Completion Date: April 2016


Polk Penguin Conservation Center, Royal Oak, Michigan, United States
Albert Kahn Associates

Designing to imitate nature is a daunting task, especially when designing for animal species requiring the deepest dive pool in the world, a constant 40⁰F temperature and a virtual life support system. The design team grappled with place making for human and animals simultaneously, often encountering opposing priorities. Paramount to all other decisions was to maintain a stable healthy environment, close to a penguin’s natural habitat in Antarctica. The Polk Penguin Conservation Center (PPCC) is the largest facility of its kind in the world, home to over 80 penguins and a technical marvel. The unique design is a dense mass of advanced technology. At 33,000 SF it is a step forward in design for zoos.

Detroit Zoological Society (DZS), recognized as one of the most sustainable zoos in the country, earned the 2015 Green Award from the association of Zoos and Aquariums for environmental leadership. Their commitment to sustainable practices is evident in their creation of a full-time Sustainable Manager position, the first ever in the United States. The owner was committed to educating the public about global warming, stories of survival, zero carbon footprint and a virtual unprecedented Antarctic 4D experience. The owner and the quirky, gregarious penguin user group partnered with the design team of Albert Kahn and Jones and Jones, it was a perfect combination.

From its inception, the exterior form was uniquely focused on an abstraction of the Antarctic landscape and a desire to tell the story of global warming. The irregular building massing, inspired by Tabular Icebergs seen in Antarctica, suggest natural formations of calving and ice caves including a 25 foot tall waterfall in a narrow crevasse. Thousands of custom metal scales cover the exterior skin. The building envelope is a layered system that functions similar to the penguin’s coat of feathers. Based on their anatomical coat of feathers, biomimicry inspires the design solution. Exterior metal scales layered over thick insulation with a layer of circulating air separate it from the building. Architects convinced two unrelated manufacturers to combine their products and manufacturer a custom rain-screen system for the unique exterior envelope.

Measuring sustainable strategies was also important to the client. DZS opted to use The Darker Shades of Green matrix / corresponding to their already established sustainability program. An initiative to focus on the importance of water conservation the zoo was implementing, guided the design of the 365,000 gallon deep dive pool with a sophisticated treat and reuse water filtration system. Innovative engineering design approaches and energy recovery methodologies drove most systems design. Cooling to 40⁰ F include mechanical systems that reclaim and reuse rejected heat energy for year-round cooling. Specialized HVAC systems for each user group connect to one heat pump system. As phase two, construction of a new biomass digester is underway. It will be the first to use waste of zoo animals to supply power to their campus. The penguin center is a remarkable example for designing for diverse client groups. It is a model for sustainability for zoos worldwide.

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