Engineering for the Urban Jungle

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-By John Boley

This was an unusual project by any standards, according to project manager Rob Darling. A New South Wales government project that went to tender, with Sydney-based construction and property specialists Lipman the winning contractor. Strictly speaking, the client was the Taronga Conservation Society of NSW, the operator of Sydney’s famous Taronga Zoo. But really, Rob admits, the end clients were the chimpanzees.

The $6.5 million refurbishment of the chimps’ enclosure at the zoo was the facility’s first major upgrade since the 1950s. The zoo had an extensive redesign of many facilities already in place and this renewal was to be carried out without disrupting zoo operations, and above all without disturbing or distressing the animals themselves. Rob says this presented a whole series of challenges, many of them unique to the project and including one occasion when the keepers of a nearby enclosure requested the team to turn off a crane which had been carefully scheduled to do a specific piece of work well in advance – because the keepers were trying to get their animals to mate and the noise was putting them off! That’s not the sport of problem you face on the usual run of projects, Rob admits.

Lipman developed the original design in consultation with the client (Taronga Zoo, that is) and the architects to make a hugely complex piece of engineering feasible to build. First, Rob explains, there was the need to understand the chimps and their requirements. “The basis of the whole design was that everything had to be chimp-proof. That means that the glass, for example, had to be strong enough to withstand an 80 kilogram chimp hitting it at 40 km per hour. That glass was 50 mm thick.”

The open paddock area was re-landscaped, new palm trees were planted, and the team installed five climbing structures made out of structural steel, clad in hardwood. “The main focus of the whole chimpanzee enclosure was what is referred to as an ‘aviary structure’, a sort of giant net which divides the enclosure in two.” This allows the keepers to move chimps from the enclosure to the open paddock and back again depending on whether they are mating or doing whatever they are doing, as chimps will. This is referred to as the ‘separation enclosure’. “What won us the project, we believe, was that we contracted it to a design and construct company in Melbourne who in turn engaged German engineers to work with the German suppliers of the material. So we had engineers in Germany, the company in Melbourne, and we had Sydney architects that were working for the zoo, structural engineers also working for the zoo, the zoo representative, and ourselves as the principal contractor coordinating all of this design to build the separation enclosure.”

Developing the design took seven months, with regular e-meetings between all parties. “We developed a dynamic structure. Depending on where the chimps are on it, the whole structure moves. It is designed to move up to 30 cm.”

This effect was intended to give the chimps the feeling of being in the forest – like a swaying tree. The central support in this enclosure has eight masts, the tallest of which is 18 metres high, the shortest 13 metres, “sitting at 30 degrees, 45 degrees, 28 degrees with the one in the middle being almost vertical. They each had ‘twigs’, so that the masts were still in the centre clad with 500 mm diameter ‘timber’. Into this there were 200 mm diameter branches and off those branches were 150 mm diameter twigs which were bolted together on-site and craned into position.” The logistics involved in getting the timber together were quite extraordinary, Rob recalls. The timber was cut in Batemans Bay, on the south coast. “We then took it to another town outside Canberra where it was milled, sent it back to another place near Wollongong where it was treated, then back to Albury Park where it was clad onto the steel and then transported four or five hours to the zoo where it was erected. That was the only way to get the material, the size of the timber that we needed, and the best way to actually put the enclosure together.

It was a stunning demonstration of the lengths to which Lipman can go, Rob acknowledges, involving uniquely complex engineering and materials never before used in the southern hemisphere. The enclosure has a black stainless steel mesh which came from Germany. It has a non-climb wall which is 10 metres high to prevent the chimps climbing up and out. “It is a rigid structure and if you have a rigid structure connected to a dynamic structure, one that moves, that has engineering implications which were extremely difficult to overcome and then to construct.

“We had to learn so much about chimps and it is probably the most passionate I have been about any building ever. It took 18 months of our time to get it right and it was absolutely fascinating to put together, to understand how chimps work, what they can do. At the end of the day the chimps were actually the clients. Animal welfare was critical to the whole process and everything we produced had to be animal friendly and tailored to the animals’ welfare because it’s obviously a very important thing with the zoo.”

Challenges were many. Every nut had to be welded to every bolt so the chimps would not undo them. “Then we had to go around and test each one.” Access to the zoo was a chellenge in terms of getting materials in and out. “We only had one very narrow road to get in and out and we had the 80 metre mast to get in.” There were other, subtle considerations. “Our people on site normally wear high visibility vests and yellow shirts but we were not allowed to do that because it scared animals in the surrounding pens.”

Rob says the project “took a lot of our resources, probably more than we had allowed for, to get it right – but we did get it right. The zoo is very happy, the keepers are very happy and the chimps are incredibly happy, the way they jump around the enclosure. And the public loves it.” Anything else? “You start me talking on chimps and I could go on forever.”

Home Automation

Call it ‘domotics,’ and you are likely to receive a blank stare, but refer to it as ‘smart home’ or ‘home automation,’ and you will get a nod of acknowledgement. For the past few years, consumers have heard the word ‘smart’ attached to countless products and services, from food and drink to snacks like popcorn and mobile phones, which no one seems to refer to as a ‘cellphone’ anymore. Yet what, exactly, constitutes ‘smart’?

July 14, 2020, 10:09 AM AEST