Zoo Habitat Design

Orangutan Dayroom at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

Orangutan Dayroom At The Columbus Zoo And Aquarium Case Study By WDM Architects 2
Dumplin enjoying the Outdoor Yard. Photo credit Grahm S. Jones

The New Orangutan Dayroom

In 2019, WDM Architects was hired to create an indoor space for the orangutans, with Matt Schindler, AIA, as principal zoological architect. Schindler brought nearly 30 years of zoo design experience to the project. He was joined by Andrew Jordan, RLA, also a principal at WDM and an experienced zoological designer.

Together with the Columbus Zoo management and animal care team, WDM would design the new orangutan dayroom with the goal for it to be extensive, variable and complex for the apes’ physical, social, multi-sensory, and psychological enrichment.

The dayroom and new bedroom holding spaces would be placed directly adjacent to the outdoor habitat allowing guests and orangutan to interact year-round, regardless of the weather.

Orangutans Were Off-Exhibit Half of the Year

Wild orangutans live in the tropics and spend the majority of their lives in the rainforest canopy. At the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, orangutans enjoyed their outside yard during the summer, but, they need to be indoors roughly half the year due to Ohio’s cold winters. Previously, the great apes spent that time off-exhibit in indoor holding bedrooms that were across a service road from the exhibit. To access these bedrooms, staff had to swing a temporary wire mesh chute into place. This process was cumbersome and inefficient.

Having the charismatic orangutans off-exhibit for half the year was not ideal from a visitor engagement standpoint, and the apes missed the interaction with visitors.

“While not all apes seek out interactions from the public, the three orangutans who call the Columbus Zoo home have shown an affinity for guest interactions, something they were not able to enjoy during the wintertime,” notes Audra Meinelt, Curator, Congo Expedition and Orangutans at the Columbus Zoo.

Orangutan Dayroom at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium Case Study by WDM Architects-1

‘Animals First’ Design

To respect orangutan intelligence and personal agency, the goal for the new dayroom was to give them more choice in how they spend their time. This ‘animals-first’ approach informed the design so that nothing would be off-limits in their space. Orangutans would have 24-hour access to climb to the ceiling and across it. They can choose to make sleeping nests in either their bedroom or in the dayroom on platforms or even the floor. If they want sticks to poke at and manipulate things, they can have them. When the weather is appropriate, they can choose to be inside or access the outdoor yards.


Inspired by their Native Environment

Orangutans in the wild spend most of their time, 43% foraging and 14% traveling through the brush often in search of food.

“In the wild, orangutans often move themselves by causing branches, vines and small trees to sway in the desired direction until they can reach a new handhold, transfer to a new perch and repeat the process,” notes the AZA Orangutan Care Manual.

Adult orangutans rarely have less than two points of contact with trees or vines when traversing through the rain forest in any given direction. They are rarely on the ground.

The AZA Orangutan Care Manual recommends that exhibits for orangutans be large enough to allow apes to navigate on “continuous overhead pathways.”

Wild orangutans choose a temperature that feels comfortable by navigating higher in the canopy to bask in the warmth of the sun and descend to shadier areas when wanting to cool down. Another 41% of their time is spent sleeping in nests they make in trees. (Orangutan Fact Sheet, San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance).

Orangutan females establish a home territory in which to forage and nest. As they raise young, their daughters tend to move next-door to an adjacent territory. For this reason, captive orangutans fare better when kept as a small family group: mother and offspring with a single adult male. (Cocks, L. (2013), Orangutan Facility Design.)

Orangutan Dayroom at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium Case Study by WDM Architects-4
Exterior rendering of new orangutan building with windows to flood dayroom interior with natural light and views

Form Follows Function

A study in 1982 by Susan Wilson of orangutan groups in 41 European zoos found orangutans were more active in exhibits that were complex than those that were larger but bare. She states “objects within environments may be more important for captive apes than the size or construction of the enclosure.” (Wilson, S.F. (1982), Environmental influences on the activity of captive apes. Zoo Biol., 1: 201-209.)


“To create a species-appropriate habitat, zoo designers need to provide a complex, vertically-oriented environment,” says Schindler, principal zoo architect on the project.

