I don’t know how many people have told me they saw the Fountains of Bellagio and cried. Cried! That’s not something people often tell engineers about their work,” Tony Freitas, P.E. says of the $75 million Las Vegas fountain he helped design. Freitas, who has a B.S. in mechanical engineering, is Manager of Architecture and Facility Engineering for WET Design, the company regarded by many as the most creative and innovative fountain design firm in the world.

What brings about the tears? Imagine taking 1200 water jets (many of them motorized and synchronized) and more than 5400 individually programmed underwater lights and choreographing them all to the music of Luciano Pavarotti, Aaron Copland, Frank Sinatra and others. People cry because the Fountains of Bellagio are not just an engineering masterpiece or a work of art on a grand scale; it is because the fountains seem to be alive, with a heart, soul and emotions of their very own. It is something from which Mark Fuller derives tremendous personal satisfaction.

Fuller founded WET Design (the WET stands for Water Entertainment Technology) in 1983 by maxing out 13 credit cards for start-up capital. Fuller’s first testing and design laboratory consisted of several garden hoses in the backyard of his friend’s home. Today, the company has 100 employees and is currently working on 50 projects around the world with an average price tag of $700,000 each.

That’s pretty heady stuff for a company that traces its roots to Fuller’s undergraduate civil engineering honors thesis on “axisymmetric laminar fluid flow.” The thesis investigated turbulence-free water behavior and resulted in Fuller creating an arch of rapidly flowing water molecules that was so pure it seemed to be motionless.

“The analogy we use for the laminar streams is a laser beam,” Freitas says. “In a laser, the light is moving in coherent beams, all at the same frequency. We do the same thing with the water, slowing and smoothing the flow until all the water molecules are moving in perfect synchrony. The effect is produced by a proprietary device we manufacture, which is connected to a pressurized water supply using conventional pumps and piping.”

After earning a B.A. in civil engineering, Fuller continued studies in water flow in his graduate thesis work in design at Stanford University. After graduating from Stanford with an M.A. in engineering and product design, he worked for the Walt Disney Company for approximately six years where he supervised the creation and implementation of more than 500 special effects and water projects for EPCOT Center and Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Perhaps the fountain for which he is most famous is the “Leap Frog” where laminar streams of water several feet long playfully leapfrog from planter to planter.

Fuller and two co-workers left Disney to form WET Design and immediately developed a philosophy for the company that challenged the traditional idea of a fountain. In a WET Design installation, water as a medium is used to create abstract, pure and carefully detailed compositions that provide viewers with a sense of participation. The designs seek to maximize the relationship between the water and the viewer. In many designs, viewers are actually encouraged to enter the fountain—which has no handrails or other barriers—and interact with the water.

Water Control Technology

All of WET Design’s features are achieved in ways that lower both energy and project costs. According to Fuller, several of the technologies WET Design uses in its many creations save 80 percent or more in energy costs and lower project construction costs by 50 percent over traditional fountains. “Traditional fountains use pumps and pipes, which must be sized for maximum, instantaneous flow” Fuller explains. “Many of ours use compressed air, which can be generated for the mean demand and stored. That makes a big difference if your fountain climaxes into the sky only once every 15 minutes.”

Aesthetics also play a key role in a WET Design fountain. “If you look closely at a lot of fountains,” Freitas says, “you will see a number of things that detract from the aesthetics—wires, pipes, light stands, etc. In a WET Design fountain, we don’t have anything visible that we don’t intend for the viewer to see. It doesn’t mean that the engineering has less importance than the design, only that we have to engineer the fountain with a sense of visual awareness that might not normally be called upon from engineers.

“Equipment room noise on all of our projects is dealt with by keeping the equipment away from the fountain, in a remote equipment room or vault. If required, acoustic treatments will be used in the equipment rooms to reduce the noise to acceptable levels.”

WET Design owns a variety of technologies and has more than 30 patents for water control devices; energy-conserving, compressed-air-operated fountains; laminar and fluidic fountain technologies; water game technologies; fire and special effects components; and water illumination systems. These technologies are the tools used by the company’s designers in creating imaginative and contextual water features. They include:

  • Laminar Stream. A parabolic arch of pure water (Fig. 1).

  • Oarsman™. An underwater, robotically controlled fountain head (some of which can be seen in Fig. 2).

  • Shooter®. An air-powered water “missile” capable of achieving a height of 240 feet (some of which are visible in Fig. 2). “A SuperShooter® is an air-powered nozzle,” Freitas says, “and is the largest in the family of Shooters we produce. They all work on the principle of introducing a bubble of compressed air into the Shooter body, forcing the trapped water through a nozzle at high pressure. The SuperShooters we installed at the Bellagio shoot 75 gallons of water over 240 feet in the air, but we use the same principle to produce streams only a few feet high. In addition to providing a spectacular effect, they require only about 1/10th the energy of a pump to produce the same effect. Noise produced by the Shooters will vary with the air pressure used and timing of the firing. In general, the noise produced by the devices is embraced as a natural part of the feature.”

  • MiniShooter®. An air-powered, pulsing water jet, achieving a maximum height of 125 feet.

  • NanoShooter®. A small air-powered pulse of water (Fig. 3).

  • WaterSkin™. A membrane of water covering a dark surface.

  • PopJet™. Small spherical “marbles” of water.

  • Water Iris™. A wave effect that expands and contracts in a pool.

