Risky Business: Behind the Scenes at Zoo Atlanta’s New Reptile House

Sep 17, 2014 | Media Galleries, Uncategorized, Upper School News

SPWEziV4eLWHuJn-AJWM-Ro4hdrALnbRxybXQyBUP9MThe Upper School’s Business and Entrepreneurship Club learns what it takes to plan and execute a $14 million project.
Most people visit a zoo to see the animals. At Mount Vernon, we go to the zoo to get a better understanding of the intricate design, thought-provoking strategy, expert theories and how best to collaborate on developing and building a new sanctuary for over 450 reptiles and amphibians.
Zoo Atlanta, along with Winter Construction, invited the Upper School’s Business and Entrepreneurship Club for a visit to the construction site of The Amphibian and Reptile Experience, scheduled to open in March 2015.
Amid mounds of red clay, stubbed out habitats, soldering sparks and ladders leaning in every direction, 27 MV students in grades 9-12 wearing hard-hats and neon vests, gained prestigious access to the site. After a brief welcome and introduction to the project by Brent Reid, President and CEO of Winter Construction and MVPS parent to grade 10 student Audrey Reid, the students were broken into three groups to be led on individual tours, by: 1) Dick Sweeley, Winter Johnson Group Site Superintendent; 2) Tom Amos, Winter Construction Project Engineer; and 3) Stacy Graison, Zoo Atlanta’s Vice President of Education.
Students learned that building a large-scale terrarium is a risky business. The safety of the animals and the zoo’s guests are paramount. The new complex is going up toward the back of the zoo, behind the gorillas and hoof stock. While the gorillas like to watch the growing structure over the walls behind them, care must be taken to monitor the noise that permeates their environment. Additionally, everything done in and around the zoo, carries the risk of potential escape.
Creating a structure of curved glass with a sloping roof is no easy task. Building it without a single 90-degree angle only complicates the project. Add that to the expertise needed to recreate specialized environments, including various monitored levels of temperature, light and humidity per species, without making it uncomfortable for guests, and you have an extremely intricate and complex undertaking. The builders must work closely with the zoologists to create each elaborate habitat, since the surroundings needed for the Panamanian Golden Frog would be much different from those of  the Gaboon Viper. On the other side of the glass, the experience for the guests must be comfortable and enjoyable.
The new complex will feature interactive indoor venues and state-of-the-art exhibits showcasing the amazing extremes in size, speed, color and behavior that make reptiles and amphibians such compelling animals to observe, study, and protect
Part of the behind-the-scenes experience revealed that before the hundreds of layers of blueprints get printed, the team of architects and engineers create Building Information Modeling (BIM), an intelligent model-based process that includes a balance of collaboration, productivity and insight in order to plan, design, construct and manage buildings and infrastructure. As soon as the architect builds the footings and retaining walls within the 3D software, they then pass it on to the mechanical engineer, who adds the steel structures. The model then goes to the electrician. Once all of the layers have been created, a clash detection process is run to seek potential conflict. When issues are found, which can be common, each division must pivot, regroup and modify, if necessary. Not unlike most real-world situations, in this business, precision and communication are key.
When asked why the reptile house, and why now, Sarah McCracken, Winter Construction Project Manager said, “Not only is the current reptile house the oldest structure used as exhibit space on Zoo Atlanta’s campus, built in 1951 – it is the oldest reptile house in the country. Looking at a $250 million upgrade zoo-wide, the reptile house is the priority.”
As for the dedication to the project and the work ethic shared with the students, Dick Sweeley, one of the tour guides – pre-project – decided that it would be in the best interest of whomever was awarded the project, to set up a lawn chair outside of the existing reptile house and watch the traffic for hours a day, for an entire week. So he did. He observed, took notes, asked questions, and assessed the flow, even before Winter was awarded the project. As a result of his initiative, empathy and drive, he ended up overseeing the entire job.
When asked what they were most impressed with or surprised by during the tour, Business Club members responded:
My dad is a residential contractor, so I’ve been on multiple construction sites, but I couldn’t believe the detail involved in this project. The scale of it all was impressive. – Jacob Buck
My mom is an architect and I understand blueprints, so I was surprised that even seeing the racks and racks of printed plans, they rely so heavily on the BIM technology. I’m sure it reduces human error by visualizing how the different layers overlap. – Emily Moseley
I enjoyed seeing the mini models of the terrarium exhibits and I think it is really cool how they use CAD software to create it. – Rachel Kosmos
I learned that they had to do a lot of research to be sure to incorporate local animals in the exhibit that are native to Georgia and the southeast. – David Thomas
They were so environmentally conscious with their design and that was so impressive! – Helen Hudgens
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