Elephants Take
the LEED


Image: www.thinkstockphotos.com

At Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian National Zoological Park, curators have ripped down antiquated structures and systems, along with antiquated thinking, in reworking care of their Asian elephants. The result is an 8,943-square-meter exhibit large enough to accommodate a sea change in how the pachyderms live in captivity. Keepers now work with and monitor the elephants’ natural matriarchal herd, rather than separating the animals. To do that, the zoo spent some $65 million to refurbish a 1930s-era building into a LEED-Gold-certified building that, along with a quarter-mile outdoor “trek” and associated exhibit, provides enough space to house up to ten Asian elephants and their young.

“We’re rebuilding the matriarchal structure,” says Dennis Kelly, director of the National Zoo. Kelly says the zoo is responding to the evolving guidelines on care of the animals, by allowing them to live in natural groups and move and exercise in as natural an environment that can be designed and built. The original elephant building separated the animals into concrete stalls, sometimes with hippos or other large mammals in the same building.

In 2006, In Defense of Animals and other critics hammered the National Zoo and others for care of elephants and outmoded facilities. So the zoo hired William V. Walsh Construction Co. under a design-build contract, and completed the Elephant Trails project in 2013. The project allows the zoo to increase the numbers of its elephant herd, which now includes three females and a male. Kelly says the zoo will integrate three more females from a zoo in Canada later this year.

Indoor sand floors are heated to give elephants a more natural footing. Heavy-duty barriers separate both elephants and keepers. Image: Smithsonian's National Zoo





The hub of the exhibit is the new 1,232-square-meter elephant building, built out of the old structure. It relies on 40 geothermal wells drilled to depths of several hundred feet to provide heating and cooling to the building as well as radiant heating in the floor of the barn and “community center.” There are nine living areas altogether. Heating tubes are fitted into a concrete slab and the heating, ventilation and cooling system is fitted out with wi-fi enabled controls.

Unlike the old building, where the floors were made of concrete, the new building incorporates one of two substrates above the concrete slab to provide a more natural environment for the animals, helping in the care of their feet. In the communal building and one living area of the barn, the floor is comprised of 1.2 meters of sand kept to 65 degrees F, says Kelly. Four of the living areas in the barn have floors made of rubber.

Besides being a softer surface for the hulking animals to stand on—keepers spend a lot of time taking care of the elephants’ feet and nails—sand also serves as a social medium. Elephants like to throw sand, either on themselves to cool off and ward off bugs, or on other elephants. They also can manipulate a water shower by standing on a pedal in the floor. Kelly says that type of natural behavior is crucial to their care.

The building also is fitted with operable skylights that maximize natural lighting and reduces the use of electricity, and incorporates natural ventilation. The barn also has a green roof covered in vegetation that provides insulation to help maintain indoor air temperatures.

Within the barn are state-of-the-art features to allow keepers access to and protection from the animals. An Elephant Restraint Device funnels the animals into a narrow stall where they can be weighed and secured during training and medical procedures. Keepers are protected by the stall’s heavy steel bars. Hoist beams over each living area can lift up to 12,000 pounds, and allow keepers to hang toys, food or other items to encourage natural behavior.

Fenced pathway allows elephants to move between indoor and outdoor compounds, a “stairmaster” for the animals. Image: Smithsonian's National Zoo

Varied Terrain

Outside, the animals walk the Elephant Trail, a quarter-mile paved and fenced path that takes them to a two-acre compound with varied terrain and elevations. Kelly says the trek is a “Stairmaster for elephants,” as the path rises and falls in elevation and provides the elephants with more natural exercise, as well as the ability to forage items left by keepers, and socialize.

Curators see zoos and associated research centers as critical in understanding how elephants strive to survive in the wild. In Portland, the Oregon Zoo is in the middle of a $57-million project similar that of the National Zoo that includes communal living areas and outdoor compounds. Smithsonian researchers in Washington also monitor wild elephants fitted with radio tracking collars to help identify migration patterns and other behavior to conserve the species. For animals in captivity, following building standards such as LEED promise to provide them with some replication of habitat and social structure.

Elephants around the world are becoming more endangered by the day as poaching and habitat loss slice their numbers. Organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund and the National Zoo estimate there are just some 30,000 Asian elephants left in the wild, a number that may sound large but is impacted by their range near about 20% of the world’s human population. When the needs of humans and animals conflict, humans tend to emerge the victor.

The hub of the exhibit is the new 1,232-square-meter elephant building, built out of the old structure. It relies on 40 geothermal wells drilled to depths of several hundred feet to provide heating and cooling.


May 2014

by John Kosowatz, Senior Editor, ASME.org