The New H2O

Today’s fountains are managed by sophisticated control panels overseeing hydraulics, nozzles, lights, and music—and behind those controls is Fountain Technologies, helping to bring an ancient art into the 21st century

Behind the Vortex Fountain at Oakbrook Center, a computer system controls the water tank, 7 pumps, more than 50 nozzles, and a series of LED lights. (Photo: Sheila Barabad)

It’s a craft that dates back to the Romans, but companies such as Wheeling, Illinois-based Fountain Technologies are taking fountain design and construction into a new era. “The original goal was providing a beautiful place at which people could gather water, but now water features such as fountains are either aesthetic [meant as art], recreational [used as splash pools], or restorative [placed in healing gardens],” company partner Robert Watson says. “In many cases, such as shopping malls, they also evolve into a gathering point.” Recently, Watson was kind enough to walk American Builders Quarterly through some of the particular challenges and processes of the
water-feature industry, and he also laid out the approach Fountain Technologies took with some of its latest projects.

By the Numbers: Vortex fountain at Oakbrook center

December 2013
Completion date of the all-weather Vortex Fountain, located in the Oakbrook Center, a renowned shopping destination west of Chicago

18 inches
Lowest point of the fountain, which consists of a series of concentric circles spiraling downward from the surrounding plaza

4,000 gallons per minute
Amount of water coursing through the fountain’s central array (enough to fill a typical backyard swimming pool in less than five minutes)

40,000 gallons
Size of the water tank that Watson and his crew hid beneath a nearby Crate & Barrel in case of flooding (“It was quite the construction project,” he says)

Advancing the show: Where water meets technology

A fountain is a combination of architectural, mechanical, and electrical components, and Watson, a certified engineering technologist by training, joined Fountain Technologies because he found the complexity appealing. Then, about 15 years ago, his industry got even more interesting with the introduction of computerized parts, including programmable logic controllers to manage water flow, colored lights, and even music.

“It’s not just a fountain; it’s a show,” Watson says. “Because of that, today’s designers are doing more than figuring out the hydraulics that make a water feature work.”

Project Spotlight: Baker & McKenzie’s Rooftop Reflective Pool

As advances continue to be made in the water-feature industry, the products themselves are going into more outlandish locations. For instance, Goettsch Partners, representing the law firm Baker & McKenzie, hired Fountain Technologies to install a feature on the 50th floor of a downtown Chicago high-rise overlooking the city’s 25-acre Millennium Park near the Lake Michigan shoreline. The reflective pool contains just one inch of water, but one of the law firm’s boardrooms is situated above it, enclosed in glass, creating an unusual and sophisticated space that was recently featured in the movie Transformers: Age of Extinction. “We’ve been told people are just awed by the fountain,” Watson says. “It has become the firm’s best closing room for deals.”

Anatomy of a Project: The 5-Step Process

  1.  Fountain Technologies receives, from an architect or landscape architect, a rendering or conceptual sketch of what the fountain should look like.
  2.  Using the rendering or sketch, the firm engineers the fountain to determine how it will work and provides its client with a budget.
  3.  If the budget meets the client’s requirements, the project proceeds to the design phase, which often includes a simulation of the finished water feature that is sent to the client for final approval.
  4.  Once the client signs off on the simulation, Fountain Technologies prepares construction documents and sends out a bid for any subcontractors necessary to complete the project. Many of the company’s competitors will design a water feature and supply the equipment, but Fountain Technologies will design the water feature, supply the equipment, perform the installation, and offer maintenance services.
  5.  Fountain Technologies constructs the fountain. Depending on the project’s size, this step can take anywhere from a matter of weeks to several months. A recent water feature, for example, took three months to build.