When Liz and Volkert Bernbeck would tell friends they planned to build a swimming pool on the hillside below their Laguna Beach home, the response was predictable.
"The hill was so steep it was hard for anyone to imagine how it could be done," Liz recalled as she negotiated a series of rock steps leading down to a sandstone grotto, her 2-year-old daughter in tow. "They'd stand on the balcony and look down and laugh."
No one is laughing now.
To say that the Bernbecks built a swimming pool is to say that the Titanic struck an ice cube.
After six years of planning, another full year's work by teams of skilled craftsmen and a cash outlay of about $170,000, the Bernbecks ended up with not only a pool, but an entire mountain of sandstone mesas and rock grottoes spread over an acre of hillside overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
And, except for the flora and a few scattered boulders, the whole thing is as phony as a Mafia tax return.
Mt. Bernbeck is an illusion.
Its cracked and weathered rock face is actually a shell of hand-sculpted concrete set against steel reinforcing bars and chicken wire.
Mother Nature may have been the model for this ancient sandstone outcropping, but she was not the architect. That task went to Rock and Waterscape Systems in Irvine, a company of 150 people who design and build naturalistic rock and water habitats from artificial means.
While the company has routinely performed commercial waterscaping jobs for Disneyland, hotels, zoos and theme parks around the world, only in recent years has the growing residential demand for fabrication played a significant role in its $25-million-a-year business.
This year, the company expects to perform about 25 large custom residential jobs in Orange County alone. "That's about twice the number we did here just three or four years ago," said Lance Friesz, Rock and Waterscape's marketing director.
"People are just starting to find out what's possible in creating natural-looking rock formations," said Friesz, an 18-year veteran with the company. "As they get out and travel around the world, they see some of the fantastic commercial projects that have been done and they come home and want to do something similar for their yards and pools."
Such was the case with the Bernbecks, who, while on a visit to Hawaii a half-dozen years ago, saw one of the company's fabricated sandstone grottoes at their hotel.
Volkert said he thought a smaller version of the grotto would look nice in his back yard. A check with the hotel revealed the name of the builder.
Five years later, the same talents that had built hotel lagoons for Disney, Hyatt and Hilton, realistic animal enclosures for the San Diego Zoo, and show attractions such as Camp Snoopy at Knott's Berry Farm, were set to work transforming shrub and dirt into rock mesa.
Although the Bernbecks originally intended to build a modest rock swimming pool, when work finally ended a year later, it looked like a chunk of Disneyland had fallen from the sky and landed--intact--on the hillside behind their home.
"We kept expanding the rock work and adding more water features as things went along," Volkert explained. "It just kept growing until what you see today."
That sight now includes a spectacular sweep of sandstone ridges, a cliff-hugging pool, two waterfalls, spa, running stream, fountain, reflecting pond, and a water slide that would give vertigo to a mountain goat.
Liz said the city of Laguna Beach needed to be persuaded that the massive complex of water and rock would stay on the hill and not end up on the Coast Highway 500 feet below.
"We needed approval (for expanding the project), of course," she said. "The city was concerned about the stability of so much rock work."
After checking work plans and consulting with the engineers at Rock and Waterscape, Liz said the city agreed to the project. "We were very, very surprised that it went through with such relative ease, considering the scope of the thing."
The Bernbeck back yard is among the company's more ambitious residential projects, according to Friesz.
"Not everyone has all the water amenities that they do," he said. "But more and more, people with the financial means are getting bolder in their approach to outdoor fabrications."
Brian Culbertson, sales manager for Regina's Statuary in Costa Mesa, said the trend toward natural water settings is quickly catching on with county residents. Although currently specializing in more traditional precast fountains for the home, he said his company will soon begin developing its own molds for creating rock waterfalls and rock-lined pools.
Culbertson, who has done custom rock work for other companies in the past, said that the demand for all forms of outdoor water features, including wall and free-standing fountains, has at least doubled in the past half-dozen years.