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Koi World

Contracting for a Better Pond
Tips for working with pond builders
By Pamela Christie

To build, or not to build is not the question. Would-be pond owners already know they want a pond, the question is whether to build it themselves or hire a contractor to build it for them.

“Contrary to what they say on the Home & Garden Channel, building your own pond is not easy,” cautions Kevin Frankhauser, owner of Rock Solid Creations in Baywood, Calif. One-third of Frankhauser’s jobs are redos for owners who tried and failed to do it alone. Their most common complaint is that the ponds don’t look the way they’re supposed to look. A landscape contractor with five years of experience building ponds, Frankhauser has seen a lot of failed do-it-yourself projects.

“Most people want to hyper-jump to the fun, creative part,” he explains. “They want to do the rock placement and the plantings, but they end up getting burned out on the mechanics. These people usually quit at the mud hole stage.”

Rick Perry, owner of Falling Water Designs in Seattle, Wash., takes a similar view. ”I get lots of repair jobs from do-it-yourselfers. Some of them start over two or three times and end up paying two or three times the cost of the job. A good contractor does it right the first time.”

Find a reputable contractor, and ask the right questions.

Jim Nishimori, of Nishimori Landscape and Design in Santa Maria, Calif., recommends talking with other pond owners. “Or,” he says, “get referrals from local suppliers of pond equipment.” Nishimori, who has 11 years of experience in his field, suggests asking how many years of experience the contract has in installing ponds and/or water pardens, the types of pond construction with which he is experienced (preformed ponds, pond liners, concrete, etc.) and with what kinds of filtration systems the contractor has worked. Try to visit some ponds the contractor has installed, and ask whether he/she has experience with water gardens, water gardens with fish, or koi ponds.

“When you find one, ask about the different kinds of ponds there are and what rock types they use,” Nishimori says. “A good contractor won’t mix rock types. It’s more convenient, but it doesn’t look natural. Ask whether he’s ever built a waterfall without using flagstone. Flagstone is commonly used, but it produces a sheeting effect to the water, rather than a cascading effect. And find out whether the contractor makes synthetic rock. If he does, that means he understands rocks and studies them. it indicates a good education.”

Frankhauser recommends calling local koi and/or water garden retailers for references. He frequently takes trips to Yosemite to study rock formations and the plants that grow near streams.

“Make sure that the contractor has already installed a number of ponds,” says Perry, who has been building ponds for 15 years. “You don’t want to be the contractor’s second or third pond project, or you might as well do it yourself. Goldfish and koi ponds require different filtration systems, so make sure the contract has experience building the kind of pond you want. Talk to some former clients and see if they’re still happy.”

Contractor Benefits

“A licensed contractor will have knowledge of local construction codes and carry all necessary insurance,” Nishimori says. “A licensed landscape contractor who specializes in ‘design/build’ construction will have the ability to incorporate a pond into the overall landscape.”

Frankhauser brings up another good point: a contractor has a strong sense of aesthetics.

“People often think high waterfalls are fun, but they’ll end up with a volcano effect, which has to be redone. Relative sizing is important, and a good contractor can point this out to the client before the thing gets built.”

Which is not to say that the average home-owner should shun projects of this type, but building a pond on one’s own requires time, patience and careful planning. Informative how-to books, such as The Complete Pond Builder, by Helen Nash, are helpful. So are local experts, home improvements shows and friends and neighbors with pond building experience.

Frankhauser recommends making a time line. “Draw yourself a chart,” he advises, “And stick to it. Week 1 might read ‘Dig hole and get liner in.’ Bring in a back-hoe, if you like.”

And there’s no reason that it has to be all or nothing. Some people save money by digging the hole themselves, then letting the contractor take it from there.

“Contractors can charge $65 to $80 an hour to have a hole dug,” Frankhauser explains, “so you can save some money that way.” Another way to save is to build the pond in phases.

“Some things can be added later, like UV sterilizes and fish. Using a contractor will save you money in the long run, because mistakes can cost more to fix than the original job.” Perry says.

