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Science Center Builds Unique ’SciQuarium’

Tue November 27, 2012 - Southeast Edition
Lori Lovely

Eight years ago, Glenn Dobrogosz, executive director of Greensboro, N.C.’s Natural Science Center, believed the museum needed a new direction — a master plan that everyone would embrace.

Searching for something unique to the area, he and his staff came up with the idea of “Science City USA — a single campus with an accredited park, aquarium and school. There will be three entities in one location, three destinations in one place.”

Its crowning glory would be the 22,000-sq.-ft. (2,044 sq m), LEED-designed SciQuarium, the state’s only center-of-state aquarium.

In addition to the new aquarium, the existing museum will be gutted and renovated and the size of the zoo will be doubled in order to house endangered species, such as the orangutan. The addition is the biggest since the science center’s inception, but already the director says he wishes it was bigger.

The Natural Science Center of Greensboro (originally the Greensboro Junior Museum) is a science museum and 24-acre zoological park — of which only half is currently being used — established in 1957. Accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums since 2008, it is a member of the American Association of Museums.

To “seed” the concept of the additions, Dobrogosz made “hundreds of presentations” after unveiling his vision at a special event in 2005 featuring Jack Hannah, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo.

His legwork paid off in 2008 when the Greensboro City Council picked up the idea. Soon afterwards, they put a $20 million bond referendum up for vote.

“It was the only one up for vote in 2009,” Dobrogosz recalled. “It got an overwhelming response: a 61 percent majority. It was clear that Greensboro wanted to do something different, The time was ripe for new, innovative ways to create economic standing.”

An economic impact study indicates that the new facility could bring in $15 to 25 million per year through tourism and staffing. Dobrogosz anticipates a 50 percent increase in full-time staff plus additional seasonal employees — and there could be even more with future phases.

“The SciQuarium is just the first phase in the center’s vision to build what will ultimately become the most diverse science destination in the state,” he explained. “As Greensboro voters agreed, our ’one-stop-shop for science’ approach will allow visitors to experience an accredited aquarium, science museum and zoological park all in one cost-effective attraction. Hands-on education and economic development were the cornerstones for why Greensboro voters overwhelmingly approved this project, and we intend to honor their support.”

Converting Vision into Design

The budget for the 250,000-gal. (946,353 L) interactive aquarium, more than 75 species of animals and a stingray touch tank consists of $9 million in voter-approved bonds and $1 million in matching private funds.

The other $10 million is planned for renovation and expansion of existing parts of the center. Phase 2 will include updates to the current 68,000-sq.-ft. (6,317 sq m) museum, and Phase 3 will include new animals in an exhibit called Endangered Species Village.

“We’ll spend $10 million now, $5 million in two years and $5 million in another two years,” Dobrogosz calculated.

Because the bulk of funding came from public money, they had to go through the bid process. Even so, extensive negotiations with the chosen contractor — New Atlantic Contracting Inc. of Winston-Salem — were required to reach a $700,000 cost reduction without diminishing key exhibits and visitor experiences.

Architects and designers with experience in the zoo and aquarium world were pre-qualified. Next, they solicited bids and conducted lengthy interviews. Experienced aquarium designers Cambridge Seven Associates Inc. and local architects Moser-Mayer Phoenix & Associates were chosen in 2010.

“The national group did the aquarium design,” Dobrogosz explained. “We chose local architects to save money; they did the civil stuff, the simple work.”

The staff was intimately involved in design and species choice, Dobrogosz indicated. Their first duty was to select high-impact, cost-appropriate animal species that would both inspire visitors and maximize the center’s involvement in endangered species breeding programs. Criteria included:

• ability to manage the exhibits: “no whales”

• visitor interest: staff observed visitors at other aquariums to determine interest and “stay” time

• endangered species for breeding in the species survival program to ensure the facility remains “news worthy.”

“We worked with the staff on the plan and visitor flow,” said Peter Sollogub, associate principal, Cambridge Seven Associates Inc., “but Glenn had the vision. He wanted interactive exhibits.”

To ensure that everyone involved was on the same page, monthly meetings were held, beginning in August 2010.

