Ursa International

To Polar Bear or not to Polar Bear, that is the question


The North Carolina Polar Bear Exhibit that I've been working on since 2008!!! is finally taking shape. We did have a few set-backs, but I thought I'd describe the process as a warning for those expecting a quick turnaround.

I was invited to the Zoo by the then General Curator and Exhibits Curator to create a Concept Plan for an expansion to their existing Polar Bear Exhibit. I remember when I was with CLR, we did the original exhibit master plan and later lost the bid to do the design as part of the new North Carolina Zoos North American continent in the late 1980's. It was 'state of the art' and would provide for everything a couple of polar bears would need. There was a 100,000 gal pool with a rim of rock work, waterfalls and great underwater viewing for the public. At the time, no one was thinking about the heat that gunite absorbs nor the bone chilling, heat sucking that cold concrete will produce. As a visitor experience - a diving, swimming polar bear is a great thing - usually rated in the top 3 exhibits for any zoo -but for the bear, where's the dirt!? A bear's got to dig, a bears got to feel the earth beneath their feet as they trot great distances looking for food.

So by early 2008, the zoo decided their less than complete habitat needed an expansion. Expansion by its definition expands from the existing exhibit in a contiguous fashion - so there was only one place to go, and that place was a low-lying forested area with a drainage swale where a 72" storm sewer dumps out and makes its way into the lake.

This was the site that I used to develop my concept plan, which was the plan that the zoo used to raise the $8.5 million to fund the expansion. There was several months between those two events that saw some big changes. First of all, the General Curator that provided the design criteria left the zoo, there was a global economic collapse and recession, and the state had to be talked into following through with a promise they made before the recession to fund the project. Once that happened, the zoo had to select a consultant team. Since I had done the Concept Plan, I had the inside track, but that meant nothing when it comes to State Construction consultant selection. I got on three Consultant teams; two were selected for the shortlist of 5 teams and we were interviewed. This was early 2009, and very few projects were moving forward, so there was a lot of competition for the work. One of the teams I was on decided they really wanted the job, so they devoted a lot of energy and computer time to develop a 3D computer model of my plan - and that was enough to seal the deal. And that's how a young Architectural team with no zoo experience got the job against many firms that had previous zoo experience. Never count out the underdog!

Once we had the job, it was late 2009 before we had our first Schematic Design meeting. At this point, a new General Curator was in-place, and we had an expanded design team including staff from Horticulture, Education, Animal Management, Zoo Society, Construction/Maintenance and Exhibits as opposed to the two people that I worked with during Concept Planning and the it was a new day and a new project. We also had my new Architects and their engineers. First thing we did was to take a reconnaissance trip to see three Polar Bear Exhibits (Toledo, Detroit and Toronto) in November, for some education and bonding, then we began a series of workshops and work sessions that continued through February when we submitted our Schematic Design Documents. With those approved, we kept working on Design Development, involving more Engineering in the process through August 2010. At that point, we were given additional services to expand the scope of the project to include several other areas including the overlook and the underwater viewing areas for the old exhibit. This allowed us to impact the entire exhibit, not just create a new area connected to the old. With all the good intentions, we found ourselves designing things we didn't have a budget for, and thus spent the next several weeks in 'value engineering' - which means cutting out the 'fat' so we could expand the project into the old areas.

Now with our expanded scope, we proceeded into Construction Documents in early 2011. This is when everything that is going to be built by the contractor is detailed and defined so that they can competitively price the project. In this project, things were a bit different. The Zoo acts as a contractor for many of the "Zoo" items, such as Caging, Landscaping, Rockwork and exhibitory as well as Graphics and Interpretives. It became my job to draw those elements (except Graphics/Interpretives), and the local design team drew the private Contractor items. This worked out fine, but it also created its own problems where we had to make sure we were very clear about where those elements lived. It also made my life a bit crazy because being the Zoo designer, I straddled both sets of drawings, so that I had construction items built by the contractor shown on the Civil Engineers drawings (such as fences, paving and gates), as well as Exhibit drawings for the items built by the zoo that the contractor needed to see so that they were aware of the whole picture. It was June 2011 when we were ready to go to bid, but first we needed State approval - and we needed to check our costs and coordination items. This went on for several additional months before September when we were given the green light to advertise for bid. This process took a month, then a second month to select the low bid contractor and get them under contract, and then by November we were ready to go, for what was expected to be a 10 month construction schedule.

The first several months seemed to go by with very few activities as the contractor cleared the site (removing 92 trees that could have potentially fallen on the perimeter fence!), and re-routing the storm sewer into a 72" diameter concrete pipe underground, in the North Carolina bedrock. This was slow going and nothing else was done on site during this process. It was also the middle of winter when we were doing site work - not the best time of year - especially since we cleared the site, and blasted a trench in the low point of the site - you could only imagine what a muddy mess this created. It wasn't until spring 2012 that they had completed the sewer work and began the buildings. This work continued on through the estimated completion date of November 2012, and through all of 2013 when the contractor was not able to receive final approval by the State. As we speak, that final approval was given today during the second final inspection. Be careful of the low bidder - something has to give. In this project we gave a lot.

In the meantime, the zoo has been working on the caging in both the new and rebuilding the old side. They have been working on Rockwork since early 2013, and they expect to continue their work through 2014. The Landscape crew has been working on planting and soil mixes for a similar amount of time, but they will hopefully wrap up earlier to allow the plants to get established before the bears move in. Graphics are also underway with an expectation that they will be the last things to be completed before the exhibits open to the public, spring 2015! All in all - 6 1/2 years of high stress design and construction activities. Its wonderful to work with a zoo with such capabilities, but again, what we gained in low cost, we lost in speed.

The two bears that the zoo had, were shipped off to other zoos during the construction because the stress would have been too much for these old bears. Unfortunately, the stress of moving combined with old age also was too much and both died while away. The Erie Zoo was looking to place one of their Bears, so Patches has come to make her debut in the old section of the exhibit. Now here we are with another year of exhibit construction to look forward to and the zoo is looking for more Polar Bears to exhibit and create a breeding group - problem is - there are no Polar Bears to be found. The USFWS has put a moratorium on importing Bears from Canada, even though all the new Polar Bear exhibits have been built to Manitoba Standards so that they could receive Bears from Canada. Besides that, there have been several new polar bear exhibits under construction during this same time, and they are looking for Bears. These are tricky times - and a very expensive gamble. The Zoo (State of NC) has spent over $8.5 M (a very small amount compared to others being built these days) to invest in their Polar Bear Exhibit, but they may not be able to get Polar Bears. Contingency planning is considering Grizzly Bears (which they currently already have or Siberian Tigers (which they don't). Only problem with the Tigers would be that they are from Asia - and the theme of this section of the Zoo is North America! Going to confuse some school kids and moms!

This has been a long road, and it's obviously not over yet. Now we wait and see if it will be or not to be, a polar bear exhibit - that is the question.