Oregon Zoo Addresses Elephant in the Room

Thu June 26, 2014 - West Edition
Irwin Rapoport

The ambitious new Elephant Lands project is the fourth of eight major projects funded by a community-supported 2008 zoo bond measure, which ultimately will renovate more than 40 percent of the zoo.
The ambitious new Elephant Lands project is the fourth of eight major projects funded by a community-supported 2008 zoo bond measure, which ultimately will renovate more than 40 percent of the zoo.
The ambitious new Elephant Lands project is the fourth of eight major projects funded by a community-supported 2008 zoo bond measure, which ultimately will renovate more than 40 percent of the zoo. It is fitting that the Oregon Zoo’s (in Portland) eight Asian elephants are among the many watching construction of Elephant Lands, a $57 million project that will quadruple their habitat from 1.5 to more than 6 acres. From the beginning, zoo officials have said that everyone working on this project has been aiming to look at it through the elephants’ eyes. Elephant Lands is expected to be complete by the fall of 2015, while the overall work at the zoo should be complete by 2019. The project reached a big milestone in February as crews completed work on what’s now known as the Encounter Habitat — a sandy field in the southern portion of the site, which the zoo’s elephant family is now enjoying daily.


It is fitting that the Oregon Zoo’s (in Portland) eight Asian elephants are among the many watching construction of Elephant Lands, a $57 million project that will quadruple their habitat from 1.5 to more than 6 acres. From the beginning, zoo officials have said that everyone working on this project has been aiming to look at it through the elephants’ eyes.

“At every stage of design and construction, we ask ourselves how we can make this a better home for elephants,” said zoo bond program director Heidi Rahn. “Animal welfare has been our guiding principle every step of the way.”

The ambitious new Elephant Lands project is the fourth of eight major projects funded by a community-supported 2008 zoo bond measure, which ultimately will renovate more than 40 percent of the zoo.

Not only will the elephants enjoy a much larger space, but the infrastructure supporting them will receive state-of-the-art upgrades aimed at making their lives more comfortable, providing greater opportunity for choice and encouraging natural behaviors.

“It is designed to keep elephants active for 16 to 18 hours a day outdoors,” said Jim Mitchell, the zoo’s construction manager, “but also an opportunity to stay inside if they want. We did a lot of research at other zoos around the world and visited them to figure out what made for the best habitat and sub-strata for elephants and what type of activities they would like to engage in.”

The research took staff to the Dublin, Copenhagen, Dallas, Denver and Syracuse zoos.

Elephant Lands construction is being conducted by Lease Crutcher Lewis (with offices in Portland and Seattle) and Goodfellow Bros. (with offices in Washington, Oregon, Hawaii and California). Both companies recognize the complexity and challenges of the project.

The new habitats feature shade structures, pools, misters, and a lot of enrichment aspects including timed feeders, logs, sand mounds and browse hoists.

“It really encompasses all trades, with an emphasis on heavy civil work,” said Lewis’s Andy Dykeman, manager of the project. “The enclosure is surrounded by a bollard cable barrier system. There are also some shotcrete walls. The design and infrastructure have to work on multiple levels and the construction unifies the many systems required to run Elephant Lands smoothly and efficiently.”

The new buildings, barrier system, mechanical and plumbing system and other elements will likely require 5,000 cu. yd. (4,180 cu m) of concrete, 595 tons (540 t) of steel, 30,000 ft. (9,144 m) of trenching and various piping, and 60,000 cu. yd. (45,873 cu m) of excavation and embankment.

To keep the elephant family comfortable throughout the project, animal-care staff and construction managers devised a plan to open Elephant Lands in phases, gradually expanding the elephants’ accessible space.

“We are making sure the elephants always have at least as much space as they did before construction started,” said Rahn.

The project reached a big milestone in February as crews completed work on what’s now known as the Encounter Habitat — a sandy field in the southern portion of the site, which the zoo’s elephant family is now enjoying daily.

“Lease Crutcher Lewis has done an amazing job of phasing the construction, so the elephants can stay on site the entire time,” Mitchell said.

In March, crews began laying groundwork for what will soon be known as Forest Hall — a vast, sunlit arena housing one of the largest, most innovative indoor elephant spaces in the country. Adjacent to Forest Hall, a spacious new indoor holding area — with three 1,600-sq.-ft. (149 sq m) stalls for elephant care — will replace the zoo’s current holding area, which dates to 1959.

Together, the two facilities will sit on 32,000 sq. ft. (2,973 sq m), with a roof reaching up to 36 ft. (11 m) at its highest point. Both indoor spaces will be filled at least 4 ft. (1.2 m) deep with sand to cushion and protect the elephants’ feet. An elephant-sized “air curtain” separating Forest Hall from the outdoor areas will maintain a constant, comfortable indoor temperature for pachyderms and visitors, while providing the herd around-the-clock access to the rest of Elephant Lands’ 6.25-acre spread.

Dykeman said building this spacious new structure will require everything from traditional building components, mechanical-electrical systems, concrete and glazing to “lots of structural steel components for the barrier systems surrounding elephant enclosures.”

In addition, the rooftop will feature a huge array of solar panels as well as an 8,600 sq. ft. (799 sq m) green-roof system designed to save energy, decrease stormwater runoff and absorb carbon dioxide. The entire structure will use 60 percent less energy than a typical code building, according to Mitchell, and produce 40 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

“Sustainability is a priority for the zoo and for the voters who approved the bond measure,” Rahn said. “It’s something we’ve looked at since the planning stages for all of our projects.”

