc.

Traditionally, sculptures are often part of the water display (i.e., water jets out from inside the sculpture, etc.). Be aware that, when repairing plumbing, sculptures will have to be moved as well. Plumbing outside the sculpture, preferably in an easily-accessed pipe chase in the floor of the fountain basin, makes dealing with repairs much simpler.

Water

It is often said a fountain’s worst enemy is water. It affects all the fountain’s materials differently. The movement and pressure of water, the erosive power of it hitting surfaces, the chemistry, freezing, and thawing, all have significant effects on the sculpture, structures, plumbing, and mechanical systems of the fountains. Water chemistry is a topic best left to experts.

Support

Building relationships with local organizations, businesses, and philanthropic groups to assist with maintenance needs, donations of materials, or labor, etc. can be very helpful. A non-profit support organization partnering with your agency can also help with fundraising, publicity, or event planning. Kansas City is lucky to have the City of Fountains Foundation, which has supported the construction and renovation of city fountains for over 40 years.

Worth Their Weight

Before you decide that fountains sound like more work than you can take on, consider a few money-saving tips that will restore your faith in the eye-catching structures:

  • The most efficient lighting and pumps can save tens of thousands of dollars in electrical costs over the years, and rebates may be available for upgrading an existing fountain’s efficiency.
  • Stainless-steel pipe and fittings are more expensive up front, but they are less attractive to thieves than copper or brass, and will not rust and stain the entire fountain like iron does, causing perpetual cleaning and preservation issues.
  • Keep copper hidden and inaccessible; painting it white during construction may deter thieves, too.
  • Applying an effective waterproofing material in the basin can protect concrete from freeze-thaw damage.
  • When you have a choice, choose non-porous materials over porous (polished granite instead of travertine), and bronze or stainless-steel sculpture over carved stone or cast concrete.

Above all, keep goals as simple as possible. Design and build the best quality fountain that meets those goals. Expect it to cost more than you anticipate, and to need more maintenance than you imagine!

Jocelyn Ball-Edson is a Senior Landscape Architect with Kansas City, Missouri Parks and Recreation, and has been working on fountain and monument restoration for over 12 years. Reach her at Jocelyn.ball-edson@kcmo.org.