The trend to reflect an animal’s natural habitat in zoo exhibits presents a challenge in designing orangutan exhibits. Using artificial trees made of steel-reinforced concrete can replicate the look of a rain forest but is functionally too rigid. Natural wooden branches or bamboo have the desired bend-ability but are soon picked apart by the great apes. Playground-like structures are more durable and provide opportunities for natural behavior but look too artificial to guests.

Zoos have had to choose between an exhibit that looks more authentic or one that functions more naturally. In the new orangutan dayroom in Columbus, the design team found a happy balance that mimics the trees and vines of the rain forest canopy not only visually but also functionally.

Design Solutions

The new dayroom is a vertically-oriented space in which every feature has been designed for enrichment of these highly intelligent apes. The large room is furnished with poles and moveable exhibit ‘vines,’ which can be endlessly rearranged to provide an interesting and complex climbing structure for the orangutans.


‘Bamboo’ Poles.

Corrosion-resistant steel poles extend vertically to the 25-foot-high peaked ceiling, providing orangutans access to the full volume of space in the dayroom. They are painted to resemble green bamboo canes. Poles vary in diameter and thus vary in flexibility and are bolted to the concrete sub-floor. Some poles are also anchored at the top to the ceiling. “Sway poles are often a good choice to promote arboreal locomotion,” notes the AZA Orangutan Care Manual. These poles were so large that they had to be in place before the building was completely enclosed.


Firehose ‘Vines.’

The poles feature welded D-rings along their length as anchor points for firehose ‘vines’ and hammocks. These tough hoses are secured to the poles with padlocks so the apes cannot undo the connections. Keepers can reconfigure the layout of the dayroom by changing anchor points of the hoses to create new arboreal challenges for orangutans as they navigate from one side of the room to the other.


Concrete columns

Concrete columns are spaced throughout the dayroom with built-in features like plumbing for “Lixits,” which are installed for orangutans to access fresh water. Other columns have electrical wiring for powered enrichment items orangutans can choose to access like speakers to play various audio recordings. Puzzle feeders are also installed in columns. Columns are 16” square, of varying heights and constructed of 2×2 steel tubes. These also serve as anchor points for the firehose vines.

It’s an Enriched Life

Zoos today place a high priority on providing enrichment for animals to stimulate natural behavior and provide variety in the daily routine. The smarter the animal, the more challenging it is to provide enrichment, so when approaching the orangutan dayroom project, WDM engaged subject matter experts across the nation.

Orangutan keepers from Utah’s Hogle Zoo, Chicago Zoological Society, El Paso Zoo, Lincoln Park Zoo and of course the home keepers at Columbus Zoo all generously shared their most successful enrichment tools.

“It’s great to be able to lean on peers,” says Matt Schindler, AIA, WDM Principal-in-Charge of the project, “especially when designing spaces for such incredibly smart animals.”

Many features of the new dayroom are designed for orangutan enrichment including: a vending machine-type food dispenser, a touch-screen tablet and sensory stimulation devices. WDM architects designed the right infrastructure to support these specialty enrichment items.

For the vending machine enrichment, WildThink, keepers hide bubblegum pink tokens throughout the mulch floor to encourage orangutans to enact typical foraging behavior. Orangutans soon learn that tokens will dispense a treat, but no other objects will work.


“The benefit of hiring an architect that specializes in zoo design is that we are continually gathering information about animal care and well-being programs. The more we know, the better the solution,” comments Schindler.


Ideas from Orangutan Keepers across the U.S.

  • Hammock / Swing Variations constructed of plastic barrels, PVC pipe and firehose
  • Puzzle Feeder variations constructed of plastic barrels, PVC, firehose and boxes
  • Frozen juice treats
  • Browse
  • Paper Mache items like pinatas made with paper, flour and water ‘glue’ and filled with edibles or scents
  • Plastic barrels filled with water or sand with small hole for contents to drip or fall out
  • Shower hose clipped to enclosure for orangutan-directed warm water play (keeper supervised)
Orangutan Dayroom At The Columbus Zoo And Aquarium Case Study By WDM Architects 5
Colorful boats go right by the orangutan dayroom & yard

Other Features

Beyond the complex behavioral enrichment features, the Columbus Zoo’s new dayroom reflects the geographic area of the orangutan’s native range. Dayroom columns and walls are richly embellished with murals and theming inspired by the ancient patina of Bornean temples.

