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Contractor Wrangles Surprises at New Orleans Zoo Project

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Ranked as one of the top zoological parks in the country, New Orleans' Audubon Zoo is home to some critically acclaimed exhibits that have set a standard for other zoos around the world. Audubon's latest project is the construction of a new orangutan exhibit, an elephant exhibit and a river water ride for guests. Spread across three acres, the new attractions have visually appealing designs to immerse visitors in the natural world.

Photo by Craig Guillot
Pachyderm Digs: Workers prepare a base for the foundation of the new elephant exhibit, which will be adjacent to the existing Cool Zoo splash park.
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But project architects and contractors say working in a zoo comes with its own set of issues involving wildlife. Atypical construction methods on zoo exhibits can also present challenges and add to delays. After almost nine months of unforeseen delays related to river levels and subsurface utilities, the contractor is back in full stride at the Audubon Zoo.

New Orleans-based Gibbs Construction is currently working on the three conjoined projects, which are valued at a total of $10 million. Steve Dorand, senior vice president of design and exhibitry for the Audubon Nature Institute, says while all three projects were designed and planned separately, the owner wanted one contractor to build all three.

"We didn't want separate contractors falling over each other. All three jobsites are connected, and we went for one contractor and architect," he says.

Gibbs won the bid and broke ground on the projects in February 2013. The 750-ft-long "Gator Run" lazy river is 3 ft deep, 12 ft wide and will feature two sand beaches, three water cannons, additional lounging space and a pizza cafe. It adds 44,000 sq ft to the 14,000-sq-ft existing Cool Zoo splash park. Immediately adjacent to the addition is the new elephant exhibit, which is roughly 42,000 sq ft. It features a contoured enclosure with gentle inclines, shade trees and two elephant pools.

The third project converts the old elephant habitat into a space for orangutans. Kyle McGehee, Audubon director of architectural design, says the change required a moat to be deepened to 17 ft from 5 ft and the facade of the existing elephant barn altered to mimic a temple in Southeast Asia. Creating the exhibit also involves renovating a historic Works Progress Administration-era building, he says.

"You have something that has been here since the 1930s, and you have to completely change the entire area while preserving the historical aspects," McGehee says.

Wild Challenges

Zoo contractors must work in proximity to guests, as well as to wildlife. Pile-driving, sheet-pile vibrating and even movement of machinery can stress animals.

Brian Bertucci, senior project manager with Gibbs Construction, says every new subcontractor on the job goes through a special training session about conduct and operations at the zoo. Any animal-related issues are addressed at weekly safety meetings. Gibbs has a dozen of its own workers on the job, along with another 40 to 50 craft workers on site on a typical day.

Bertucci says project shutdowns or delays are common and must be anticipated in working at a zoo. When elephants go out for their daily walks in the morning, heavy machines must stop moving. In one instance, contractors had to tunnel underneath an exotic bird exhibit to replace pipes. McGehee says there was a week-long delay because workers had to tarp off the area and adjust the cage so birds couldn't escape. Mating season also caused interruptions.

"It's a different environment," McGehee says. "Subcontractors aren't used to being told you can't start digging because someone is breeding next door or because a bird just laid an egg."

The fact that the jobsite also abuts a children's water play area means workers must mind their language and manners on the job. The project is being constructed in a back area of the park used as a transit path for zoo staff. Bertucci says employees had to pay special attention to keep the emergency and maintenance road open for workers coming through on foot or in golf carts, sometimes with animals. The jobsite also borders a tiger exhibit, elephant housing and a bird aviary as well as the water park.

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