Working with Water

The term liquid design refers to the use of water as a basic architectural design element. Examples of these types of elements can be a waterfall, aquarium, pool, creek or pond. It can be within the house or outside, naturally occurring or man-made.

With liquid design, water is the central theme of the house, not simply an innovative, visual feature or piece of art. It is used as much for a calming effect as it is for visual stimulation. The effect, when created holistically, can be quite extraordinary.

Liquid design has gained popularity because of two Home & Garden TV shows that featured a number of houses incorporating water-based elements, as well as the architects who designed them. During these programs, a number of homes were showcased using water in very creative ways. In one instance, a waterway coursed through the entire house, becoming the defining spatial organizer before terminating in a two-story waterfall cascading into the exterior swimming pool.

In another very different use of water as a home’s defining element, large pools on the roof were employed to create the sense of house as a metaphor for the ocean. And of course, possibly the best known example of liquid design is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater in Bear Run, Pa., in which floor plates appear to be an outgrowth and logical extension of the natural riverbed.

In many of the best examples of liquid design, the sound of water is as important as the visual aspects. Whether trickling droplets or cascading falls, each can provide a soothing ambiance within the home. The shimmer of reflected water on the walls and ceilings also contributes to a sense of peaceful tranquility while providing an ever-changing artistic touch. Use of artificial or controlled natural light can further enhance this effect. Man-made streams that run through the house offer a sense of movement and excitement, leading guests to a final destination much like a good plot in a novel leads readers to a literary climax.

A carefully designed swimming pool, pond or water feature can blur the lines between outside and inside. Water sources need not be stand-alone elements, but instead a part of a thematic whole such as a lushly vegetated jungle, a beachfront or desert oasis. In addition, a liquid design water feature must not be purely decorative. Water features can double as lap pools, hot tubs, baths or in exterior locations as stormwater retention ponds and emergency reservoirs in fire-prone areas.

To put this current interest in liquid design into historical perspective, the Chinese philosophy of Feng Shui (which literally means “wind water”) has emphasized the importance of water elements for at least 1,000 years. Central to Feng Shui is the belief that water provides a sense of infinity; the ever-flowing movement expresses natural harmony and balance desired in one’s life.

To this end, Feng Shui often is thought of as the art of harnessing wind and water in residential and business settings. Practitioners encourage designers to use water elements to stimulate a homeowner’s good fortune or greater success. Following Feng Shui principles, the natural flow of water, especially when it flows past the front of the house, is important to ensure residents will have long and successful careers.

Whether a person is interested in the use of water as a central, defining element because it fosters dynamic design solutions, encourages a sense of excitement, offers healing medicinal value, or is effective in promoting positive cosmic energy forces (also known as Chi) to enter the house and bring the occupants many years of good fortune, liquid design offers another approach to designing and building creative, one-of-a-kind solutions for our residential clients.

Bruce Ferguson, R.A., is a practicing architect and an adjunct professor in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Ferguson can be reached at Read his past columns in the archives at