Zoo and Aquarium Design: Playing the “What If” Game
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2000

Lee G. Simmons, DVM

Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, Omaha, NE, USA


Designing a zoo building or animal exhibit is easy! Designing one that works for the animals, plants, staff, and visitors is, sometimes, slightly more complicated. A facility for a single hardy mammal species, not on public display, is easier to design and to operate than one for multiple species of marine invertebrates on public view. The greater the number of species and families, let alone kingdoms, you mix under one roof, the more complicated the task. Function should always dictate form and take precedence over esthetics. Expected function may dictate dramatically different forms. A clinical lab functions differently than a jelly fish exhibit even though both have volumes of liquid contained in glass and plastic vessels. The jump distance for a langur is different than for a Tasmanian devil, even if they both can bite ferociously. That a truly successful design should function for all concerned is a given. However, this given is not always recognized by a designer who has not lived with a similar exhibit species or facility. “Can you accomplish a functionally successful design?” is the question to be answered.

Once the need for a new facility has been agreed upon by all concerned and that first basic flash of inspiration is past, the starting point for answering all the questions necessary to successfully complete any project, large or small, should be a series of lists and counter lists which identify the prime objectives, parameters, and potential problems. These lists are then expanded upon by the design and engineering team members to address each identified objective. In Omaha, we believe strongly that this set of lists should include both those identifying positive objectives and those that address as many negative possibilities and worst-case scenarios as can be thought of.

Additionally, never assume that the functions and or species represented on opening day are cast in stone forever. Part of the process should be to identify and imagine possible future uses 5, 10, or 15 years down the road. You need to combine individual staff and institutional experiences, experiences gleaned from other zoos, as much outside technical expertise as can be found or purchased, and a liberal dose of the “what if” game in order to compose an effective set of lists from which to design, build, and operate.

The “what if” game is an exercise in which you mentally, systematically, walk step by step through every function from feeding, cleaning, introducing new specimens, removing specimens, breeding introductions, births, deaths, breaking up fights, escapes, neonatal exams, immobilization, and treatments, to washing the windows, taking out the garbage, and visitor interactions. While the “what if” game can certainly be played by one person, and in fact this is usually how most projects start, it should ultimately be played by a “team” who are used to working together with a purpose in common. This “team” concept will be touched on later in this paper. Everyone who will have anything to do with the project should ultimately be included in and encouraged to play the “what if” game. The perspectives from which architects, engineers, keepers, curators, veterinarians, horticulturists, and directors see a project, are sometimes slightly different and often times dramatically different. These perspectives shape what is perceived to be the function. While institutional and individual management philosophies and practices can and should have bearing on design form and function, these influences should transcend “All of our buildings have always been red brick.” There is seldom a single, absolute, or perfect way to accomplish the desired function.

I am a firm believer that you are highly unlikely to be able to hire an outside expert to design a system or exhibit and expect it to work well for your institution unless you, your staff, and the people who will have to live in that facility day in and day out, have played an active part in its functional design. This is particularly true of outside experts who have never been down on their knees with dirty hands trying to make a similar facility work. Ultimately, all outside experts go home while you must live with the facility. This can seem longer than forever if the facility doesn’t work. If at all possible, hire a local architect, who lives in your town and who is both knowledgeable enough and intuitive enough to listen well enough to see things from the perspective of your institution. Architects, engineers, zoo directors, veterinarians, curators, and other staff involved at the primary design level all need secure egos to effectively play the “what if” game. There is only one acceptable response to any of the players stating: “that won’t work.” No matter where the idea being discussed originally came from, or if it simply slipped in by default, the only acceptable response is: “alright, specifically, why won’t it work and what will make it work?” This is, unfortunately, often followed closely by “do we have enough money to make it work?” The director (say owner) and architect, and acknowledged experts, if applicable, together should be the final arbitrators of compromises on what will or won’t work and of what goes on each list. Ultimately, the owner who pays the bills and lives with the results has the final say.

Specific lists should begin with:

1.  Type and function (hospital, quarantine, exhibit, mixed exhibit, aquarium, off exhibit breeding).

2.  Number and species of animals and plants.

3.  Budget range and constraints to be considered.

4.  Time constraints to start, construct, and open.

For each function, species, or exhibit, these lists should include things that:

1.  Absolutely must be accomplished (no compromises allowed).

2.  Should be accomplished if at all possible.

3.  Would like to accomplish (if the world were perfect and money is no object).

4.  Absolutely must be prevented (no compromises allowed).

5.  Should be prevented if at all possible.

6.  Would like to prevent (if the world were perfect and money is no object).

The order in which each set of the above lists should be examined, satisfied, and solved is:

1.  Animal and plant needs and considerations.

2.  Staff needs and considerations.

3.  Public needs and considerations.

4.  Esthetics.

At first blush, placing animal and staff needs first and second would seem to shortchange the public, but in reality, by the time you have solved the animal and staff needs, the exhibit side of the facility is invariably larger and much better designed than if it was designed for the public first.

Nothing should be cast in stone until all the above have been carefully taken into consideration and examined from all perspectives. The rewards for this kind of attention to detail is a facility which usually costs less in build time, change orders, and money and functions better.