  • WETFire™. Water on fire which employs colored bursts of fire and 10-meter fireballs (Fig. 4). “WETFire is a new effect, which combines aerated jets of water with burning fire,” Freitas says. “Because the jets are aerated, there is enough oxygen present to keep the gas fuel (natural gas or propane) burning. Initially, we planned to create an effect of fire surrounded by water. But we were able to combine the fire with the water to create a synergistic water/fire effect. Obviously, installing something like this to operate unattended in a public space requires a sophisticated control system to operate reliably and safely.”

  • FireTornado™. A spiral of fire.

Project Development

Once WET Design receives a commission, the first activity is to visit the site and examine its characteristics, such as terrain, scale, weather and surrounding architecture. A series of conceptual designs are then created that address a range of alternatives and are intended as a way to get critical feedback from the client and reach a definitive design direction.

Once the client has approved the design direction, closer examination is given to the form and technology of the water feature. This includes design of the feature’s surroundings, such as pavement pattern or other materials, and integration within the larger context of the site. In this phase, models are created to study form and sculpture, along with full-scale mock-ups to study texture, light, reflectivity and scale. It is also during this phase that the company’s research and development team creates any new technology elements that may better help realize the execution of the concept.

Along with the final stage of design detailing and development, the company’s engineering group begins the process of developing all of the technical documents needed for the project. These engineering documents are included as part of the construction contract to be bid and built by a local contractor.

In many cases, projects will incorporate technology elements designed and fabricated by the manufacturing facility of WET Labs Inc., the company’s research and development arm. When construction is ready to begin, WET Design sends a team of field technicians to the site to oversee and supervise the installation of the project, and to test and adjust any proprietary equipment used in the project.

Many of the company’s water features take advantage of the inherent, kinetic quality of water, composing often complex choreographies of water events. This water choreography is developed on Virtua-WET, a 3-D particle model simulation tool developed specifically for this purpose. The resulting program is then refined on site.

Grandest of the Grand

The company’s most stunning creations to date are the Fountains of Bellagio. The fountains were completed in 1998 and take up most of a 1000-foot-long, 10-acre lake. One the project’s objectives was to create a work that would be vibrantly kinetic, while at the same time expressing the romantic spirit of the Bellagio Hotel and Resort. Another goal was to create something beyond what had ever been imagined before.

“When I first spoke with Steve Wynn (owner of the Bellagio),” Fuller says, “he told me that he wanted me to design something that I would have a hard time imagining topping. He asked me if I could do that. I had to think for a moment before saying ‘yes.’”

“The Bellagio challenge,” Freitas says, “ was that we were producing the biggest project we ever did, that anyone has ever done, using all new technology, out in the middle of a 10-acre lake. The mechanical and electrical systems have more in common with an industrial process plant than what you would see for a fountain. Luckily, many of our staff, including myself, have that kind of background, so we weren’t in over our heads (too much). Where we didn’t have the experience, we went out and found the people who did.”

Before joining WET Design about four years ago, Freitas worked as a project engineer at the Department of Water and Power in Los Angeles. “I was part of a group doing really groundbreaking work in reducing emissions from the Los Angeles area power plants,” he says. “Unfortunately, when power deregulation was introduced in Los Angeles, our work was put on hold, and I decided it was time for a change. Before that, I had worked in defense aerospace for five years, so I brought a fairly diverse engineering background with me.

“The work at WET Design is very challenging for an engineer. Every project we do is unique, and there are no books in which you can look this up. We draw from our company’s 15 years of experience to develop our designs, and we learn something new on each project we do.

“For example, one of the problems we encountered at Bellagio was ice crystals forming inside the air valves we use on the SuperShooters. The ice crystals were caused by the refrigeration effect that took place due to the extreme pressure drop across the compressed air side of the valve (200 psi). We had not encountered this problem in the past because we had not gone above 100 psi air pressures. To deal with the problem, we changed the pilot valves we were using and moved the point of air expansion within the valve. This solved the problem while allowing us to achieve the same effect.

“However, because the valves on the SuperShooters at Bellagio are in 13 feet of water,” Freitas says, “every time we needed to make a valve adjustment or check on valve performance, we had to use scuba divers to do the work. We had 25 certified divers on our staff during this project.”

A range of musical works was chosen for the fountains, ranging from classical and operatic pieces to popular music and songs from Broadway shows. Designers, musicians and performance artists helped mesh the movement of the water with the music. The performances range from delicate and whimsical to grand and commanding and include: “Singin’ in the Rain,” performed by Gene Kelly; “Rondine Al Nido,” performed by Luciano Pavarotti; “Luck Be a Lady Tonight,” performed by Frank Sinatra; and “Hoe-Down,” composed by Aaron Copland.

“We spent an entire summer learning to play it,” Fuller says, “and, although I’m not given to immodest overstatement, the Fountains of Bellagio is the biggest and best fountain on planet Earth in the history of time.”

Looking Ahead

What projects does WET Design have on the drawing board? “I was in Dubai a few weeks ago at the Burj al Arab Hotel,” Freitas says, “which will be the tallest hotel in the world when it opens later this year. We have some spectacular features going in there, including Leap Frogs, fire, fog, and a 150-foot Shooter inside the hotel atrium. We’ve got two features opening soon in Hong Kong, and are doing the engineering right now for a project in Budapest that will have a 60-foot indoor waterfall. “This is the hardest job I’ve ever had,” Freitas notes, “and I love it, though I don’t know if my wife feels the same way.”