Designing sustainable habitats at the San Diego Zoo

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What’s more amazing, a tiny nectar-drinking bird that weighs less than a nickel and can fly backward, or a giant carnivorous lizard that can smell a dying animal up to six miles away? They’re both impressive, and now visitors to the San Diego Zoo can experience both hummingbirds and Komodo dragons in brand new habitats just steps away from each other.

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An indoor zoo habitat full of tropical green plants.

The two new habitats have been carefully designed, both from an eco-materials standpoint and considering what will make these creatures feel most at home. The hummingbirds can bathe in their choice of three water ponds, each using recycled water, or nest in green walls. Visitor benches are made from recycled plastic lumber. Komodo Kingdom features three distinct environments that wild dragons would enjoy — mountain highland, woodland and beach. The habitat also features heated caves and logs, pools and misters to replicate the hot and steamy environment of their native Indonesia.

Related: San Diego Zoo successfully clones an endangered Przewalski’s horse

There’s also an area of deep, soft sand for egg-laying. Zookeepers hope that Ratu, the female, and Satu, the male, will like each other enough to make baby lizards. Satu only arrived a few months ago, in time for the opening of Komodo Kingdom in June. The two haven’t met yet, and are currently being kept in separate parts of the enclosure.

So what’s it like designing habitats for such diverse creatures as Komodo dragons and hummingbirds? Inhabitat talked to San Diego Zoo architect Vanessa Nevers to find out.

A zoo habitat with a lily pond bordered by dirt and plants.

Inhabitat: How did you go about researching the lifestyle and preferences of Komodo dragons?

Nevers: San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance’s Architecture and Planning department worked closely with our wildlife care experts to determine not only the needs of the Komodo dragon but also the ways that the habitat design would encourage natural behaviors such as digging, soaking in shallow waters and basking, to name a few.

The exterior of a zoo building with a sign reading "Kenneth C. Griffin Komodo Kingdom."

Inhabitat: What factors did you take into consideration when designing Komodo Kingdom from a materials standpoint?

Nevers: For the Komodo habitats, getting enough UV light into the space is critical, as is maintaining the hot, humid environments that Komodo dragons thrive in. The roof and clerestory at the two indoor habitats consist of an ETFE [Ethylene tetrafluoroethylene, a recyclable plastic that’s 100 times lighter than glass] system that facilitates appropriate levels of UV transmission and climate control. Other factors to take into account for habitat design are soils and plantings that are safe for the Komodo dragons and allow for natural behaviors. Also, the ability to create sheltered areas and pools that are just the right size, heated rocks and elevated areas for basking is very important and is usually executed with shotcrete rockwork.

The exterior of a zoo building with a blue sign reading "Hummingbird Habitat."

Inhabitat: What are the main features of the hummingbird enclosure?

Nevers: Interestingly, the features that make the Hummingbird Habitat great for birds also make it very pleasant for people. The central spatial feature is a semicircular cenote-themed shotcrete structure with fly-through openings and vertical plantings. This structure breaks up the experience into three spaces which also helps define territories for the birds. The flowing ponds and streams, as well as a built-in misting system, add ambiance but also provide ample bird bathing opportunities. And of course, the tropical plantings with big broad leaves and the nectar-producing plants are also essential and enjoyable for both birds and people.

A small blue and green Paradise Tanager bird sitting on a thin branch.

Inhabitat: How did sustainability affect your choice of building materials?

Nevers: Sustainability is an important consideration in the selection of all building materials. For example, the ceilings at Komodo Kingdom and Hummingbird Habitat are clad with Accoya wood, and the interior and exterior walls at Hummingbird Habitat are clad with Moso [a type of bamboo]. Both Accoya wood and Moso are Forest Stewardship Council-certified products. The ETFE system, which has been awarded the Environmental Product Declaration (EPD), is used at both Komodo Kingdom and Hummingbird Habitat. It has low levels of embodied energy and can be recycled at the end of its useful life into components used in the manufacture of new ETFE systems.

An overhead view of two tourists taking pictures of a zoo habitat with leafy green plants.

Inhabitat: Did anything surprise you during the process?

Nevers: Komodo dragons like it hot, really hot! Their native habitat in the islands of Indonesia is usually about 95 degrees Fahrenheit with 70% humidity. This doesn’t sound surprising on paper, but stepping into the indoor habitats in Komodo Kingdom shortly before the dragons moved in was like walking into a sauna. The Komodo dragons love it, but I felt like I was melting!

A Komodo dragon laying on rocks.

Inhabitat: How does it feel to design habitats for rare and endangered creatures?

Nevers: Amazing! Being part of a team that creates habitats that allow these animals to thrive is one of the two most rewarding aspects of my work. The other is creating opportunities for people to really appreciate how incredible all life is and the importance of sustaining healthy habitats around the world.

A blue and black Purple Honeycreeper bird sitting on a branch.

Inhabitat: What would you like people to know about the work that you do?

Nevers: Zoo architecture is so much more than the design and construction of buildings; it truly is the architecture of experience. From the range of habitat experiences for the animals to the experiences in the guest landscape, these are all part of a larger effort to foster relationships with nature in support of conservation for a healthy planet.

+ San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance

Images courtesy of the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and Teresa Bergen / Inhabitat



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