published on June 29, 2016 - 7:57 AM
Written by The Business Journal Staff
More than 25 years after its debut, Darden Architect’s design for the rainforest exhibit at Fresno’s Chaffee Zoo is still impressing zoo visitors — and judges of quality architectural design.

Darden’s blueprint for the Chaffee Zoo exhibit recently won the “Lived Well” award for excellence in design recently at the 2016 American Institute of Architects (AIA) San Joaquin Chapter Design Awards. The “Lived Well” award is for projects older than 20 years that “still exemplify excellence in design.”

The Rainforest Exhibit project was completed in 1988 and marked a shift in design at the zoo toward interactive and immersive visitor experience, a direction the zoo clearly continues in today with the opening of its major new exhibit, African Adventures.

The goal of the Chaffee Rainforest Exhibit project, said Phil Dietz, Darden’s marketing manager, “was to establish an aviary for a range of South American birds in the form of a walk-through habitat. The project’s architecture needed to blend in with the nature setting of the rainforest. In effect, the enclosure needed to disappear so that the visitors would feel immersed in a ‘naturally occurring’ setting.”

The exhibit’s aviary walls are constructed of flat planes of thick netting. Because the netting was designed never to overlap and is pulled taught over the structure, which is comprised of a series of long wooden poles, the netting appears unobtrusive to the casual observer.

The tilted and angled connections of the exhibit’s poles were designed to present an undulating and almost primitive shape. For each pole, the architect designed an underground steel sleeve into which the poles were mounted and stabilized, Dietz said.

All of the wood elements throughout the exhibit were specially treated so that they would not be toxic to the animals and plants inside the exhibit.

In addition to Darden Architects, the project team for Chaffee’s Rainforest Exhibit also included J. Albert Paquet and Associates (structural); Donald R. Lawrence & Associates (mechanical); Electrical Power Systems (electrical); and Robert Boro Landscape Architect (landscape).

The design for the interior of the exhibit was created to cater to the diverse collection of birds housed within the space. Inside the exhibit, curving pathways guide visitors past a misty rock waterfall, along a bubbling stream and by sandbars and lush jungle palms that provide an overhead tree canopy home to the many different species of exotic birds.

“It is because of the unique micro-environment that such a wide range of birds can coexist harmoniously,” Dietz said, adding that Darden’s architects worked closely with Paul Chaffee, the zoo’s namesake, who specified which species of birds would be included in the exhibit.

The exhibit features a  “skywalk” structure that overlooks the aviary and provides visitors with a sense of standing high within the jungle canopy.

The rainforest exhibit originally included a butterfly greenhouse. But the butterflies proved to be violently territorial and were later relocated, replaced by a portion of the exhibit that now houses monkeys and turtles.

In awarding the “Lived Well” prize to Darden, the AIA judges recognized the Chaffee Zoo’s interactive rainforest exhibit as “still dynamically immersive.”

After more than 25 years, the exhibit continues to entertain and transport the visitor while Darden’s design methods and materials have held up amazingly well.

“Darden Architects was really honored to have worked on this project,” Dietz said. “This project led the way for exhibit design at the zoo.”

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