Photographed by Maconochie Photography
architecture: Jones & Jones Architects & Landscape Architects
lead design firm: Albert Kahn Associates
contractor: DeMaria and Wharton-Smith JV
civil engineer: Alfred Benesch & Co.
animal life support and filtration: T. A. Miranda Consultants
VERY FEW PEOPLE GET A CHANCE TO SEE PENGUINS IN THEIR NATURAL HABITAT (LET’S FACE IT, ANTARCTICA ISN’T EASILY ACCESSIBLE), BUT ANYONE CAN WATCH THEM WADDLE, SWIM, AND DIVE AT THE DETROIT ZOO, WHICH HAS JUST OPENED THE WORLD’S LARGEST FACILITY DEDICATED TO THE FLIGHTLESS BIRDS. Completed in 2016 and containing more than 80 birds, the Polk Penguin Conservation Center is a collaboration between the storied Albert Kahn Associates, the firm responsible for many of Detroit’s most legendary buildings, and Seattle-based Jones & Jones, a conservation-focused office known for its work with natural infrastructure and zoos around the world.
Resembling a tabular iceberg, the clifflike exterior sides of the $30 million, 33,000-square-foot white building shear downward from its peaked top. On the south side, a large window set at the base of a 25-foot outdoor waterfall offers visitors sweeping views of colonies of four penguin species. Covering the entirety of the angular structure are more than 6,000 overlapping biomimetic metal tiles (developed in collaboration with Imetco and Valspar), together composing an engineered system that protects the building and keeps it warm enough for humans (70°F) and cool enough for penguins (37°F). In a process called bio-mimicry, recirculating air between the tiles and the interior acts much like air trapped between a penguin’s feathers, helping to regulate interior temperatures. The tiles also serve as a custom rainscreen system, and their coating of custom pearlescent paint—aptly named Iceberg—transforms the building’s appearance as the sun moves across the sky, clouds pass, and visitors view the facility from various angles. The extreme angles of the iceberg–derived structure made the design and installation of its skin extremely difficult. “The specific geometry of the building and the positioning of the tiles at 45-degree angles made it challenging,” explains architect Mario Campos, partner at Jones & Jones. “The project’s drawings documented the design using GPS points in lieu of typical dimensions due to the extreme angles and slopes. This required the construction team to learn a new way to read and build from the drawings.”
The penguins’ home includes two mainland habitats (Antarctic and sub-Antarctic) and a 24-foot-deep underwater environment that runs under them both. The two land habitats were simultaneously created, and a concrete “ice bridge” visually separates them. Workers installed more than 100 pieces of scaffolding to support the environments, with more than 50 people working at once. Like the ice bridge, each piece of “ice” and “rock” was hand-sculpted out of concrete. Two acrylic tunnels running under interior pools grant visitors a rare look at penguins underwater. About 326,000 gallons of water run through the pools, and to sync with the goals of the Detroit Zoological Society, Jones & Jones met the significant challenge of ensuring the building has net-zero water usage and is built to LEED standards.
Challenges met and the center now open, Campos reflects on its goals. “We want to tell people about animal conservation. You cannot save the animals in a zoo if you don’t save their habitat in the wild.” Save the latter, he believes, and you’ll save the former.