Going out on a ledge. Halfway up the east wall, a ledge runs the length of the dayroom for apes to perch on. Keepers can interact with the apes through several mesh openings at this second-story level to encourage their climbing behavior. Staff also stimulate species-typical arboreal locomotion by placing enrichment items at various heights and locations throughout the dayroom via a system of pulleys.

Bright views. The west wall of the dayroom is lined with windows providing abundant natural light for the orangutans and interesting views of visitors periodically passing by on colorful boats. Conversely, the large windows also provide views of the orangutans for zoo visitors taking the boat ride.

Keeper Areas include Food prep kitchen with sinks, counters, & refrigerator, Laundry room and Storage, Training Mezzanine, Keeper office

Orangutan Dayroom at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium Case Study by WDM Architects-6
Orangutan Dayroom floor plan

Health and Safety Considerations

To prevent entanglement hazards, ropes are secured at both ends without too much slack. Poles and ropes are configured so there are no areas where subordinate animals could be trapped by dominant animals.

The facility has built-in features to help keepers and veterinary staff monitor the orangutan’s health without having to sedate and transport the apes out of house.

  • Blood draw sleeve
  • Ultrasound station
  • Weight scales

Orangutans are trained to participate in their health care by allowing lab samples to be collected in exchange for a tasty treat.


“Our orangutans participate in positive reinforcement training with excitement,” comments keeper Chelsea Massaroni. “When cued for a learned behavior, they receive a reward for doing the behavior correctly. They are always very excited to participate as they greatly enjoy this interaction with their keepers, their favorite food items, and having the choice to participate.”


A unique aspect of the dayroom is the living floor, or bio-floor, instead of concrete. This specialized mulch covers a concrete substrate to a depth of three feet providing a softer, natural habitat floor.

Main benefits of a bio-floor

  • Better for animal health
  • Contributes to a high humidity environment
  • Helps dampen loud acoustics
  • Promotes foraging enrichment behavior
  • While it would also be good shock absorption, that aspect is not needed because orangutans do not jump.

To learn more about the benefits and best practice for implementing a bio-floor, the Columbus Zoo animal care team and WDM designers consulted other institutions using bio-floors in great ape habitats.

Lincoln Park Zoo

Since 2004, Lincoln Park Zoo has had four exhibits with a bio-floor substrate. Staff spends the same amount of time on upkeep of the bio-floor as they do with traditional exhibit cleaning. Each day, old food, fecal matter and soiled bedding is removed and a third of the floor at a time is turned over with a pitchfork. The zoo has found that a mix of hardwood bark chips and pine nuggets does well — not breaking down too quickly and minimizing mold growth. Once a week or more, staff will hose down platforms and the top layer of mulch. Once a month, the exhibit gets disinfected and every 2-3 months as needed more mulch is added. Keepers at Lincoln Park Zoo report having to do only minimal pest control, “nothing near what you’d expect in this type of environment.”

Phoenix Zoo

At the Phoenix Zoo, the People of the Forest habitat, also designed by WDM, has been open since 2011. They do not have problems with mold or mice in their bio-floor, either. Keeper staff scatter and bury food and treats in the mulch encouraging animals to forage and work for enrichment items.

“The mulch floor used in the dayrooms for orangutans has been good,” says Mary Yoder, Collections Manager of Primates. “Animals like it and keepers like it.”

After getting confirmation of bio-floor’s benefits from keepers who had been living with it for years, Columbus Zoo keepers decided to move forward with plans to use it in their new orangutan dayroom.

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Sulango demonstrating typical orangutan arboreal behaviors with one hand on a hose, and another on a ‘bamboo’ pole. Photo credit Grahm S. Jones

Green Design Features

Zoos by their nature are conservation organizations and as such, often implement sustainable building practices when constructing new facilities. As USGBC members, WDM designed the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium’s new Orangutan Dayroom with many green design features.