Hiring a licensed professional is no guarantee of success, but it should be:Webster’s Dictionary defines a contractor as, “One who contracts on predetermined terms to provide labor and materials and to be responsible for the performance of a construction job in accordance with established specifications or plans.” But it doesn’t always work out that way. Some contractors are not experienced when it comes to ponds, and Frankhauser is amazed at the number of contractors who won’t return calls once problems start occurring.

“You need to find a contractor who’s reputable with respect to ponds,” he says. “With a licensed contractor, at least somebody’s accountable for mistakes. The consumer needs to do his homework as far as checking references, though – ask the contractor’s former clients whether he came back to fix problems that showed up after the job was completed.”

Contractor Cooperation

“You need to be on the same page as far as layout and rock-type,” Frankhauser observes. “Then get out of the way. The contractor should spend a few minutes with the client every day to explain what he’s dong and why.”

This provides the clients with an opportunity to speak up if changes are desired, though they don’t always exercise their option.

“I once finished installing an 8-foot deck over a pond, when the owners suddenly decided they wanted a 10-foot deck,” Frankhauser says. “All that work was wasted, and the clients had to pay double to tear out the original deck and have a second one installed.”

There is no one right approach to pond construction. Each method offers a unique set of challenges for the homeowner, and regardless of choice, success will ultimately depend on organization, careful planning and ready access to the experts.

Originally printed in Koi World 2003-2004 Annual

“Think about where you want your pond, and what size you want it to be,” says Perry “because as soon as it’s built, you’ll wish it was bigger. Cost rises only marginally by size, so build the biggest pond you can afford.”

Nishimori concurs. “Build larger to begin with, and spend money up front to install a quality filtering system, both biological and mechanical. Without a good filtration system, you will spend a great deal of time cleaning the pond.”

Dig the hole yourself,” Frankhauser advises “and have pictures of what you want, so the contractor is clear about what you’re looking for.”

Otherwise, you’ll waste time looking through the contractor’s photographs, rejecting and considering a wide array of possibilities.

Perry, too, recommends that clients have pictures to show their contractor, because people don’t always express themselves clearly. “Also,” he says, “Be thinking about the features you’d like: do you want loud water or a Zen trickle, lots of rock or no rock? Once the contractor understands what you want, you won’t have to be there to keep an eye on things.”

Professional vs. Amateur

“Some things can be added later, like UV sterilizes and fish. Using a contractor will save you money in the long run, because mistakes can cost more to fix than the original job.” Perry says.

Hiring a licensed professional is no guarantee of success, but it should be:Webster’s Dictionary defines a contractor as, “One who contracts on predetermined terms to provide labor and materials and to be responsible for the performance of a construction job in accordance with established specifications or plans.” But it doesn’t always work out that way. Some contractors are not experienced when it comes to ponds, and Frankhauser is amazed at the number of contractors who won’t return calls once problems start occurring.

“You need to find a contractor who’s reputable with respect to ponds,” he says. “With a licensed contractor, at least somebody’s accountable for mistakes. The consumer needs to do his homework as far as checking references, though – ask the contractor’s former clients whether he came back to fix problems that showed up after the job was completed.”

Cost Differences

“A contractor’s price on rock is lower than retails,” says Frankhauser. “He pays anywhere from $20 to $120 a ton for rock that retails at $80 to $400 a ton. [Typical, mid-sized water installations require six tons of rock.] A contractor could recommend a specific pump that works best for his client’s needs. It might be more expensive to buy, but less expensive to run on a daily basis. The average consumer might not know this and go with a cheaper pump. But if you use cheap materials, you’re going to get cheap results.”

Perry acknowledges that labor costs for an average-sized pond might run at about $3,000. “So you’d save that by doing it yourself, but you’ll run into other problems. If you strain your back lifting rocks, for instance, you’ll need to add medical expenses into your budget.”

Although the cost of labor can be saved if the homeowner does the installation himself, Nishimori notes that the learning curve can be steep for the first-time installer, and cost savings can actually result from drawing on the experience of a licensed contractor.

“Contractors cost more up front,” says Frankhauser, “but you need to figure in the cost of your own time. A contractor can complete a pond in five to seven days, but I’ve never known a consumer to do it in less than a month.

The bottom line is a contractor should make sure his customer is happy by the time he’s through, according to Frankhauser. The statistics for satisfied first-time, non-professional pond builders would seem to be somewhat less than that.