Ice cream trucks and sticky subway cars mean one thing: summer is back. New Yorkers get creative when it comes to outdoor summer activities, and we are lucky to have some of the best zoos and aquarium in the country. June happened to be National Zoo and Aquarium Month and it got us thinking how proud ESKW/Architects is of our many years of work with the Wildlife Conservation Society. From our Eco-Restroom at the Bronx Zoo to Ocean Wonders: Sharks! at the New York Aquarium in Coney Island, we have loved collaborating on these unique buildings.
The Bronx Zoo is a veritable institution in New York City. ESKW/Architects was pleased to be tasked with designing a ground-up public restroom facility utilizing composting technology while teaching visitors about the importance of sustainability and the water cycle. With old growth trees as a background, the sloped roof structure recalls lean-tos perhaps found on hiking trails across the nation. However, there is nothing primitive about this restroom’s design. This is a building crafted out of predominately sustainable materials and using the latest technology to minimize waste. Daylight shines through the exposed wood rafters via skylights, illuminating white tile walls and slip resistant slate floors. The composting system is independent from the city’s sewage system, mitigating the zoo’s impact. A greywater recycling system reuses handwashing water to irrigate the adjacent garden, reducing water pollution. Through signage and graphics integration created by the WCS, the entire space is not simply utilitarian but also an exhibit on water conservation.
Prior to working on buildings for humans, ESKW/Architects worked with the WCS on several back-of-house buildings that support animal husbandry behind the scenes at the Bronx Zoo. Starting with the Gelada Baboon building we learned about the best way to plan release gates and transfer doors. The Thompson Gazelle barn design may appear to be a basic livestock structure, but the underground dog-proofing, radiant heating, and integrated animal tamer are all specific to the needs of the Tommies. At the Adjutant Stork building, we used a 100% translucent roofing system to provide daylight to the breeding facility for some of the world’s most endangered species of storks. For the African Wild Dogs, we learned about how a pack needs to develop organically and the challenge a successful pack can have when new animals are introduced. These guys also love to dig so the holding facility needed to accommodate this. You won’t see these buildings as you visit the Bronx Zoo, but we know they are there and help keep the animals safe and, very importantly, breeding!
Also not seen by the public, but intended for educational purposes in addition to conservation, ESKW/A worked with WCS, EGAD, and Turner Construction on the LaMattina Wildlife Ambassador Center (LWAC). The Center is a new building housing various mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates and provides educational programs for animal conservation. A ‘meet and greet’ area provides an opportunity for special guests to meet penguins, wallabies, porcupines and more in a private setting. Areas for each group of animals are climate-controlled and connected to adjacent outdoor holding areas appropriate to each species. Although LWAC is very much behind the scenes, it was a WCS priority to build responsibly leading the building to attain a LEED Gold Certification.
On the opposite end of the city, ESKW/A was the Associate Architect and Architect of Record for the New York Aquarium’s new shark exhibit. ESKW/A worked closely with The Portico Group, a Seattle-based design architecture firm, and WCS’s Exhibition and Graphic Arts Department (EGAD) to create the new structure as part of NYC’s revitalization of Coney Island. Hurricane Sandy also meant that resiliency became a major element of the project, as the storm hit right when Sharks! was going into construction. In addition to the three architecture-related groups which worked on the project, 18 consultants helped coordinate the building and aquarium systems to ultimately house over 115 marine species. Ocean Wonders: Sharks! is a modern building that takes cues from shark biology with its custom “shimmer wall,” by artist Ned Kahn, that mimics sharks scales and reflects sunlight with tens of thousands of aluminum plate “flappers”. An exterior, visitor accessible ramp wraps the perimeter of the building, whose sleek curves are reminiscent of shark fins or tails, and grants visitors a view of the Atlantic Ocean from the aquarium itself.
We took the opportunity to sit down with Janine Sutton Golub, Kimberly Murphy, and Cary Trochesset, key team members at ESKW/Architects who made these projects happen, and reflect on our Zoo and Aquarium projects.
JSG: Working on affordable housing projects, we are obviously focused on human experiences, which we can all relate to. While working on projects for the WCS, we have to learn about the specific animal that the project is focused on. While working on the African Wild Dog holding facility and exhibit, we had to do a lot of research and talk to the zookeepers. We learned that the dogs are extremely social animals and how they travel in packs. This research drove the design of the holding facility.
KM: While housing is our office legacy, working with NFP’s and being a service-based firm is at the root of our ethos. We do believe that housing is key to success for humans, and in many ways, the same is true of animals. We want the storks to make babies and to do that they need a safe, supportive home to do so. A little Miles Davis over the intercom seems to help get the job done, as well, as we understand. 😉
ESKW/A: What makes these spaces special when it comes to sustainability? Since these projects are used by the public and/or animals instead of individual (human) residents, were there specific educational goals in mind? What did you want the architecture to communicate?