Lastly, all the above must be accomplished within the constraints of existing budget, fund raising abilities, the willingness to take risks, and the intestinal fortitude available.

An exhibit and/or educational facility should:

1.  Create an experience so strong and realistic it will help to educate the public on the diversity of species and ecosystems, and the consequences of their extinction.

2.  Provide display and management space for rare and endangered species of plants and animals.

3.  Have a design flexible enough to support current and future inhabitants and functions.

This is simpler to say than do when the facility inhabitants may include:

  • Plants (woody, succulent, dry-footed, wet-footed, aquatic).
  • Mammals (apes, leaf monkeys, pygmy hippos, tamarins).
  • Birds (hornbills, hook bills, soft bills, seed eaters).
  • Reptiles (crocodilian, lizards, poisonous snakes, non-poisonous snakes, turtles).
  • Amphibians (frogs, toads, salamanders, etc.).
  • Fish (freshwater, saltwater, cold water, tropical).
  • Insects (butterflies, ladybugs, praying mantis, assassin bugs).
  • Grumpy old zoo vets who just want a little quiet and a cup of coffee.

In today’s world, environmental and life support systems are often computer controlled for labor saving and ease of operation. However, all controls must have manual overrides for safety in emergencies and when Murphy’s law catches up with you, as it surely must and periodically will. Assume all parts, valves, and systems will fail and decide in advance how you want it to fail. A three-way valve controlling water temperature should fail differently for a cold-water aquarium than for a tropical aquarium. If everyone understands what you are trying to accomplish for each species or exhibit, and close attention to detail is the norm through both design and build phases, there will be manual valves on both hot and cold-water lines so that with the hot-water manual valve closed, even a lightning strike which fries the computer cannot make 60,000 gallons of bouillabaisse. Some of us have learned this small detail the hard way, and I can personally assure you, the lesson is a lasting one.

All critical systems should be redundant at two, and preferably three, levels. Instead of depending on one large boiler (almost guaranteed to be inefficient during the spring and fall) heating can be provided by multiple, small, high-efficiency natural gas boilers fed from a looped main. Electrical power for fans, pumps, and lights supplied by a public or private utility should have the potential to be supplied from two different area circuits. If at all possible, and if you can afford it, the switch over gear should be automatic. Additionally, if the species and/or facility function is fragile, back-up electrical generation supporting at least 50% of the critical life support systems should be in place. The public can survive without air conditioning, but plants and animals freeze.

For many institutions, the requirement to always accept the lowest bid, almost guarantees a new team of potentially adversarial strangers for each new project. Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, as a society operated 501(c)(3), is very fortunate in this respect. For the past 26 years we have, with only a couple of small exceptions, negotiated virtually all projects. The result of this is a “team” composed of the zoo director and staff, the same architect, mechanical engineer, and general contractor. The first obvious advantage, even with the inevitable personnel changes, is to greatly lessen the need to educate each new team on the basics of animal care, safety, containment, air changes, sanitation, that drains should be outside the animal’s exhibit, that floors should slope to drains, etc. Additionally, the zoo part of the team develops a good sense of the fact that some fantastic ideas may cost more money than you have. Sometimes the most difficult thing the team must do is to collectively commit to “cutting your pattern to fit your cloth.” Having a non-adversarial team who have had a long-term inoculation to the institution’s culture and where the main competition is in making it work really pays off. While fantastic ideas may sometimes cost a lot more, large great ideas and small great ideas often save money, accomplish the objective, and give you a better product.

Great ideas aren’t limited to outside experts, zoo directors or architects. Some of our best ideas come from job superintendents, engineers, or plumbers whose experience says there may be a better, faster, stronger, or less expensive way. Once per week throughout a project, we sit down as a team to review the past week, project the next, solve problems, and search for great ideas. One key to Omaha’s success has been negotiated contracts with the architect and general contractor which establish a set or maximum fee. The removal of economic incentives, other than finishing on time or early, coupled with the concept of “trading out” instead of writing conventional change orders, and a clear understanding with the subcontractors that problems will be solved without writing change orders, if at all possible, helps you stay within budget. Additionally, a reputation for strongly resisting change orders which cost more and the fact that a sub who bids low and tries to change order their way to profit, meets a stone wall and is never invited to bid again helps you stay within budget. Having a negotiated contract also means that the zoo has a say about who the subs are.

Another absolutely essential part of a successful project is for key or designated zoo staff to look at the project every day and 3–4 times daily during critical construction phases, like exhibit work and glass installation. The result for the Omaha Zoo has been increasingly larger, better projects that are built faster for less money and establish a track record for the team that makes past, present, and future donors feel good and leads to more projects.

The old cliche that “it only costs a little more to go first class” is not totally accurate. Sometimes it costs more than a little more but if the “more” is meticulous attention to function and detail, the results are well worth the extra effort and often only costs a little more or even less in money.

Playing the “what if” game will hopefully, make possible a stable ecosystem supporting plants, animals, enthusiastic zoo visitors, and grumpy old zoo veterinarians.


Speaker Information
(click the speaker's name to view other papers and abstracts submitted by this speaker)

Lee G. Simmons, DVM
Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo
Omaha, NE, USA

MAIN : All : Zoo & Aquarium Design
Powered By VIN