The San Diego Zoo recently broke ground on the largest project in its 99-year history. Designed by The Miller Hull Partnership, the new $68 million Conrad Prebys Africa Rocks will transform eight acres of the Zoo and replace 1930s-era grottos and enclosures (formerly known as Cat and Dog Canyon) with new habitats for African plant and animal species that range from savanna to shore.

"The Africa Rocks exhibit design began with a series of workshops including the design team and stakeholders from the Zoo to identify goals, expectations, and opportunities for the project," says Caroline Kreiser, principal at San Diego-based Miller Hull. "The overarching theme of the biodiversity of Africa and development of the African Biomes became apparent very quickly, and has continued to drive the design." 

Kreiser says an overarching design goal was to immerse visitors in the landscape, "which required close collaboration with the exhibit and landscape designers to integrate the built features into the experience."

Scheduled to complete in 2017, the project will transform an area that was previously a steep canyon into different types of African habitats, including a West African forest, acacia woodlands, Ethiopian highlands, kopje gardens and a Madagascar habitat. Africa Rocks will be home to mammals; reptiles, such as dwarf crocodiles, Agama lizards and spurred tortoises;  birds; and plant life native to Africa, such as acacia, aloe, Madagascar ocotillo and palms.

The exhibit will also feature a range of primates, including hamadryas and gelada baboons, vervet monkeys, and lemurs. Other mammals in the exhibit will include southern ratel, fossa and an African leopard.

Kreiser says a "bird-friendly glazing" feature will stand out for its uniqueness on the project. "We have been prototyping a UV patterned glass lamination that is invisible to humans, yet visible to birds," she says. "The striped UV pattern appears to be a solid barrier to birds, and has been tested by the American Bird Conservancy to be 80% effective (anything above 70% is considered “bird-friendly). This is to be integrated throughout Africa Rocks at glass handrails and large expanses of on-grade glass viewing."

Another highlight will be the indoor Lemur facility which will feature an LED daylight mimicry lighting system capable of matching the lighting cycles of the animals’ native habitat in Madagascar, adds Kreiser. This system is designed to reduce stress, and allow the Lemurs to maintain their natural circadian rhythms, ideally resulting in successful reproductive cycles and natural behaviors.

As far as any design hurdles to overcome, Kreiser told me it has been "fun to develop a language for the structures by studying African vernacular architecture." She says just as the site design team believes in presenting the animals in their natural habitat, The Miller Hull Partnership "looked for inspiration in modern industrial architecture that can be seen in villages across Africa; striving to provide a visitor experience reminiscent of a rural African village by using materials and forms of this vernacular." 

More than 4,500 individual donors, including a gift of $11 million from Conrad Prebys, have contributed to the Africa Rocks Campaign. Principal donor Ernest Rady provided a $10 million matching gift challenge in 2013 that resulted in 3,800 individual donors giving more than $20 million toward the exhibit. Other principal donors, Dan and Vi McKinney, gave $5 million for the creation of an African penguin habitat.

Other members of the project team include Hope-Amundson, serving as structural engineer; and TBD, serving as contractor.