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Swimming naturally: Tryon Farm builds an oasis in the wilds of Michigan City

Swimming naturally: Tryon Farm builds an oasis in the wilds of Michigan City

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Chirping crickets' calls mingle with the soft splashing of water over rocks. Plants wave in the occasional breeze, their long stems clearly visible in the water where tadpoles dart.

But this is no pond formed by terrain and standing water, half-covered by algae. It’s a carefully designed communal swimming pond at Tryon Farm, where ingenuity and nature meet to create environmentally friendly spaces.

Home to 120-plus acres of hayfields, forests, dunes and meadows, Tryon Farm in Michigan City is also home to residents in 65 houses and condos remarkable for their efficiency and beauty, the inspiration of architect Ed Noonan. He and his wife, Eve, had long dreamed of creating a swimming pool that was not a swimming pool, something more natural and healthier for people and the land.

Eve: “At Tryon Farm we all kind of knew about ponds, because wastewater here is cleaned by plants. But the swimming aspect didn’t become real until Scott (Kuchta) came home from a trip to Europe and told us about swimming ponds there.”

Kuchta, architectural consultant at Tryon Farm, saw first-hand exactly what the Noonans and others at Tryon had been yearning for.

“My friends’ natural pond in Germany was lovely, an idea great for Tryon Farm. We felt it needed to be community-supported financially so we had a community-wide meeting to discuss it. Everything is a conversation out here.”

Helping to drive the conversation forward were Gary Beyerl, a LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) architect, and his wife, Dawn Heid, also an architect. “We have lot of creative people at Tryon, and we have financial ownership, so getting a decision about what the swimming pond should look like and feel like was a challenge,” recalls Beyerl. Some of the questions and concerns from some residents:

--Wanting a wading pond for children

--Wanting a fence to avoid it being an attractive nuisance.

--Wanting it instead to be a pond like anywhere else.

--A desire for a 25-yard lap pond

--How green can it be?

--What kinds of materials would be used?

--Not wanting chemicals in it.

“It was more complicated than ye old swimming hole,” says Heid.

The road to realizing the dream began in Germany with Kuchta, then took Beyerl and Heid to Wichita, Kansas, where a zoo designer turned out to have some important answers. Mick Hilleary, owner of Total Habitat, had figured out how to keep water clean for sea otters without chlorine, which can kill them. He explained the research done by Beyerl and his wife and another couple at Tryon, Peter and Kathy Bresler. A natural swimming pond has no chemicals and is low maintenance because the water is filtered with oxygen introduced via pipes and plants.

“Filtering water this way is economical and very effective and the clean water is crystal-clear. Aerobic bacteria (existing on oxygen) is most effective in eating things out of the water.” Pumps keep oxygen moving through perforated pipes and up through at least nine inches of expanded shale.

A surprise in Wichita that clinched the deal for Beyerl and his wife, who saw a natural pool almost abandoned for a couple of years where a planned house was never built. “The pump was still running, on low, and we jumped in. After all that time, the water was awesome, so soft,” says Heid.

“We had steely resolve that (the Tryon Farm natural swimming pond) it would happen,” says Beyerl.

Still challenges awaited:

“You need 25 acres for a natural pool to have living space for the bacteria, and digging a hole, you can hit rocks. Then there’s the testing of atmosphere and water,” says Hilleary.

There was plenty of acreage at Tryon Farm, but the first year, there were setbacks. After completion the pond was enjoyed in the short span before autumn, but it wasn’t understood how to prepare the pond for winter -- including disconnecting the pumps. A brutal winter ensued, some of the pipes burst and a pump was damaged, sending water flowing out over the pond. “It was disheartening,” says Beyerl, “but we fixed it in the spring.”

Then there were the codes. “We had created an environment Indiana had no code for,” says Beyerl. “A certain amount of chlorine was required for a swimming pool. But ours is a natural pond, not a swimming pool,” with a filtering system that requires no chemicals.

Eve recalls, “Indiana was not pleased at first, didn’t know what it was about. But when they understood, they got on board.” As for use, anyone at Tryon and their guests are welcome; guests sign a waiver.

Next, “It had to be completely enclosed, but we didn’t want a six-foot-high fence,” says Beyerl. A masonry wall of the old barn serves to enclose about half the pond area in an L shape. The rest is enclosed by a farm-style fence with posts from round the farm and fallen trees on the property; “so it looks very natural,” says Kuchta. “We secured it completely for everyone’s health -- children, visitors, animals -- with a gate-locking system.”

As for algae, “The biggest thing is getting the balance going in the beginning,” says Tryon Farm Marketing Director Sarah Noonan, Ed and Eve Noonan’s daughter. “Hot weather encourages unwanted growth, but plants do a portion of the work and we keep the water tested. Also the water is dyed darker, which keeps the sunlight down, slowing algae growth. It was very clear last year.”

