Regenstein Center for African Apes

Chicago, Ill.
August 11, 2010

"Integration" is the key to the new Regenstein Center for African Apes in Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo. "Usually when a zoo building is designed, architects look at the animals' needs or the visitors' needs but they don't integrate all those things. This was a unique approach," says Robyn Barbiers, DVM, the zoo's VP for collections.

Zoo officials conducted a two-year study of the apes' behavior in their old setting, but they also studied visitors' tracking and attitudes. From these, they created a long list of objectives, which the team, led by local architect Lohan Caprile Goettsch, narrowed to three: 1) create more "naturalistic habitats" for the apes, including outdoor space for the gorillas and chimpanzees to romp in; 2) incorporate sustainable design strategies; and 3) set the "gold standard" worldwide in ape house design.

As to the first objective, the new exhibit areas have integrally heated glass walls 18 feet high and 32 feet wide that allow the animals to be outside as much as 10 months of the year. During construction, human rock climbers were brought in to test the security of the enclosures, and they found a couple of flaws that the Building Team corrected.

The floors are made of two- to six-inch-deep larch cedar mulch. This provides a soft footing for the animals to walk or fall on, and it reduces the amount of cleaning needed.

Visitors are situated at or below the apes' eye level throughout the exhibit, to avoid what the apes view as a threatening posture. If patrons bang on the glass or otherwise annoy the animals, they'll get a harmless blast of air activated by a button controlled by the apes.

The apes have lots of other buttons to play with, hidden in artificial trees or termite mounds. Push a button, and they can get a snack, a cooling or warming breeze, or a refreshing shower.

In terms of sustainability, the ape center has a vegetated roof, fritted skylights (to deter birds from hitting the glass), a moat that serves as a stormwater reservoir, and materials recycled from the old ape house. Because the apes have greater control over their environment, the overall temperature can be set at a more moderate level, thus reducing energy demand.

So, is the Regenstein Center simian heaven? We couldn't ask the apes, but Steve Ross, an animal behavior specialist at Lincoln Park Zoo, said, "There is no other ape house with this type of complexity and flexibility."