Total Habitat at work on WaterWalk pool

07/05/2012 12:00 AM

07/04/2012 11:26 PM

Mick Hilleary looks to nature for inspiration when creating his waterscapes and other outdoor features.

“I stop along the highway” to take photographs, Hilleary said. “My family is like, ‘Not again, Dad.’ ”

Hilleary’s company, Total Habitat, constructed the first phase of the water features at WaterWalk, a series of rock-ringed ponds in a park setting on three sides of the development.

It’s now at work on the second phase, building a meandering 200-foot-long pool that will surround much of the Waltzing Waters, a fountain whose “show” is choreographed to music and lights.

“When it’s not going on, our water feature will be the main attraction,” Hilleary said.

Hilleary traces his love of the outdoors to growing up on Lake Quivira outside Kansas City. He earned a degree in industrial design from the University of Kansas, working on business aircraft and doing other traditional design work before landing a job to do the jungle lobby at the Sedgwick County Zoo in 1991. Zoo officials liked the result so much that it led to him taking a job there as curator of exhibits. He was also instrumental in development of the Pride of the Plains exhibit.

“It’s like I found my niche,” he said of working at the zoo.

He left the zoo to start Total Habitat in 1999. The company works for zoos across the country as well as businesses and homeowners. One specialty is what Hilleary calls “natural” swimming pools. The pools use biological filters instead of chemicals to keep the water clean: basically, beneficial bacteria on the gravel filter eat any nutrients in the water, keeping other organisms from growing.

“They’ve become really hot,” Hilleary said of natural pools. “It’s an oasis of nature, yet has crystal clear water.”

Total Habitat has been featured on CBS and in the New York Times. Hilleary has built several “natural” pools for homeowners in Wichita and the surrounding area, with other clients from Boston to Palo Alto, Calif. The pools at the WaterWalk use the same environmental technology.

Total Habitat employs five people full time, with additional employees added for large jobs. Hilleary moved back to the Kansas City area in 2005 and runs his company “from a laptop there,” but all of his employees live in Wichita and he commutes here frequently.

Hilleary notes proudly that his daughter Sophie is now studying industrial design at the University of Kansas. And, he says, she’s picked up another of his traits, stopping the family vehicle as they traveled through a scenic stretch of Arkansas.

“She pulls over and says, ‘Dad, you’ve got to take a picture of this.’ ”

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