Beyerl says in early summer 2014 there were a couple of algae blooms. “We were kind of panicked. We added a couple of ingredients that killed the algae, but Mick (Hilleary) told us to turn up the pumps. It was like a switch went on; two weeks later we had clear water. Heid says it was a little weird to touch the algae at first, “but it’s great for hair and skin and is a great fertilizer for the Farm..”

Enjoying natural beauty

The dirt from digging the hole for the pond was used to flatten a slope of ground near the barn for a plaza-like area. “For a social activity in the barn, you can spill out onto the plaza. The pond kind of drove the rejuvenation of the Farmstead, becoming more social,” notes Beyerl.

Equipment such as the water filter is hidden under a raft-like dock, which kids use as a jumping off point. It also divides the shallow and deeper areas, so parents can sit there and tel il younger kids not to go past that point, so it’s a controlled access. The pond is 6 feet deep, and by consensus a wading pond is included for children as well as an easier access for retirees with mobility issues.

“Unlike a lake, where there is bacteria that’s bad for you, here that’s filtered out,” says Beyerl.

For some shade, a bamboo fence was laid it on top of a trellis, creating a simple, natural-looking pergola.

Now, says Eve Noonan, “One swims without feeling pickled or red-eyed and the surrounding plants make it seem like you are in a lovely, spring-fed pond.”

A question raised by several residents: Why create a swimming pond when Lake Michigan is less than a mile away?

Sarah Noonan explains: “It’s really nice to be able to walk down for a swim. During the week I can pop in and it’s beautifully tranquil. Kids can catch tadpoles, but it’s really fresh water. I love kids having a chance to connect with nature, to be aware and notice it.”

Beyerl explains an unexpected plus: “It turned out to be an unexpectedly popular and intergenerational gathering place, in addition to the community garden and the Farmstead barn, where we meet for a happy hour before other activities. At the pond, different groups, like the retirees and busy families, can enjoy each other’s company. People go there on a Friday afternoon, then say, ‘Let’s stay here and order dinner,’ or they bring dinner. Kids 3 years old and 15 years old, like our daughter, Grace, have fun sharing some of the same space.”

Grace is a fan. “I have sensitivity to chlorine, so a regular pool is not really fun because I can get sick. It was hard at first to deal with (removing small amounts of) algae -- hey, I’m a teenage girl!. But I got used to it, and it makes your hair really soft.

“The pond is really cool because it’s not like what everyone has. My friends are really intrigued; they come here and hang out in summer. There’s a lot of eating that happens and sometimes some pretty intense volleyball. It’s pretty poplar with the male teenage group, too.”

Mom Dawn Heid says, “Oh, really?” and they both laugh.

Everyone enjoys the multi-level waterfall, about 6 feet wide and 12 feet long, a simple concept of water moving over rocks to introduce oxygen, explains Kuchta. “Gary (Beyerl) had no experience with the design, so it was incredible to watch him moving rocks a quarter of an inch to be perfect, to look natural.

“We also raised funds for additional l plants -- there are 2,000 aquatic plants now. Hilleary explains that as the water filters through the roots, the pond stabilizes itself.

“It’s a delightful process, harnessing nature to do what we need it to do.”

Homeowners happy

Peter and Kathy Bresler, homeowners of 12 years at Tryon Farm: “We’re absolutely thrilled that the swimming pond has come to pass. It’s a beautiful space, it’s convenient, the water’s clear,” says Peter Bresler. “You can bring the newspaper and something to drink and sit under the pergola. And the whole development is very environmentally conscious, very innovative. The whole Tryon Farm experience comes alive in the pond.”

Beyerl adds, “It’s pretty magical.”

Part of the magic comes from the Noonans. “Ed and Eve are balanced, caring, multidimensional, terrific people,” says Beyerl. “The architecture here is visionary and innovative. And they’re fun. On a Saturday afternoon, Ed’s driving up on an old tractor with a cooler of beer.”

Dominique Papa, homeowner at Tryon for 11 years, didn’t like the idea of a chlorinated pool for her children. “We’re not freaks about chemicals or anything, but you don’t want that chlorine in your skin and hair all the time. The natural pond water is soft and it’s nice to see plants growing in the water, which doesn’t get funky like a pond can do, it’s very clean yet still has some life to it.”.

Papa, one of the residents who contributed initially toward the cost, says “I’m very happy to support it financially.” Her son, 7, is “over the moon”; daughter, 14, is a bookworm, but enjoys the pond.

“It’s a really nice element that draws the community together. People will bring potluck or pizza over and hang out, it’s just idyllic. Ed is a visionary and it’s exciting to be on the cutting edge.”

Peter Bresler says the pond is yet another facet of a thriving community. “You don’t feel now we’re done. There will be something else.”

With innovative and creative minds always at work, Bresler’s prediction seems likely.


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