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AMHIGLEY BUILDERS BLOG: Exploring the Wild World of Zoo Construction

Welcome to the AMHIGLEY BUILDERS BLOG, where our experts share their insights and technical expertise on the construction industry.

This month, Andrew Hudak delves into the unique realm of zoo construction, exploring how to create exceptional experiences and environments for both the public and the animals. To build wildly different habitats, construction managers must be familiar with the intricacies of every animal and their needs.



   Andrew Hudak | Regional Vice President - Ohio | 17 Years with AMHigley   




In the world of construction, few projects present challenges as unique and captivating as zoo construction. Building a zoo exhibit is not merely about erecting structures; it involves creating habitats that mimic natural environments, ensuring animal welfare, incorporating intricate designs, and navigating a myriad of regulations and environmental considerations. It can also involve many stakeholders, including animal care, guest services, education, and facilities departments and representatives of both public and non-profit entities.  No two zoo projects are alike, making it essential to grasp the complexities that turn zoo construction into a wild endeavor.

Planning During Design

Before construction begins, preconstruction experts and the project team work diligently to fully understand the project's complexities. This is the time when success of the project is determined, through accurate budgeting and proper planning.  During preconstruction, it is important to listen and learn from the zoo experts and design experts to understand what is important in the end product and how to make the vision a reality.

Zoo staff know how best to care for their animals and operate the space, but they are typically not construction or design professionals that understand how to read construction drawings. The use of 3D Modeling and Virtual Reality during design allows the entire team to better visualize the spaces that are being designed, including understanding grading changes, thematic and artistic elements, as well as operationally understanding how zookeepers and facilities staff will interact with the space. Software such as Enscape™ provides a great solution for visualizing the exhibit and buildings and will help to avoid changes during construction as the physical space evolves.

With the design modeled, the construction team can utilize software, like Navisworks™ to overlay components and systems such as mechanical ductwork, electrical systems and fixtures, plumbing piping and equipment, and even containment systems to perform early clash detection and coordinate these systems before they start installation, providing for a more efficient construction phase.

To provide accurate budgets, the Construction Manager needs to understand how to "talk the talk" with zoo designers, zoo staff, and with specialty trades to understand what is being discussed during preconstruction meetings, being specified, and the expectations of the finish and operations of specialty components. There is no published cost workbook for containment systems, for custom themework or interactive exhibit fabrications. A Construction Manager with significant experience can bring cost data from similar and recent projects and has relationships with specialty industry partners to help develop accurate budgets. The Construction Manager should be able to make proper assumptions during early design phases, and be able to identify what features are being represented when design details are still in progress.  If these components are not properly vetted early in design stages, there is a significant risk of budget overrun.


Logistical Considerations

Zoo construction requires specific best practices, starting with understanding the logistical challenges of working within an active zoo. Workers are often limited to parking in guest parking lots and accessing the site by foot. Deliveries need to be communicated in advance and may need to be scheduled during off-hours, and vehicles entering and leaving the site during open hours often require an escort. Pedestrian paths are often narrow and built to go with the flow of the habitats.

Pedestrian safety is paramount, and the jobsite should be expected to be surrounded by pedestrians daily, including children that are as interested in seeing construction equipment as they are in seeing animals. It is important to plan early to understand these factors to avoid guest disruptions, project delays, and ensure a proper plan is communicated to all project partners.

The impact on animals and procedures for working around animals also needs to be considered. Loud noises and vibrations can be stressful to some animal species, especially for long periods of time. The construction team needs to communicate early what type of equipment and noise or vibration impact construction operations will have so the zoo team can implement plans for relocation, as necessary.

When construction workers need to enter a habitat where species are in separate areas of the habitat or in connected indoor holding, a lock-out-tag-out procedure needs to be developed between the zoo staff and construction team to ensure the safety of all workers. Similarly, work in holding buildings need to have special procedures for maintaining security protocols, separating construction from occupied areas, and maintaining life safety systems during construction.

As the schedule progresses, impacts to staff access or pedestrian flow evolve.  To help communicate expectations, the Construction Manager can utilize 4D scheduling software such as SYNCHRO 4D, to tie the design model design model to the schedule to graphically show how elements of the project progress throughout the course of the schedule.  This visualization tool allows for better coordination among stakeholders and enhanced visualization of site logistics.  (For more information on 4D scheduling, click here to read the AMHigley Builders Blog: Enhancing Project Visualization – Exploring the Impact of 4D Scheduling).

Coordinating Specialty Installations

Zoo construction utilizes many specialty installations, such as shotcrete to fabricate rocks, trees, and other natural elements, life-support systems, containment mesh and welded wire caging, multi-layer laminated exhibit glass and acrylic, ETFE, and many different types of interpretive elements. Many of these components have limited fabricators and installers nationwide and require an understanding of how to coordinate them within the exhibit, and how to incorporate them into the schedule sequence. The project team must be thorough in their understanding of these elements to ensure the scope is captured correctly, and to set expectations of the finished product for artistic elements. Proper coordination well in advance of trades mobilizing from out-of-state is critical for success.

One of the most interesting, yet challenging parts of zoo construction is artificially re-creating a natural environment in a location where that environment is not natural. This entails complicated site development and sequencing. Most exhibits have significant grade change, have moats, pools and streams, large fabricated trees, and rockwork. The site must be sequenced properly to create these features as if they were the natural landscape, and then construct and tie building elements to the landscape. Access for equipment, lifts, and scaffold should be considered and communicated to construction partners.

With all these specialty components, it is important that not only the design team, but also the Zoo staff, such as facilities managers and keepers, thoroughly review shop drawings to ensure they understand the components being ordered and installed.  The Construction Manager should not assume the team can read shop drawings and needs to help facilitate understanding for sign-off.  Oftentimes, this means scheduling sit-down reviews of shop drawings to thoroughly review functionality for critical systems such as containment.  Even planting plans should be reviewed to confirm there are no toxicity issues with the animal species that will encounter them. Utilizing software that allows a multi-approver workflow on submittals will go a long way with facilitating the approval process.


The Construction Manager also needs to communicate schedule expectations and understand the constraints for any custom work. Shotcrete theming needs to be installed earlier in the schedule, whereas interactive exhibit components may require dust-free conditions for installation. Either of these components can require months on site and their duration and sequence needs to be understood to provide an accurate representation of the project's interim milestones and final completion expectations.  In the completion stages of the schedule, the team needs to build time in the project schedule for acclimatization of animals into a new exhibit environment before a public opening. Animals must be given time to adapt to their new environment before adding the stress of guest visitors. Consideration should also be taken to the timing of landscaping before animals occupy the exhibit. Newly planted grass seed will be trampled and will have little success growing, however freshly placed sod will look more like a golf course than a natural habitat.

Throughout construction, as staff see the physical space evolve, they will have feedback on functionality and features within the space. It is important to make sure they have an avenue to provide feedback, but expectations for schedule and budget impact of changes needs to be set, with a single consistent approver for such decisions.  Communication is a key aspect of any project, but on zoo projects it is wildly important to make sure that the entire team is aware of daily milestones and updates.



Zoo construction is a multifaceted endeavor that requires a delicate balance of art, science, and ingenuity. From designing immersive habitats to addressing stakeholder concerns and ensuring the safety of both the public and animals, every aspect of zoo construction presents its own set of challenges and complexities. Effective construction managers must communicate clearly, collaborate extensively, and comprehend all aspects of the project to ensure that zoos function as vital centers for education, research, and wildlife preservation.

AMHigley is a proud commercial member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.