They add a touch of the wild to any backyard landscape, and they can be as big or as simple as you like. Get the skinny on what goes into making a water feature that truly stands out.
What started as a failed attempt at keeping pet turtles safe in a backyard pond has turned into one of the world’s most successful water feature construction companies. For the past 31 years, Aquascape Inc., in St. Charles, has become a premier source for those who are serious about adding water features to their backyards.
Founded in 1991 by owner and CEO Greg Wittstock, Aquascape currently specializes in the installation, design and maintenance of ponds, waterfalls and other water features for businesses and backyards.
Aquascape’s work has been featured across the Chicago area, including recent projects with the Lincoln Park Zoo, the Shedd Aquarium and other spaces both public and private.
Brian Helfrich, vice president of construction, has been with the company since 1995.
“I started at Aquascape when Greg said the future of this company is not installing water features but teaching the rest of the world how to install them,” Helfrich says. “We then went on to not only start selling our product, but to develop our system for building these features more efficiently.”
Among the company’s clientele there are three main water features that are most in demand: fountainscapes, pondless waterfalls and koi ponds.
“In the beginning, it was mostly just ponds that were being built, but now that we offer more options, we’re seeing a mix of all three becoming popular with our customers,” Helfrich says. “I believe ponds are becoming popular again because people are staying home more and a pond is the ultimate addition to your backyard, if you’re not thinking about a swimming pool.”
Fountainscapes, which are small, decorative water features such as tabletop fountains, container water gardens and stand-alone fountains, cater to a wide group of people. They’re typically smaller in size and budget, and they typically integrate easily into existing patios, decks and other outdoor living spaces.
“Fountainscapes offer very little maintenance for customers and can be turned on and off, whenever they please,” Helfrich says. “Fountainscapes also provide nighttime beauty when spotlights are added.”
Pondless waterfalls also require little maintenance and add the soothing sight and sound of water to the landscape, says Helfrich.
“Pondless waterfalls are built with natural stone and don’t include a pond, although one can always be added in the future,” he adds. “What Aquascape does well is taking inspiration from Mother Nature and putting that into our builds.”
Koi ponds create an ecosystem habitat for living creatures. The decision to create this sort of landscape addition comes down to how much time the customer wants to spend with their water feature.
“A pond creates a relaxing oasis to enjoy, but it often becomes a hobby,” Helfrich says. “Are you going to spend a lot of time outdoors, or will you be feeding the fish regularly? To me, having a pond with a waterfall connects both of those areas together, and it’s hard to put in words how much nicer it looks.”
Besides the natural beauty koi ponds bring to your backyard, these types of water features are known to reduce stress for individuals. With the combination of beautiful water features and the fish, koi ponds have become a popular stress reliever for the entire family.
Of course, a pond isn’t just about the water and how it’s contained. There are many additional touches that take things up a notch or two. And underwater lighting takes the crown in most cases.
“The underwater lights give you two ponds – a daytime pond and a nighttime pond,” says Helfrich. “There’s something indescribable about how gorgeous it is seeing these ponds at night with the lights bouncing off the shadows and seeing the fish move throughout the night.”
Landscaping further enhances the pond and its surroundings. Water-loving plants add interest inside the water feature while plants installed in the rocky outcroppings and adjacent areas draw people into the water feature and its mysteries.
“I believe the landscape makes or breaks every single project,” Helfrich says. “Different types of plants and flowers do a great job adding color and texture in and around the pond. At Aquascape, we try to create mystery using plants to disguise where the land ends and the water begins.”
What flowers make it into the final design depends entirely on the pond’s shape and the client’s personality.
“That part of the process starts to become your fingerprint, or your touch, on your backyard paradise,” Helfrich adds. “There are many plants that go well with ponds that in the end all do the same job.”
The cost of installed fountainscapes ranges between $5,000 and $100,000, depending on the type and scope of the project, Helfrich says. Pondless waterfalls can start around $7,000 and climb to more than $100,000, with total budget depending largely on the length of the stream. The more complex a job is, the longer it’ll take to install.
“We can build in a day or less an ecosystem pond that’s similar to the average-sized bedroom,” Helfrich says. “With four or five guys, we can knock out a beautiful-looking ecosystem pond ready for fish with a waterfall and underwater lights by the time the sun sets.”
Though the company is based in St. Charles and serves primarily the Chicago area, its services have gained an international reputation.
“We will literally travel anywhere in the world to build a water feature for your home,” Helfrich says. “We are currently working on a project in Spain, which we will start to focus on in December, when it starts to get cold here in the Midwest.”
For Helfrich, the success of the company is based on the satisfaction of customers.
“Since 1991, we’ve been fully focused on customer service and the relationships we have with our customers,” he says. “We really strive to not just build the relationship, but to maintain it throughout time.”
“We realized a while ago if you focus on customer service, the quality of the work is sort of secondary, because we’ve found the relationships we’ve made become more important than anything else,” he adds.
Aquascape does between 60 and 100 installations a year, and Helfrich says the team is always working to improve its craft.
“Years ago, we made the decision that we wouldn’t try to build the most water features in the area, but we would build the best ones,” he says. “Where we’ve come from during the 1990s to where we’re at today is indescribable and exciting. I can’t wait to see where we’re at 10 years from now.”
Helfrich and his crew have collected many great memories over the years, but one aspect of their job sticks out.
“By far, my favorite part of the process is the design stage. I love meeting with the customers and coming into their backyard to facilitate ideas on what’s possible,” he says. “That part of the process is very exciting, but nothing compares to seeing the end result, no matter what the project entails.”