“We made drawings, brought in engineers and met regularly,” Sollogub remembered. “There are many levels in this project: animal care, visitor experience, traffic flow, budget… But the welfare of the animals is fundamental.”

For the Animals

“Animal habitat is number one,” Dobrogosz confirmed.

Six major aquarium exhibits will highlight aquatic life in various settings. The biggest attraction in the SciQuarium will be a 100,000-gal. (37,854 L) shark tank with coral reef and an abyss where the two dramatically converge. In addition, a hands-on sting ray touch tank, a penguin exhibit, a new otter exhibit, an Amazon rainforest exhibit, an exhibit about endangered fishing cats and jewel tanks for “freaks of nature” demonstrating the diversity of life and the Amazon River basin are planned. One aquarium will be used by Master’s degree students of veterinary science and husbandry for quarantining and water testing. All the exhibits require major water filtration.

“We’ll use bio filters, fan filters, protein fractionators and other systems to demonstrate the various ways people mimic nature to purify water,” Dobrogosz said.

But before water can be filtered, it must be confined. Developing tanks and enclosing buildings are the first of the sequenced steps, explained Sollogub. Working in the six separate environments simultaneously, crews construct the concrete tanks with rebar. Because some of the concrete rebates for the tanks were too small or too big by a couple of inches, Dobrogosz said, crews had to cut the acrylic to fit or weld on extra material.

Acrylic panels are installed to separate people from animals. They are very precise, molded pieces of acrylic built in Colorado by hand. These large pieces are up to four inches thick, depending on water depth, and have no mullions in order to convey transparency. Fitting them in the North Carolina aquarium is a difficult process.

“The first window is 10 by 18 [feet],” Sollogub said. “It was placed in the ocean tank — the biggest tank — by scissor and fork lifts. We used small equipment to place them: no cranes.”

The tank was then filled and watched for 48 hours to check for leaks. The acrylic must hold water with different water systems, temperatures, quality and chemistry.

Once waterproofing and water testing are completed, “then the fun begins,” Dobrogosz said. The exhibit is ready for lighting and the habitat. Although most aquariums usually use artificial light to reduce algae, the SciQuarium will use light tubes to allow natural sunlight in certain habitats. Using a clay model and reference pictures, specialists mold features for the habitat by hand.

For the Visitors

A new exterior product from Spain imparts the elegant look of wood to the exterior.

“It’s classy,” Dobrogosz described it, adding that animal banners provide a lot of “pop.”

Other than the unusual material, it’s a relatively conventional building, Sollogub believes, and tanks are made of conventional material. What makes this project unique are the animals and the philosophy of mixing life science with visitor experience.

“I’ve done a lot of aquariums globally, but I’m really excited for this project; it’s very special,” Sollogub stated.

Dobrogosz hopes everyone feels the same way. Already ranked number three in field trip destinations, the Natural Science Center will become a three-in-one destination when work is completed, and also will offer travelling exhibits. For those coming to the Greensboro attraction, there will be hands-on SciPod education stations with focus tanks providing habitats for species related to the feature habitats and interactive exhibits associated with each of the habitats. A dramatic new lobby will feature a submarine. A bathroom will be added. The new gift shop opened in October and the first-ever café, Meerkat Café, opens in March.

An art feature is planned and someday Dobrogosz envisions a high school on site.

“A hundred to 150 students would start as museum curators. Every subject would be based on science. In addition to catering to K-12 students, the Center will offer a college degree program. Students in the Zoo & Aquarium Science program can do labs here,” Dobrogosz explained.

It’s Dobrogosz’s intention to “hit every audience.” Maximizing the full demographic adds another dimension to the visitor experience — and helps pay the bill by attracting a larger range of people. More importantly, it integrates the community. After all, it was the passion of the community to do something unique and different that made it all possible. Already he said they’ve received requests for special events such as corporate parties and weddings. In addition, membership is up.


The grand opening is still nearly a year away.

“We were supposed to get the keys in December, but now it looks like Feb. 15-March 15,” Dobrogosz estimated. “Delays are common in the aquarium world and there are always surprises in construction.”

There have been no major changes in the plan, so he’s hopeful that the new target date is realistic. Because it will take an additional two to three months to get the animals to the SciQuarium and quarantined, he anticipates opening between May 15-June 15, 2013.

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