Wolverine Doesnt Monkey Around

February 3, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — Wolverine Building Group has some history with the John Ball Park Zoo.

The company constructed the Van Andel Living Shores aquarium building, the two African Velt exhibits that house hoofed animals and the warthog, the zoo’s animal hospital and, appropriately, the wolverine exhibit.

The Associated Builders and Contractors, Western Michigan Chapter, recognized the most recent of Wolverine’s zoo projects with a 2002 construction award.

Wolverine won an ABC award in the specialty structures/animal enclosures category for its construction of the $3.8 million John Ball Zoo chimpanzee exhibit that was completed in July 2001.

Wolverine Project Manager Jim Ziegler recalled that the firm worked very closely with zoo personnel to get the project right.

“They really gave us a lot of advice about things they have to be careful about, and we made suggestions. Through that kind of dialogue and education, we arrived at a working understanding about what was good and what was not good.”

One of the challenges was working with a very confined 1.5-acre site, he said. There also was a tremendous grade change from the low point to the high point of the exhibit.

The 12-member Wolverine crew had to work with extreme variations in elevation.

There’s about a 35-foot difference in elevation from the lowest to the highest point of the exhibit, Ziegler said. The walls extend 15 feet above the highest point of the exhibit.

The company had to create different levels at different elevations, similar to cliffs on a mountain, and simulate a natural-appearing mud bank backdrop.

“We actually built the mud bank backdrop by drilling in more than 50 auger case piles, and then we built a retaining wall off from the piles from the top down,” he explained.

The crew excavated an eight-foot-high section of earth away from the auger case piles, tied steel reinforcing to the piles, installed fabric, then sprayed “shotcrete” concrete over the fabric and back filled on the back side of it to create an eight-foot retaining wall.

On completion of the first lift, they dug out another eight-foot section below that area and repeated the process.

The outdoor containment area is made completely of shotcrete sculpted and tinted to look like mud bank and native stone. A consultant worked with Wolverine on the sculpting part of the project.

Water features include a 100-foot-by-20-foot outdoor pool that drains into the exhibit and creates a waterfall.

Chimps typically don’t like water, so the pool discourages them from loitering near the containment walls where the public wouldn’t be able to observe them, Ziegler explained.

The outdoor containment area also features a heated sand pit and heated rocks for cooler weather. There are also refrigerated rocks that provide the chimps with a cool place to rest on hot days.

Seattle-based architects Jones & Jones did the preliminary and design schematics for the exhibit.

“They created a picture and said, “This is what we’d like to have it look like,” and we went out and built it so it looked like that. There weren’t a lot of detailed drawings to work from. It was more of an art form — a sculpture.”

The indoor portion of the project includes a multi-level day room, holding areas and sleeping quarters, and a medical station for physical checkups and treatment.

The indoor shelter has radiant, or hot water-heated, floor systems throughout.

“They really like that warm floor because they nest on it; they spend a lot of time on the floor.”

A special hydraulic door system separates the various rooms, allowing zookeepers to safely transfer the chimps from room to room. Designed in Seattle, it was the first such hydraulic system Wolverine had constructed and installed.

The day room has numerous insulated windows that provide natural light. Their construction was a bit of a challenge, too, Ziegler recalled.

“We needed insulated windows that would withstand any assault by the chimps, so the exterior windows are made up of three thicknesses of laminated glass,” he said.

“In order to create an insulated panel, we installed a second set of windows on the outside of the building that can be opened so you can wash the interior of the glass and still maintain an insulated wall there.”

Construction of the chimp exhibit started in March 2000 and was completed in July 2001, after which it became home to a family of six chimps brought in from Detroit.

It’s not Wolverine’s first award-winning animal enclosure; the company was previously honored with a construction award for the Van Andel Living Shores exhibit.

“We’ve been asked to go to other areas to do exhibits but we really feel like we’re a local company. So we’re not really interested in going to Detroit or New York or other places,” Ziegler said.

If the John Ball Zoo is moved from its current site, he said it would be more costly to try to move the chimp exhibit than to build it over again, though some of the caging might be reusable.           

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