Water features: a buyer's guide - Grand Designs Magazine
water features buyers guide

Water features: a buyer’s guide

What to consider before choosing and installing a fountain, waterfall or pond

By Arabella St John Parker & Hugh Metcalf |

A garden water feature can soothe and restore, as well as helping the natural eco-system by attracting and aiding a wealth of wildlife. So whether you’re considering adding a splashing fountain, babbling rill or a pond, this buyer’s guide to water features offers expert advice on what to consider before choosing and installing one, as well as how to keep children safe and encourage wildlife.

The benefits of water features

While water features are great design assets for a garden, offering movement and reflection, one of the biggest reasons to consider a garden water feature is for its audible qualities. 

The sound of water has biophilic properties – a wellbeing boost from being close to nature. This gives water features the ability to create a relaxing and restorative feel in the garden. 

In an urban environment, you’re refocussing your ear away from neighbours, traffic noise and all those other periphery noises,’ said garden designer Georgia Lindsay during a Grand Designs Live Online talk on garden design. ‘I often say to clients, if you can just get the sound of water into your garden…’

If space is tight, Georgia recommends even just a small bubbling fountain, placed among the planting, to bring these benefits to your space. ‘You don’t even need to see that water source, but I love the sound, it’s so relaxing.’ 


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Do you need planning permission?

Planning permission is unnecessary for most water features, particularly if self-contained – which means it does not require a mains water supply, you simply fill it with tap water and keep it topped up with a hose. If in doubt, check with your installer or your local planning office.

You must apply for permission if your property is listed or if it, or the surrounding area, has any of the following classifications: designated land, national park, greenbelt land or conservation area (visit planningportal.co.uk for more details).

Under current UK Building Regulations, water pumps and any exterior power source should be fitted with a residual current device (RCD) and electrical equipment must be maintained in a safe condition, with cables and connectors protected against the weather and accidental damage. Ask a qualified electrician to do portable appliance testing (PAT) once the water feature has been installed.

Also, if you intend to pump harvested rainwater via pipework, you must ensure that the pipework is entirely separate from mains drinking water pipes.

stainless steel water wall by David Harber

This stainless steel waterfall wall by David Harber is made to measure and sold with reservoir, pump and LED lights

Where to place water features 

You should also think carefully about where you locate a water feature, to ensure that not only it works as part of your landscaping design, but for safety and garden maintenance. 

‘Large ponds and bodies of water make excellent reflective surfaces which help to highlight features trees,’ suggests Henry Scott, of landscape and garden design studio Pehrsson Scott. However, placing a water feature underneath a deciduous tree will mean you’ll have to clear leaves from the water in the autumn. 

Consider whether you want your water feature to be the focal point or one of several features in the garden, and what is it made of? Co-ordinating it with existing materials will make it fit in more effectively and should prove more appealing if you sell your home.

If you are buying a readymade design, consider placing it among planting, rather than as a standalone feature, as this will help ground it as part of your design.

Alternatively, use the feature as both the focus and the structure of the garden, such as the circular, sheltered seating by Tom Simpson Design. ‘The shallow, black-painted steel pond in the centre draws you in while the top step, in Jura green limestone, wraps around the space to form a bench,’ he explains. The mirror pond is self-contained and a design of a similar size (excluding planting) would cost around £7,000-£10,000.

A bespoke rill, designed and installed by Water Gems in a garden by Ruth Gebbie

A bespoke rill, designed and installed by Water Gems in a garden by Ruth Gebbie

Choosing a design

Choosing a water feature will depend not so much on your budget and style preference as on how complex a project you want to take on, how much space you have and what level and type of water sound you want to hear, if any. If possible, listen to a similar example before you commit and consider how you want to feel as you sit beside it.

The interaction of lighting and water features should also be considered, while water dyes can also be effective in creating a statement look, especially in a larger pool of water. 

For simplicity and cost-effectiveness, choose a freestanding container such as a Corten steel dish or a zinc butt, a salvaged stone planter or trough. Placed at the corner of a terrace or at a junction of paths, it becomes somewhere to stop and linger.

‘The selection of off-the-shelf products is vast, but the context and purpose of the water feature should always be carefully considered,’ says Scott. ‘For these reasons, we generally create and design bespoke water features to suit a particular requirement or expectation that our clients have.’

