How Can ETFE Construction in Zoo Exhibits Benefit Animals and Improve Guest Experience?

April 26, 2024 • Matt Schindler, AIA

WDM Architects, a nationally respected zoological design firm and Commercial Members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums is spearheading the implementation of ETFE construction in zoo facilities in the United States. Through their innovative approach, WDM designed The Tropics at Seneca Park Zoo, a 110,000-square-foot, multi-story complex with indoor and outdoor habitats linked by looping arboreal trails. They’ve taken on a ground-breaking venture at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo with the Primate Forest project. Collaborating with DVA Architecture, they’re designing a pioneering ETFE structure covering 21,000 square feet, set to transform the zoo experience.

By prioritizing sustainability and creating immersive environments for animals, WDM Architects is harnessing the unique properties of ETFE to pave the way for a new era in zoo architecture.


Rendering of Seneca Park Zoo’s Tropics Complex concept with ETFE roof by CPL

Of note, ETFE construction presents unique challenges and demands a fresh perspective and specialized expertise. Leveraging their extensive experience in designing these large ETFE zoo facilities in the United States, WDM Architects has gained valuable insights and lessons that inform their approach.

Enhanced Natural Lighting vs. Solar Gain

One significant advantage of ETFE construction is its ability to facilitate high levels of natural light, closely mimicking animals’ natural habitats. However, managing solar gain poses a consideration for incorporating ETFE in zoo facilities. The abundance of sunlight can strain the mechanical systems responsible for maintaining precise temperature, humidity, air quality, and air exchanges per hour.

“The mechanical question is a big one,” comments Matt Schindler, principal architect on both Seneca Park Zoo’s Tropics and the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo ETFE project. “The same engineering metrics don’t apply. We had to rethink the way we approached air change rates, considering the large volume of air. It took some heavy lifting on the engineering side in cooperation with significant thinking on the design side.”

WDM Architects has the needed experience to navigate these hurdles, collaborating with trusted mechanical engineers to devise strategies that meet the high standards set by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) while optimizing energy usage in the face of substantial solar gain.

Maintaining a balance between maximizing natural light and minimizing operational costs associated with maintaining conditioned air within the enclosure is crucial. The greater the disparity between outside ambient air and conditioned air within, the higher the operational expenses. WDM Architects comprehends the intricacies of this challenge and works closely with engineers to develop innovative solutions tailored to each unique situation. For instance, while ETFE may be more suitable for northern climates where solar gain can provide beneficial heating, it may not be the ideal choice for southern states with already warm temperatures and high humidity.

Etfe Stadium
Stadium with ETFE roof. Photo credit: Vector Foiltec

Unique Structural Considerations

ETFE demonstrates exceptional durability and resilience against extreme weather conditions, such as high winds, heavy rain, and snow. Its flexibility enables it to adapt to structural movements, making it ideal for regions prone to seismic activity. Unlike traditional building materials like glass, ETFE is less prone to breakage, ensuring the safety of both animals and visitors.

Taking a departure from the structural engineering playbook employed for ETFE construction in sports arenas, WDM Architects have charted a different course for zoo enclosures. Instead of relying on large support structures with solid trusses that cast undesirable shadows in zoo exhibits, ETFE allows WDM to embrace a “lightweight truss” approach. This innovative design incorporates strategically positioned support columns that grant visitors unobstructed views and an immersive experience akin to being in a genuine tropical rainforest.

Embracing ETFE construction aligns with sustainable building practices, as it requires fewer resources and less energy during manufacturing compared to traditional construction materials. Its lightweight nature reduces the overall load on the building structure, resulting in lower construction costs and material usage. Additionally, ETFE can be recycled at the end of its life, contributing to a circular economy, and minimizing waste.

Stadium with ETFE roof. Photo credit: Vector Foiltec

A New Approach to Animal Management

Cleveland Metroparks Zoo Primate Forest, with its enclosed ETFE building filled with plants, natural substrates, and sunshine, redefines traditional concepts of “inside spaces” and animal management. The large ETFE enclosure serves as a 24/7/365 home for the animals, providing them with choices instead of artificially splitting their day between exhibits and holding spaces. Animals will now have the freedom to choose where they want to be and what they want to do, challenging zookeepers to relinquish some control. Keepers will be adapting their interaction methods, utilizing specially designed spots located in the forest where animals come to them. All animal care is on view for the public, while habitat yards incorporate looping arboreal trails, allowing great apes to traverse over guest paths and through naturally wooded embankments.

WDM’s rendering of the guest experience and animal habitat at Primate Forest at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

ETFE construction has brought about a paradigm shift in the design and construction of zoo buildings. By harnessing the benefits of ETFE, zoos can create captivating and sustainable habitats that prioritize animal well-being while offering an unforgettable experience for visitors. From enhanced natural lighting and climate control to design flexibility and environmental advantages, ETFE is reshaping the future of zoo architecture, enabling us to better appreciate and protect the wonders of the animal kingdom.

As pioneers in ETFE construction for zoo facilities in the United States, WDM Architects is setting a new standard and inspiring future projects to embrace this innovative approach, ultimately enhancing the zoo experience for generations to come.


If you or your organization would like more information about incorporating ETFE in your next project, please feel free to reach out, we’d love to hear from you.