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Mesker Park Zoo's Amazonia Exhibit

A Journey Through the Rainforest
by Ace Torre/Torre Design Consortium, LTD.

In 2006, the director at Mesker Park Zoo in Evansville, Indiana contemplated adding an exhibit to attract more visitors to the park. Landscape architect, Torre Design Consortium, was contacted. After a year of design, construction began on an immersive rainforest project. The 20,000 square foot Amazonia exhibit was completed in the summer of 2008.
Amazonia is the largest single project built in the history of Mesker Park Zoo. After regular exhibit hours, the zoo occasionally holds special events in the complex.
The sloth is among 11 species and 52 specimens of mammals roaming the exhibit. The mammals are contained within their individual enclosures by physical attribute/vertical cliffs of artificial rockwork, which they cannot climb.
The proximity of dense rainforest foliage with the ground level 12' below the visitor creates a canopy experience upon entering the building. The exhibit features 11 primate species and 16 bird species in disappearing mesh enclosures to both sides.
The Flooded Forest section contains riverine exhibits of fish species from the Amazonian river system, such as piranha, arapaima, arowna, Arrau Turtles, and Cuvier's dwarf caiman.
The typical layered multi-species exhibit at the forest floor contains tapir, capybara and ibis. The rainforest project also includes 250 tropical plant species and 36 tree species.
The free span nature of the structural system allows the vivarium within to take many forms. From tight corridors under the canopy to dramatic openings at the river's edge, the building creates a believable rainforest experience.
A reverse osmosis fog system cycles every 10 minutes to maintain humidity and replicate a true Amazonian cloud forest.

The city of Evansville, Indiana has a population of about 195,000. That number did not stop Mesker Park Zoo's then director from aggressively seeking to build a world-class, immersive Amazonian rainforest exhibit.

Torre Design Consortium, LTD was contacted as the landscape architect. The firm spent one year designing the project. After two years of construction, the four-acre attraction was completed in August 2008.

The Amazonia exhibit sets a new level of immersion as zoo guests descend 45 feet from forest canopy to forest floor within the 20,000-square-foot fecund biosphere of diverse flora and fauna. Within the glass structure of the project, guests explore over half an acre of simulated rainforest - with a diverse collection of tropical species, including cabybara, porcupines, and a variety of exotic birds.

Project Initiation
The exhibit, located within the 50-acre Mesker Park Zoo, was an ambitious undertaking for a park located within a relatively small population. The simulated rainforest was the vision of the park's then zoo director. Torre Design Consortium served as prime consultant, from conceptual design to construction closeout, providing all architecture, landscape architecture, exhibit, and interpretive design for the project. The landscape architect was hired through a national selection process and chosen for their previous experience creating immersive and engaging exhibits in other zoos throughout North America, with a specialization in the design of vivariums. Prior to construction, the architect completed a comprehensive zoo master plan, as well as the design of a new entry for the zoo.

Constructing a Rainforest
Careful site analysis by the firm showed the potential of using the 45-foot change in elevation to create an experience of moving through layers of a rainforest from canopy to forest floor. The water source for the project was Lake Victoria, which is located in the center of the zoo. Water was also collected from the roof and delivered to the exhibit via a cistern. A reverse osmosis system was used to humidify the exhibit with fog, in addition to delivering a supply for irrigation and aquatic displays. Service roads and parking utilized permeable surfacing and bioswales to mitigate storm water runoff. The new entry complex provides improved access to not only this project but also to the zoo as a whole. The landscape architect led the team from conceptual design of both the exhibit and vivarium, designing the wing roof shape and airy volumes, which created a dramatic new exhibit for the animal park.

Amazonia places visitors into a believable, in-situ experience of being an explorer, observing first-hand the complexity of the world's most fecund biome. The 2,400 linear feet encourages a new level of environmental stewardship and conservation of wildlife and wild areas. The project further explores the complex layering of life itself on earth - simultaneously exploring the complexities of geology, geography, and socio-biology, as well as the chronology of art, culture, and essence of man within the natural realm. Visitors descend 45 feet from the treetop interpretive entry village hut to then enter the rainforest canopy. From this opening exhibit experience, guests weave their way to a working research station, cross a thundering waterfall gorge via a suspension bridge, switch back through to the Tapir Stream, and then to the Flooded Forest before finally exiting at the Jaguar exhibit. Upon completion of the trek, visitors are faced with the importance of conservation, education, and research efforts that are dedicated to this important biome, while having a wonderful family experience. The goal is to create a more cognizant global environmental citizen dedicated to the protection and conservation of the earth's natural resources.

The project utilizes passive solar in its heat collection in winter with its full spectrum vertical glazing. Although not a LEED® certified project, it followed all sustainability goals with materials and usage. Concrete and steel and the framework of the exhibit were all sourced within 300 miles of the site, as was all pressure-treated lumber. The HVAC system is geothermal - routed under the exhibit to utilize the earth's stable temperature to temper variations of heating and cooling requirements. Polycarbonate was used for the roofing because of its UV penetration capabilities (critical to reptiles and fish) as well as its light weight.

The 308 plant species of the project were a collaborative effort with the zoo's horticultural staff. Plants were grown during the construction period and installed by staff before the exhibit's opening. The artificial rockwork, waterfall, aquatic and other exhibit specialties were designed by the landscape architect and executed through the landscape architect's specifications and a pre-selected specialty firm.

Park Success
The attraction has doubled zoo attendance. It has become a center for year-round teaching and discovery. The success of the project is not only a result of its engaging program and design, but also due to the teamwork of the landscape architect, engineers, zoo staff, general contractor, and the specialty subs and suppliers that dedicated themselves to build the best project possible.

For a community with a population of less than 200,000, the $14 million rainforest attraction is one of the most aggressive and successful zoological exhibits built in the United States.

Team List
Client - Mesker Park Zoo, Evansville, Indiana
Lead Landscape Architect - Torre Design Consortium, LTD. New Orleans, LA
Landscape Architect - Ace Torre
Project Team - Ace Torre; Aaron Adolf; Jeff Borchardt; Martha Coleman; Carolina Febles, Laura Leblount;
Johanna Leeb
Consultants - Professional Consultants, Inc.
General Contractor - Industrial Contractors, Inc.

As seen in LASN magazine, October 2019.


January 18, 2020, 5:17 am PDT

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