African Adventure at Fresno Chaffee Zoo


Owner Fresno Chaffee Zoo
Lead Designer The Portico Group
Contractor Harris Construction Co.
Civil Engineer Alan Mok Engineering
Structural Engineer MLA Engineering
MEP Engineer LP Consulting Engineers Inc.
Life Support Consultant T.A. Maranda Consulting
Lighting Consultant Zoological Lighting Services

To create this 13-acre exhibit in Fresno—thought to be the most naturalistic African savanna exhibit of any North American urban zoo—the project team had to overcome jobsite logistical challenges at the more than 100-year-old public park, create an authentic environment with natural components and precision woodworking, and coordinate a detailed schedule to accommodate animals, visitors and staff.

Recreating the experience of visiting famous East African parks such as Serengeti and Tarangire, the $55.7-million animal-friendly habitat contains 100 species, including elephants, giraffes, rhinoceroses, lions, meerkats, zebras and cheetahs. The design and construction team coordinated closely on comprehensive phasing plans to build the structures, infrastructure systems and exhibits while also integrating the mature landscape. The team saved 374 of the 413 trees in Roeding Park, some of which date back to 1903, often working around “tree-protection zones,” where vehicles and equipment were prohibited.

On ADA-compliant trails, visitors can explore the savanna and enjoy areas such as the Kopje Lodge, constructed of wood pillars and beams. In addition, a giraffe-feeding platform offers unique human-animal interaction. The project’s 2-in. glass walls provide up-close views of the savanna, while a 1-million-gallon water treatment plant maintains the moats and waterfalls.

Crews combined conventional cast-in-place and precast concrete with not-so-conventional elements such as tiny bronze dung beetle statues. Local contractor Harris Construction “used templates and chainsaws to mill timbers to exacting tolerances, installed authentic-looking thatched roofs and large granite boulder rockery walls, created a huge baobab tree from gunite and blended in hand-crafted faux boulders to create an extremely natural-looking exhibit,” says Bill Bunch, the firm’s vice president of operations.

The contracting team had no lost-time injuries while also protecting the the animals and public. “Special considerations for the health and safety of the newly arriving animals as well as the workers became a critical part of our daily activities,” Bunch adds.

The elephants, in particular, were a big challenge. At one point, construction stopped for half a day so zookeepers could introduce two elephants into their new facility quietly and calmly. At the recommendation of the pair’s former owners, the team also made significant grade changes at four dry and wet moats to ensure the animals’ well-being.

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