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Mike West
Mike West, PE, SE Senior Discipline Engineer, Structural Engineering

What makes a great zoo exhibit? We asked structural engineer, Mike West in our San Diego office this question. We also asked about his experience engineering zoo habitats and how three Coffman projects landed on USA Today’s Top Zoo Exhibits 2020 list including Asian Highlands, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo; Simmons Hippo Outpost, Dallas Zoo; and the Land of the Tiger, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens.

  • Tell us about your experience in zoo exhibit design. The San Diego Zoo has long been on the leading edge of zoological design and being a local San Diego structural engineer gave me the opportunity to get involved with their projects. My small engineering company, Arcon Engineers, began doing small projects with the San Diego Zoo in the late 1980s. These small projects led to much larger projects. The San Diego Zoo’s prominence in zoo design offered opportunities to work with larger zoo architectural firms on projects across the country. In 2009, I closed the Arcon office and joined Hope-Amundson and in 2017, when Hope-Amundson joined Coffman Engineers, I brought my zoo experience with me.
  • What makes zoo projects unique?  Zoo projects are all about the visitor experience and trying to exhibit the animals such that guests feel they are viewing them in their natural element. The goal is to make the projects appear as natural as possible, which means hiding or theming the structure as much as possible. To be successful at these types of projects, the design team and especially the structural engineer needs to “think outside of the box.”  You need to be very flexible in your ideas and creativity and be open to using non-conventional structural framing systems and materials – such as cable free-form aviaries and shotcrete “faux” rocks and trees.
  • What are zoo owners’ goals/desires when creating exhibits? The desire of most owners and keepers is to create a space where the animals feel at home and are not in a state of stress while creating an engaging experience for visitors.
  • From a structural engineering perspective, are there unique considerations in designing zoo exhibits?  The design of zoo exhibits isn’t as constrained as conventional building design where the design loads and factors of safety are well defined. There isn’t a prescribed design load for an African elephant or hippo, so zoo structural design requires innovation along with sound physics and engineering principles. It is important to keep the animals in, people out, all while maintaining a natural setting.
  • What is the common factor for these projects making it onto the “best zoo exhibits” list? All of these projects on the list are great examples of well designed exhibits that make a guest feel like they are in the animal’s natural habitats and, in many cases, don’t realize that the tree roots and earth banks might actually be concrete or epoxy.

Check out more Coffman’s zoo projects here.