Water features, once a second thought when it came to residential design, are now moving to the forefront of home construction. And the latest high-end water features go well beyond yesterday's backyard pool; today's homeowners are building lazy rivers, reef aquariums, man-made mountains with water slides and massive moats. Still, builders say some homeowners aren't prepared for the sticker shock when installing these features or the overhead of maintaining them.
Costs for water features can run high; designers and architects who specialize in building them say the features can rival the price of a house, topping $1 million in some cases. Los Angeles architect David Montalba says that he had a client who planned to install $800,000 worth of water features in a home, only to change his mind at the last minute because of the cost.
Good architecture has always used water," says Charles Sieger, a Miami-based architect who specializes in luxury high-rises. "A wider audience is finally waking up to that." Mr. Sieger's own house in Miami, surrounded by an 18 million-gallon moat, is accessible via a timber-surfaced bridge.
Mr. Montalba says about half of his clients request water features today, a stark rise from the handful of people who were interested 10 years ago. "Back then, it was just a couple of our most adventurous clients who wanted water in their homes," he says. "Today, everyone seems to want a reflecting pool or a fountain or both."
Water features have a practical purpose as well: They mask unpleasant sounds like traffic or noisy neighbors. Sam Johnson, a landscape contractor in Atlanta, says that, because of the additional uses, he's now building about four times as many residential water features as he did five years ago. "Not everyone can live on a beautiful, placid lake, but we can bring the placid lake to them," Mr. Johnson says.
Eugene Lochman, who runs a pool business in the Dallas area, says that he has seen spending on pools and water elements triple since 2008. "Five years ago, it was unheard of for people to drop $120,000 on a nice pool and water feature for their house. But now, it's common," he says. "Rather than go on an elaborate trip, people are investing in their backyards."
Mr. Lochman is one of those people, too. A few years ago, he and his wife, Angie, spent about a quarter of a million dollars—more than a third the cost of their home—building a 287-foot lazy river. The meandering current lets people float around their Prosper, Texas, property or, if they want, they can paddle from the river into a large swimming pool. There's also a man-made cave and multiple waterfalls. The whole water feature requires about 45,000 gallons of water to fill and two 10-horsepower motors to create the current. He can operate the entire apparatus with a remote control.
Aquariums are another water feature that developers say has become popular with homeowners because they can be an inexpensive, low-maintenance way to decorate a home—or give it a unique twist.
The cost and availability of water has increasingly come into play as these features grow more popular. Developers are building in a more eco-conscious manner, constructing homes in areas where well water is available and incorporating water-saving plants into the landscape.
"In many parts of the country, water is absolutely more valuable than gold," says fish habitat and water consultant Shannon Skelton, who runs CFI Global Fisheries Management, a company that helps landowners manage their water assets. In recent years, Mr. Skelton says he has worked with a growing number of clients who have purchased large tracts of land, often thousands acres, that don't come with enough water rights, so they end up having to purchase water elsewhere—at a serious premium.
In some homes, water features can be actually money-saving ventures. Landscaping in dry climates requires a lot of hydration, but a lawn made of water itself demands very little.
Lauren Schuker Blum for the Wallstreet Journal