CT: Aquariums are generally big energy users, mainly due to the large amounts of seawater that needs to be filtered and brought to the right temperatures to support the animals – not to mention the massive needs for HVAC to support the human visitors. The WCS and design team for Ocean Wonders: Sharks! worked hard to achieve LEED silver certification (pending), which would have been a much easier task for another building type. The WCS has an internal design group, EGAD (Exhibition and Graphic Arts Department), who do a fantastic job of integrating the educational message with the architecture. The main goal of all WCS buildings is to tell the story of the animals they’re housing, so that visitors not only learn more about them but leave with more empathy towards them. With Sharks!, there is a lot of information to share regarding how they are endangered and that they need not be feared. The indoor experience removes the visitor from the outdoor world and brings them through a maze-like underwater adventure where they are close to the animals, experiencing them in their habitat and learning about them. But the exterior experience is equally special: visitors travel around the building on the exterior ramp to the roof and views to the Atlantic Ocean. The thoughtful visitor may see the Ocean now in a new way.
ESKW/A: We design our apartment units with the end user, the future resident, in mind. What was it like to create spaces where there are not only human end users who visit the exhibit, but nonhuman end users like gazelles and sharks?
JSG: LWAC was unique in that it was not designed with one animal in mind, but many different types of animals who were sharing spaces, and their keepers. The porcupine was going to live next to the wallaby, and the wallaby likes to wander around the hallways. Each room housed different groups of animals (dry reptile room, wet reptile room, nursery, cool room, parrot room, large animal holding and small animal holding), and had very specific programmatic and mechanical requirements. The hallways and door openings had to be made wide enough with large animals in mind.
CT: The interiors of the shark tanks were exquisitely designed. The Portico Group (out of Seattle) initiated the designs, working closely with EGAD at WCS. The human viewer experience was always considered, but the health of the animals was of utmost importance. WCS has animal experts and keepers on staff that are part of the design process. They would specify exactly how much space each type of animal needed within the tanks and things like where the sharks wanted to rest. Towards the end of the process, when it was about fabricating the environments, WCS called on specific artists they have worked with over the years to create the vibrant multi-colored, layered worlds within the tanks. When the tanks were finally filled and inhabited with animals, it was such a joy to watch them explore their new homes.
ESKW/A: We were the Associate Architect and the Architect of Record for Sharks! What was it like to work together with a firm based in Seattle to make this intricate design a reality?
CT: The Portico Group were very professional and had experience specific to aquariums, which we were lacking. We learned quite a lot from them. They are great designers, and great communicators too. I recall one early design workshop in particular where they had flown in from Seattle. A main component of the design was not working, and people were kind of grumpy. It was a three-day workshop, and this was on the first day. The next day, they came in with a completely new design approach and it solved a lot of the problems that we were having.
ESKW/A: Hurricane Sandy dramatically shifted the way we build. What were some of the main lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy and how were these lessons incorporated into Ocean Wonders?
CT: When Sandy hit, we were about to start construction. It forced us to redesign the building to have a higher design flood elevation level, but there was about 6 months when we were trying to work with FEMA and the City to figure out what the target flood elevations should be. I would say that one big takeaway I had from that, is that I’ve learned that it’s the simple design concepts that work best regarding flood mitigation. Specific to Ocean Wonders though, we have a heavy-duty concrete bunker of a building below the design flood elevation. The openings within that bunker are like submarine type doors. We couldn’t avoid having them, but in the future, I wouldn’t use those types of doors if I could avoid it.
ESKW/A: What was the most satisfying part of the process for these projects?
CT: I’ve really enjoyed taking my family to see Ocean Wonders. I’m proud of the building and it’s nice to be a part of a project that brings beauty and joy to so many people.
CT: That’s a tough question; I love the Bronx Zoo! I guess my favorite exhibit would be the Congo Gorilla Forest. I could watch those gorillas for hours.
KM: I love hearing from friends that they visited the Bronx Zoo and used the Eco Restroom. I always say, “thanks for your contribution!”
If you’re looking to stay cool and do something a little different this summer, check out the Bronx Zoo or the New York Aquarium! If you want to stay in your borough, you can also visit the Central Park Wildlife Center and Tisch Children’s Zoo, the Queens Wildlife Center, the Prospect Park Wildlife Center, or the Staten Island Zoo. Be sure to check out any ticket reservation or COVID-related requirements beforehand and we hope you enjoy these amazing spaces!