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Examining the Role of Architectural Research for Africa Rocks Lemur Habitat

Posted by RT Lonsdale on Thu, Mar 01, 2018 @ 15:03 PM

The art and science of architecture is a complex and inventive effort. Beyond designing the physical elements of a space, how would architects meet the unique challenge of creating a healthy indoor environment for a series of endangered animals--like lemurs? The San Diego Zoo’s new Africa Rocks exhibit presented our firm, The Miller Hull Partnership, with such an opportunity. The project transforms eight acres of the Zoo, replacing 1930’s era grottos and cages with an immersive patron experience representing ecosystems from savannah to shore and which includes the Madagascar Habitat featuring five species of lemurs. As one might imagine, recreating lemur habitat required extensive research and product development. Lighting, we learned, plays a significant role in promoting physical and emotional health of these sensitive primates. Miller Hull coordinated a team of primate management staff, lighting technology engineers, and medical researchers to collaborate on a solution to simulate the lemur’s natural habitat.


The following describes the background we bring and research discoveries that played a tremendous role in developing a creative architectural solution and approach to the lemur exhibit that is both engaging and functional.

  • Africa Rocks is a “project fit” for our firm. Our firm pursues design opportunities that are a business and cultural fit. Miller Hull founders David Miller and Bob Hull met in architecture school after which both served in the Peace Corps, where they were inspired by the simple beauty of indigenous structures built in response to climate and cultural conditions. Coming together to form a partnership in the early 1980’s, they designed many award- winning earth sheltered and solar-based buildings. The tradition of designing dynamic and environmentally sensitive buildings continues to this day. Africa Rocks is a notable project in our portfolio given the Zoo’s prominence and the chance to design a beneficial and practical environment for animals, just as we do for humans.
  • Advancements in technology promote progressive architecture. Research and development are an inherent part of project work. Information gathered provides a greater level of understanding of project requirements. Exploration can cover both functional and technical components including: environmental sustainability, energy efficiency, precedent analysis, building materials, and construction techniques. Processes are evaluated leading up to project completion and post-occupancy. Additionally, research may include design theory, sociology, and policy.


Photometric Studies

  • Lemur LED daylight mimicry: Human circadian rhythms are controlled by light. A thin layer of sensor on the eyes transmits the perceived daily light cycle to the brain. Existing in an environment completely lit with a single, unchanging source, results in stress and unpredictable cycles (“gastrointestinal dysfunction, cardiovascular issues, sleep disorders, psychiatric complaints, cognitive deficits and certain types of cancer”per Dlux research).  This research drove our intention to apply proven daylight mimicry technology to lemurs.
  • Madagascar habitat simulation: Five species of lemurs bred in captivity through inter-zoological programs will inhabit the Madagascar Habit. Species include Blue-Eyed Black, Ring Tail, Sifaka, Collared Brown and Red Ruffed. Our design intent is for the animals to live outdoors in a protected environment, as they would in nature.
  • Lemur ‘ambassador’ wellness In situations when an animal is sick, injured, or misbehaving, they are held inside for veterinary treatment. Based on the research of Dr. Donald McEachron, Ph.D., targeted results include: balance and stabilize mood, support reproduction cycles, reduce stress, and encourage natural behavior. The important factor to understand with lemurs is that they are extremely primitive primates, and are especially sensitive to stimulation and disrupted cycles.
  • Holistic architectural solution: We considered two options of where to replicate the lighting of their environment using LED and other controllable light systems: (1) Replicate the San Diego light cycle, the lemur’s new environment, or (2) Replicate the Madagascar light cycle, the lemur’s historical environment. We chose to stick with the San Diego region, as intentions are to reintroduce animals back into the exhibit from a holding area as soon as they are fit. This lighting system would be controlled locally or remotely via computer, would have a yearlong program that would run automatically, and could be overridden by staff when needed for emergency. 

Like any other design project, some specifications did not make the final cut. However, the architectural design accommodates for the gradual integration of innovative zoo systems. It is only through research we determined how to develop a well-thought out architectural plan leading up to project completion and post occupancy.

Topics: Architectural Research, LED Daylight Mimicry