Engineering Expertise Shines in Houston Zoo's Galápagos Islands Exhibit

10 April 2023
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The Houston Zoo recently opened its much-anticipated Galápagos Islands exhibit, featuring a wide range of unique animal species in a stunning display that showcases the zoo’s commitment to conservation and education. As the largest component of the zoo’s “Keeping Our World Wild” centennial capital campaign, the Galápagos Islands exhibit is the culmination of years of planning and construction and was made possible in part through the expertise provided by Walter P Moore.

Spanning 2.5 acres, the exhibit boasts a variety of habitats and features, including the Sea Lion Coast with California sea lions, a boulder-strewn volcanic meadow with giant Galápagos tortoises, blue iguanas on rocky outcroppings, a sea cave with views of sea lions swimming, a wall aquarium showcasing jellyfish, and the One Ocean aquarium with green sea turtles, blacktip reef sharks, bonnethead sharks, cownose stingrays, and more. The exhibit also includes a first-ever Humboldt penguin exhibit, complete with a volcanic rock beach and water below. One of the exhibit’s highlights is a 40-foot-long acrylic tunnel, fully submerged underwater, providing visitors with an immersive experience as they observe sea lions swimming overhead.

The engineering services provided by Walter P Moore played a crucial role in the design and construction of the Galápagos Islands exhibit. The firm provided structural design for all animal exhibit elements, including exhibit pools, enrichment items, sculpture and signage bases, support structures, and portions of the artificial rock formations. They also offered guidance and coordination for the remaining artificial rock formations, acrylic panels, and animal caging. Walter P Moore’s civil engineers also provided grading, drainage and utility design, as well as infrastructure planning and rerouting to support the plaza, back-of-house drives, and entrance ticketing booths.

“As the crown jewel of the Houston Zoo, our structural team developed unique solutions for each exhibit, focused on creating an immersive experience for visitors and, most critically, protecting animal health and safety. This highly bespoke building required more unique structural approaches per square foot than any building I’ve been a part of,” says Dennis Wittry, Regional Director of Houston Structural Engineering.

As the Houston Zoo falls within the 500-year floodplain, additional considerations had to be taken into account during the design process. Walter P Moore worked closely with the zoo to ensure that finished floor elevations for the buildings, flood protection systems, grading considerations, sanitary sewer manhole elevations, and lift station venting parameters were all carefully planned to mitigate potential flood risks.

“The Galápagos exhibit demonstrates how effective utility planning and phasing can successfully bring upgrades and modernize infrastructure that has been serving the zoo for decades. Simultaneous integration and implementation were critical to the zoo’s operations and their ability to serve the community,” adds Ted Vuong, Managing Director of Houston Civil Engineering. “The infrastructure master plan created by Walter P Moore served as the road map to address the Zoo’s infrastructure needs for their Centennial and beyond.”

The opening of this exhibit marks a significant milestone for the Houston Zoo as it celebrates its centennial anniversary and looks forward to completing its 20-year master plan in 2022. Through the collaborative efforts of Walter P Moore and other partners, the exhibit showcases the zoo’s commitment to conservation, education, and creating immersive experiences for visitors to learn about and appreciate the unique and endangered species in the Galápagos Islands.

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