  • The wash-down system uses non-potable water from the zoo’s water tower
  • LED lighting is used throughout the building
  • Trees removed for construction were used for animal browse
  • Animal doors & benches utilize products with recycled plastic content
  • A heat recovery wheel in the main HVAC saves 15% in heating and 4% in annual cooling with a payback of 2.5 years.
  • 36”-deep mulch on the bio-floor helps maintain humidity
  • Facility exterior is an Exterior Insulation and Finish System (EIFS) with continuous
  • 2” insulation and very few thermal breaks, reducing heat loss
  • Dayroom and bedroom areas use skylights for natural light, reducing electric light use
  • Radiant heaters in the public space are triggered by occupancy sensors to run only when people are present in the winter

Pushing Boundaries, Making Adjustments

To push beyond the ordinary requires some research and development and willingness to experiment with new things. WDM and zoo staff tested several options for creating ‘vines’ that would look good and be durable enough to stand up to one of the most intelligent apes, reported to be 5 to 7 times stronger than humans.

One hose option considered was manufactured with spiral-plied synthetic fabric, reinforced with wire helix and coated in rubber. End caps would be welded on the ends to be able to attach to the poles, columns and building in various ways. There were concerns whether the welds would hold. After testing by the WDM human primates, it was put to the ultimate test by the big guy, Sulango, in Columbus. The end caps worked fine, but he promptly unwound the hose construction and it was back to the drawing board. Theme-painted fire hose turned out to be the most reliable solution.

When first introduced to his new dayroom, Sulango also put the ‘bamboo’ climbing poles to the test. He managed to flex a few poles far enough to break welds at the base.

These learning curves are to be expected. “To do best for the animal, people need to go out on a limb with an R&D perspective and experiment to a degree,” as Matt Schindler expresses. Creating an environment for an intelligent and strong ape is a balancing act between creating something both stimulating and safe.

Eventually, the family adjusted to the new environment and were no longer breaking things, and they’ve settled in to their new place.

The Orangutan keepers happily note that they have seen “an increase in arboreal movement from all three orangutans.”

“Our older female who has significant arthritis is moving better than ever, both on the ground and through increased choices to use her upper body for arboreal movement—all a product of this new design,” states Meinelt. “The orangutans seem more active and stimulated by the opportunities to increase foraging time with our enrichment placement and design. Our team benefits from having more accessibility to the animals on all levels and by the ability to give them access indoors and out.”

Orangutan Dayroom at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium Case Study by WDM Architects-8
Image on Left: Test hose welded end caps • Image on Right: WDM Principal Andrew Jordan testing hose strength
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Visitor viewing windows onto the dayroom

Improved Visitor Engagement

The new 1,096 square-foot dayroom has year-round viewing opportunities for zoo guests. Orangutans can be solitary in nature and need a large bubble of personal space to not feel threatened. Public viewing from multiple directions can cause orangutans to feel surrounded and want to flee. That stress can be reduced if they have a way to climb higher than people to be vertically out of reach. So as an animals-first consideration, guest viewing at the new dayroom is from one direction at ground level.

Meinelt comments, “The educational signage helps us share normal activity budgets (since they are less active than African apes) and about their unique social system.”

From this guest view, the room looks visually appealing, complex and filled with light. Animals are free to choose where they want to spend their time but are always visible to curious visitors.

“The guests are very happy about the ability to see these animals year round and they are able to see them perform more natural behavior,” observes Meinelt.

Measure of Success

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Project Overview


Columbus Zoo and Aquarium


4,221 s.f.





Project Team

Architects: WDM Architects P.A. Principal-in-Charge: Matt Schindler, AIA Zoo Designer: Andrew Jordan, RLA Visualizations/Renderings: Jason Harlan Structural Engineering: Jezerinac Geers & Associates, Inc. Civil Engineering: Kleingers Group MEP Engineering: Prater Engineering Assoc., Inc.

Columbus Zoo & Aquarium Orangutan Habitat Portfolio Project

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