It's not every day I get to sign the last steel beam on a major project before it is hoisted into place. It is even more rare that I get to share this honor with a two ft-tall Megellanic penguin dressed in his black and white birthday suit. But this is what happened when I joined project officials for the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach on January 30 as they held a topping-out ceremony for the facility's new $53-million Pacific Visions project.

"Pacific Visions will provide an aquarium experience unlike any other and will help our visitors gain a deeper understanding of their relationship with our planet," said Aquarium President Dr. Jerry Shubel at the event.

Designed by San Francisco-based EHDD and being built by Clark Construction, the 29,000-sq-ft project is envisioned as a biomorphic structure that evokes the Pacific Ocean. Complementing the Aquarium’s existing building, also designed by EHDD, Pacific Visions has a unique glass façade that doubles as a ventilated rain screen, made up of more than 800 non-reflective glass panels covering an area of 18,000 sq-ft. Each panel is uniquely sized to accommodate the curves and angles of the building’s form

Bird-friendly glass will be used for the new façade to protect coastal birds from striking the building. The glass is acid-etched to eliminate direct reflection of the trees and sky, which can cause confusion for birds. In the evening, downlights are strategically placed in the plaza to cast light evenly on the undulating glass façade and public paths; this system also meets bird safety requirements.

The glass panel façade engineers are Burro Happold of Los Angeles.

Mark Kersey, Clark Construction western regional senior vice president, told me that one of the most interesting aspects of the project so far was the use of several hundred grout injected columns, installed about 60 to 80 ft deep in the ground.

"We had to stabilize all of the ground before we started with the concrete and steel erection  and that is not something you see every day," said Kersey. "So these grout-injected columns were installed for several months prior to any subsequent work on the foundation systems and that was unique. We did this for the overall stability of the structure to sit on the earth without having to over excavate or dig down too far."

The new Aquarium wing will house a state-of-the-art immersive theater, expanded special exhibition space, art galleries, and also include a new front plaza. The two-story, 300-seat Honda Pacific Visions Theater will include a 32-ft-tall by 130-ft wide screen, curved in a 180-degree arc, and a 30-ft-diameter floor projection disc to immerse visitors in a virtual ocean environment. Aquarium officials say that each seat in the theater will be wired for interactivity, which will help tell the story of the ocean, "allowing audiences to discover new species, witness the processes and phenomena of earth’s ecosystems."

The project, which is scheduled for completion in spring 2019, is using roughly 361 tons of structural steel for support. And one of the very last pieces of this steel bears my name on it, right next to a set of footprints made by one of the Aquarium's Magellanic penguins.