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Ecologies revealed: woven mesh replaces zoo fences

Features, Landscapes | January 1, 2012 | By:

Woven mesh helps the Auckland Zoo make fences disappear

Opened in 2011, Te Wao Nui exhibit at Auckland Zoo offers an immersive and intimate experience of some of the Southern Hemisphere’s most beautiful and rare ecologies. Like many other new zoo exhibits around the world, woven metal mesh plays a leading role in building large spatial enclosures for birds and animals while preserving a connection with the outside.

Te Wao Nui is the Maori expression meaning roughly, “our native bush.” Like Temaikèn Zoo in Buenos Aries (covered in the Jul/Aug 2011 FA), Auckland’s Te Wao Nui re-creates several indigenous habitats with regionally-specific plant and animal species. Yet, in contrast with zoos that interpret far-flung continents, this project focuses solely on New Zealand and six distinctive environments that have, until recently, remained undamaged by human encroachment. Long a part of Maori culture, these habitats include: The Coast (Takutai), The Islands (Moutere Rā hui), The Wetlands (Ngā Repo), The Night (Te Pō), The Forest (Te Wao Nui a Tāne) and The Country (Whenua Waotū).

Covering 3.4ha, Te Wao Nui is the largest project ever undertaken by Auckland Zoo and covers a fifth of its overall footprint of 17ha. The ensemble of Te Wao Nui’s six interpreted habitats is home to approximately 60 different New Zealand native animal species, more than 100 native plant species and a wealth of Maori artworks.

The project required significant expertise in exhibit planning and product applications. Noted New Zealand architect and exhibit designer Logan Brewer teamed with Fabric Structure Systems (FSS) to specify and customize appropriate details and materials for four aviaries. (See sidebar for aviary type and bird species.) In explaining the unique challenges of such a complex exhibit, Warwick Bell, FSS’s project lead, notes, “Each aviary presented itself with separate challenges as each was landscaped to create a different region of New Zealand and was also constrained or dictated by the existing area in which it was built.” He describes further complications where “our structures intersected with the many different styles of buildings that housed entrances and exits and other parts of the exhibits.

“One of the greatest challenges was to achieve the tensile shape and tension required in the mesh in conjunction with the irregular natural and built landscape.” Yet, with its flexibility in form and scale, wire meshes proved an ideal solution. To design accurate mesh patterning for each aviary, FSS used 3-D surveying to create an accurate picture of the nuances of each site. They also tailored the mesh product for the needs of each ecosystem.

For the Kea Aviary, FSS applied Phantom Mesh®, a material strong enough to resist the strong beaks of the inquisitive and sometimes slightly destructive kea parrots. For the other three aviaries, FSS used Zoo Mesh. “The mesh has good tensile shaping ability,” Bell says. As an added bonus, the FSS team was already familiar with testing and fabricating Zoo Mesh through their work three years ago designing mesh panels for the Sydney Wildlife World project—winner of an IFAI award.

When asked about lessons learned from this unusually large zoo project, Bell observes that design for plants and animals is, in some ways, more challenging than creating relatively static facilities for human use. “We learned that on a project as organic as a zoo—and one so dictated by the very specific needs of the wildlife—we needed the ability to adapt very quickly and continue to develop the design up until, and even after the installation process.”

FSS took part in constant discussions with landscape and building contractors throughout fast-track construction because even the smallest details of their daily work could affect the overall result. Thus, Bell advises exhibit designers and fabricators to form strong relationships with contractors and to maintain open lines of communication on a regular basis.

Now a major tourist attraction, Te Wao Nui was funded by Auckland Council and through funds raised by the Auckland Zoo Charitable Trust. New Zealand has already seen an uptick of visitors because the “Lord of the Rings” films were shot there. Te Wao Nui will likely become part of the “must-see” itinerary.

For New Zealand’s unusual coastal and inland ecologies, Te Wao Nui promises a different kind of long-term benefit. “Many of our species are found nowhere else in the world, are threatened with extinction and need the help of us all to ensure their future,” says Auckland Zoo director Jonathan Wilcken. “The zoo has been working alongside its conservation partners for years to conserve New Zealand native species. With Te Wao Nui, it’s really great to be able to finally open the door on this work to our visitors and tell the stories of amazing efforts New Zealanders have made to conserve them. Each and everyone of us can play a role as kaitiaki (guardians) for our unique wildlife and wild places, and Te Wao Nui invites us all to get involved.”

Project Specs / Ecologies revealed: how it was done

Warwick Bell of Fabric Structure Systems offers the following insights on the two mesh products used in the aviaries:

Phantom Mesh® –Produced by Cascade Coils Drapery Inc (USA)

  • Tends to be invisible when viewed from 3m to 8m away.
  • Offers protection from outside predators and wildlife.
  • Relative strength and light weight is a tremendous design benefit.
  • Can be custom woven to lengths exceeding 12m or more.
  • Can be spliced to infinite widths by joining sections in the field with a single spiral of the material using a simple corkscrew weaving action (an invisible splice), a great advantage if repair, replacement or extension of a section is necessary.
  • Flexible in one direction, allowing for more design and application options.

Zoo Mesh –Produced by Star Screens Australia

  • Woven stainless steel mesh; 2m-wide rolls stitched together to form tensile shapes.
  • The Auckland aviaries are clad with a product called SS 304L Clear mesh available in 30m by 2m by 0.28 dia. wire.

Contributing editorFrank Edgerton Martin writes frequently about landscapes and design for international design journals. His report on the BMW-Guggenheim Lab appeared in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue.

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