Zinc Water Surface fountain comes with stainless steel reservoir and pump

The Domani Zinc Water Surface fountain from The Chelsea Gardener comes with stainless steel reservoir and pump

Mains or solar powered?

Your water feature may require an electricity supply. Some designs contain self-contained solar powered cells to operate the pump, but more powerful designs will be mains-operated. This means that it’s good to decide early on in the garden design process if you’re going to have a water feature, and which style, as this will cause less disruption at the start of a garden renovation than retrofitting. 

Easy to install and maintain, plug-and-play water features, which can be bought off-the-shelf or custom-made, are self-circulating and can be easily moved around the garden so long as a waterproof power supply is nearby.

Aside from being eco-friendly and free to operate, solar water features are easy to install since you don’t need to worry about a power source, just pop the solar panel in a sunny part of the garden and enjoy.

Some solar water features come with solar panel battery, storing excess energy to use when the sun isn’t shining, meaning some will operate at night.

Solar water pumps come with varying max flow rates and power levels, so if you’re buying your pump and water feature separately, check the operation requirements before you buy.

scupper mains-powered water feature pouring into a pond

The mains-powered Scupper is self-circulating

Installing a pond

For a naturalistic garden, a planted pond will require more maintenance, but can reasonably be installed within 10 days if you choose an off-the-shelf, pre-form kit. Try UK Water Features. To keep fish, incorporate an electric or solar-powered filtration system and pump. Adding a pump-powered fountain or water blade to recycle the pond water is better still, while oxygenating plants and barley straw will help keep the water clean.

For a more substantial design, or an elaborate natural swimming pond like that created by Dan and Nina Rowland and seen on an episode of Grand Designs, commission an expert via the Society of Garden Designers. They can design and fully or partially project-manage the construction, including any necessary planning applications, tender processes and sourcing and purchasing of materials and planting.

grand designs pond house in chichester with natural swimming pool

A natural swimming pond needs a careful balance of plants to keep the water clear. Photo: James French

Practical water feature considerations

Generally, water features do not require a water supply, as the water is recycled via the pump.

‘The sight and sound of water walls are captivating – perfect for quiet contemplation and relaxation,’ says sculptor David Harber, whose mirror-polished stainless steel feature relies on water pumped from a subterranean reservoir. Reservoirs or water storage and catchment containers are used for many off-the-shelf options, as well as DIY or bespoke designs. The reservoir needs to have enough capacity to fully and consistently submerge the pump, and if your water feature shoots up into the air, the storage diameter should match the water height. Try Water Gardening Direct for a range of different types.

The water feature may need cleaning occasionally. To clean the water, empty the water feature occasionally and scrub away the algae. Ideally, site it away from falling leaves as they will turn the water to sludge. 

‘Deionised water will control limescale on concrete and standard stainless steel or brass cleansers will maintain the metal spout,’ says Lisa Greenway of Solus Décor UK.

If you have children or pets, you’ll need to carefully consider the style of water feature you choose. Even a few centimetres of standing water presents a hazard for young children, but there are many designs that have no exposed pools to minimise the risk. 


How to encourage wildlife

Tips for attracting insects, birds and animals with a garden water feature from Abi Paine of The Wildlife Trusts:

  1. Adding a water feature, large or small, to your garden is one of the best things you can do to support wildlife. A pond is the ultimate solution, with one side that is shallow and stepped – stones are ideal. Animals such as hedgehogs can drink without falling in and froglets can move out during the summer months. Choose a site that is sunny, but not too hot.
  2. Allow grass to grow long near the pond so animals can approach without being exposed, and use aquatic and native plants to oxygenate the water and provide shelter and food. Try marsh-marigold, a lovely edging plant with early nectar for insects, and frogbit, which has waterlily-like leaves that frogs can perch on. Water violets will attract dragonfly nymphs, water beetles and tadpoles, and the water itself will draw in birds to drink and bathe.
  3. Winter is a good time to create a pond as it will settle and establish without disturbing the wildlife too much, but any features with a solid lining are best drained during the cold months, to prevent the water from freezing and cracking the structure. Refill it after the frosts have passed.
  4. Bees need to drink water too, so create a bee watering station by lining a shallow tray with pebbles then almost covering them with water.
  5. Try to use collected rainwater rather than tap water to fill your pond or feature. Tap water has chemicals in it that amphibians such as frogs might absorb through their skin.