• An increased focus on environmental conservation at the Houston Zoo is reflected in recent additions such as the Cypress Circle Café. - photo by Peter Molick

Zoological gardens, or zoos, as they have come to be known, were at first little more than exotic collections of animals for the entertainment of the elite. During the Enlightenment, these royal menageries transitioned into institutions for the education of the public. But, like the varied species they exhibit, zoos are continually adapting to the world around them. Today, there is a greater understanding of animals as emotional and intelligent beings and about what is needed to properly care for their welfare. Zoos are also increasingly engaging directly in environmental preservation. Efforts to provide more suitable environments for the animals on display have resulted in changes to the architecture of zoos, moving away from the concrete and steel enclosures of the past toward larger, more natural habitats exhibiting holistic ecosystems.

In preparation for its 100th anniversary this year, the Houston Zoo developed a new strategic plan in 2016. This plan called for an increased focus on animal welfare and environmental conservation. These core values informed a new master plan for the zoo that addressed its facilities at all scales, from the larger overall organization of public spaces and habitats to the specific palette of materials and plants. 

At the center of the updated plan is an expanded public circulation spine intended to create clearer sightlines to help orient visitors as they explore the park. The improvements along this corridor begin at the entrance with a new open plaza and Galápagos habitat that, while still under construction, will eventually greet visitors as they enter the zoo.

Working with 33 wildlife conservation groups across 17 countries, the Houston Zoo has begun to replace several of its outdated exhibits with geographically organized habitats that loop off the central circulation spine. Like similar developments at zoos around the world, these integrated environments organize species into their natural landscapes. This helps visitors learn about holistic natural systems and biodiversity better than traditional zoo designs that simply display individual species, obscuring ecological relationships.

Nestled at the center of the zoo is the Kathrine G. McGovern Texas Wetlands habitat. Completed in 2019, it marks the first time that native species have been exhibited at the Houston Zoo. The construction of this landscape transformed what was a murky duck pond with limited biodiversity into a gem that highlights local conservation efforts and frames the previously completed Cypress Circle Café, designed by Lake|Flato Architects. The wetlands are both beautiful and functional: They clean water from throughout the zoo with an integrated filtration system, saving between three and four million gallons of water annually.

Sanders Architecture of Austin recently completed two new kiosks that align with the Houston Zoo’s environmental and animal-centric mission: a concessions kiosk, located in the public plaza on the main circulation spine, and a ticketing kiosk, which sits across the pond near the special exhibits area. The kiosks were shop-made in Austin and delivered ready for installation on poured concrete foundations. Prefabricating the structures in a controlled setting allowed for the use of more refined materials and details while minimizing on-site construction time. This reduced disruption to both animals and visitors alike.

Each kiosk is capped by a green roof featuring soil and plantings carefully calibrated to harmonize with the surrounding wetland habitat. Sanders Architecture developed the ecologically focused roof design with help from Blackland Collaborative, an ecology-based design firm with whom they previously collaborated on a kiosk for the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin. Migratory birds and insects flying across Houston perch on these roofs, while the layers of earth and roots provide natural insulation for employees working within the buildings. Like much of the wetland landscape, the roofs retain water during heavy rains, helping mitigate the excessive runoff that leads to Houston’s notorious flash floods. The kiosk design incorporated many environmentally friendy materials, including thermally treated ash, formaldehyde-free plywood, low-VOC paints and adhesives, and recycled-denim insulation. An array of solar panels doubles as shade awning for visitors and provides much of the building’s energy needs through the year.

Helping to facilitate the rush of ambitious projects this past decade has been the consistency of the design team. Studio Hanson|Roberts has brought an expertise in designing animal habitats, with Lake|Flato, Sanders Architecture, and BRAVE/architecture providing local understanding to the team. Engineering services have been covered by Walter P Moore and MLA Engineering, with Tellepsen Builders serving as general contractor. In addition, the zoo has its own architects and engineers at all levels of project management, creating a shared language and understanding of how individual projects contribute to the larger goals envisioned in the 2016 strategic plan.

The latest two of the zoo’s international collaborations bring the South American Pantanal and Galápagos Islands to Houston. Although these landscapes are located thousands of miles from Texas, they were specifically selected because of their similarities to the Houston climate. With animal welfare at the forefront of all the zoo’s decisions, both the animals and the plantings that make up their enclosure habitats need to be able to thrive in the city’s hot, humid summers. 

As with many scientific endeavors, our evolving understanding of how humans impact the environment has given zoos a new purpose and direction. As they strive toward being part of the solution through the preservation of threatened species abroad, institutions like the Houston Zoo help educate the general public of the importance of conservation at home.

David Richmond works at Rogers Partners in Houston.

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