All the bond-funded projects have a goal of achieving LEED Silver certification, she said.

“But we always strive to do better than that,” added Mitchell. “The last project we completed, a new veterinary medical center, was certified LEED Gold.”

“Sustainability components have become the norm for higher-end construction, especially on the West Coast,” said Dykeman, who has been involved in many LEED projects and is considered an authority on sustainable construction. “We’ve implemented systems within the company — and the architects and subcontractors are used to working with them — so the actual cost to manage or implement LEED certification is pretty minimal and routine.”

The zoo’s Lilah Callen Holden Elephant Museum was demolished in November 2013, as was a minor concrete trussle, which resulted in significant amounts of concrete and steel material that was able to be recycled.

“Material recycled from the museum demolition consisted of CMU block and round wooden timbers that were used to support the roof structure,” said Dykeman. “The CMU was crushed and repurposed for fill, and the heavy timbers were reused as windscreen walls. The recycling of materials is a unique and interesting story and important for LEED certification. A high percentage of the zoo’s old elephant barn, a primarily concrete structure, will also be crushed and used for fill. It is important to make sure that we’re using as much of that as possible and diverting it from the landfill.”

Demolition of the elephant barn — an Eisenhower-era relic that has seen more than 25 elephant births starting with Packy in 1962 — is expected to occur in June 2015. Bringing it down will result in significant amounts of concrete rubble— all of which will be recycled to be reused in the project as fill material.

Once complete, Elephant Lands will extend around much of the Oregon Zoo’s eastern border — from south of the current elephant habitat north into the area that formerly housed Elk Meadow — and connecting all the acreage has required major changes to the terrain, including regrading and earth-moving work by Goodfellow.

“There has been a significant amount of cut-and-fill to get the grades right,” Dykeman said. “We added a retention system to actively manage stormwater and minimize the discharge. And we installed a series of H-pile walls, lagging and soil nail walls to assist with some of the changes in the terrain.”

Because site grading is so important, a treble GPS system is being used, including a total station.

“It’s a heavily forested area,” said Goodfellow’s John Kirsch. “And with traditional GPS we can’t get enough satellite signals, so we have to augment that with a total station. Our dozers and excavators are all guided, plus we’ve got two rovers and a total station controlling the work. This helps to meet the tight schedule. We also have a 3-D model for the civil side that allows us to stage the work. There are multiple stages, so it is a bit of a balancing act to ensure we have enough materials to make the fills for the various stages.”

Dykeman said planning for the project began a year and a half prior to last June’s Elephant Lands groundbreaking, with the building of a service road that ran alongside several animal areas, including lions, cheetahs and African wild dogs.

“We are working in close proximity to a number of animal habitats, so good communication with the zoo’s curators and keepers is critical,” Dykeman said. “We let them know in advance when we’ll be in a certain area and what we’ll be doing there. If they think there is going to be an impact, they’ll move an animal out of the area. They do a really good job of monitoring the animals and letting us know if we need to minimize our activities or restrict them to certain times.”

So far, an average of 55 construction personnel have been on site daily; that number will grow to between 110 and 130 when construction of the new buildings peaks. Many subcontractors will be working on the project, including R&R General Contractors for track and rail construction, L&M Fabrication and Carr Construction for Structural Steel and Caging work, Turnstone Construction for scenic rockwork and shotcrete, Nugent Masonry for Masonry, Art Cortez for metal framing and drywall systems, Greenman Construction for Doors/Frames/Hardware, Cherry City Electric for electrical system, JH Kelly for life support systems, and Heinz Mechanical for plumbing and mechanical. Zoo officials, Lease Crutcher and Goodfellow brief each one on the special aspects of working in a zoo environment.

Concerning the equipment used for the project, Kirsch said that on the civil side, it is traditional heavy civil equipment — a combination of excavators, trucks, bulldozers, and compactors to move and place the soil.

Kirsch has a full-time mechanic and service oiler on site to ensure that the equipment is maintained, along with technical support that can be brought in and support from dealers.

Dykeman added that few equipment issues have cropped up.

“We have a fairly new fleet of equipment,” Kirsch said, “so it is generally preventative maintenance as opposed to actual repairs. We own the majority of our equipment and we have rented a few small and specialized pieces for the project such as conveyor trucks and dewatering equipment.

To help monitor the safety and operation of the equipment on the job site, Goodfellow has equipped every machine with the Zonar System. Zonar’s EVIR (Electronic Vehicle Inspection Report) verifies that daily visual safety inspections are being performed by all operators on every piece of equipment.

“Every machine on the Elephant Lands job site is equipped with Zonar’s RFID tags installed in specific zones,” said Kirsh. “The Zonar 2010 handheld reads each zone tag visited by the operator. It’s a step-by-step inspection process, and if there are any needed repairs or maintenance issues that are detected, they are noted and sent by text or e-mail from Zonar to the mechanics, and to our main office shop to either schedule the repairs or order parts to keep the equipment up and running.”

Utilizing Zonar has helped reduce breakdowns and lower repair and parts replacement costs. Goodfellow, has been using Zonar throughout its fleet since 2008 and Kirsh said that makes it easy for the operators to note any defects on their equipment and that the mechanics rely upon Zonar for instant notification of defects and planning the needed repairs.

Elephant Lands is expected to be complete by the fall of 2015, while the overall work at the zoo should be complete by 2019.

“We’re bidding each job as they come up and we basically have the schedule worked out so that as one project is complete, another begins,” said Mitchell. “The next project will be a new education center.”