Designing a home for bears? Prepare for unique research

This piece is presented by TSP.

When Tonja Beatch began work on a recent project at TSP Inc., she used a familiar calculation to solve an engineering equation: Force equals mass times acceleration.

However, the numbers Beatch plugged into that calculation required a quick foray into Google to learn how much a brown bear could weigh — the mass — and how much strength it could display — the force. That’s because Beatch is engineering the new bear habitat at the Great Plains Zoo & Delbridge Museum of Natural History.

Tonja Beatch

Sometimes, an architectural, engineering and planning firm moves beyond designing for humans. Other creatures also need their services. That gives those involved in the project both an unusual opportunity and an interesting challenge.

“We researched what brown bears weigh and how hard they could push against walls,” said Beatch, a structural engineer-in-training with TSP’s Sioux Falls office. “We Googled. Then we talked with Dan (Simon, the zoo’s vice president of operations) and others at the zoo about the bears they would have.”

Beatch learned the zoo once had a brown bear that weighed 1,200 pounds. Kenai, Bear Canyon’s most recent inhabitant, weighed almost 1,000 pounds before her death from cancer earlier this summer at age 23. Those figures helped Beatch proceed with the design for the Great Plains Zoo’s enhanced bear habitat.

A rendering of the brown bear exhibit at the Great Plains Zoo, courtesy of CLR Design.

The $2.5 million expansion will upgrade one of the zoo’s oldest and most popular exhibits.

“The reimagined brown bear exhibit opening in 2018 will be truly transformative for the heart of the zoo,” said Elizabeth Whealey, the zoo’s president and CEO. “The new exhibit will provide two large habitat areas, including a lush meadow with glacial stream and pond for the bears to enjoy. It also will offer better holding — or nighttime building — for the bears to live in and our zookeepers to work in.”

A rendering of the brown bear exhibit at the Great Plains Zoo, courtesy of CLR Design.

Zoo visitors will gain a fantastic viewing area for up to four grizzly bears, as well as keeper demonstration areas and hands-on play-and-learn spots for children, Whealey said.

The exhibit was designed by CLR Design of Philadelphia with TSP acting as consultants. TSP architect Michelle Klobassa served as the team’s coordinator. TSP designed an update to the original zoo bear enclosure in the 1980s, she said.

Michelle Klobassa

But the local design firm’s connection with the Great Plains Zoo actually goes back to the zoo’s beginning, when TSP completed the attraction’s long-range plan in 1961. The late Wally Steele, an architect and partner in the firm, traveled to San Diego to visit its world-renowned zoo and glean inspiration.

In more recent years, TSP partnered with CLR Design to remake the zoo’s main entry and has been involved with exhibits housing everything from macaques to Asian cats, penguins, cheetahs, gorillas and flamingos.

For the bear exhibit, Beatch enjoyed a challenge similar to her experience on the Asian cat project. In both cases, she was confronted with designing around items such as transfer doors, which keep the zookeepers safe from the animals.

“It’s so different, something outside your usual realm,” Beatch said. “I like it. I did some investigation at one point and climbed inside the rock work (in the old exhibit) while the bear was inside. I was out of my realm of comfort for sure. And it’s fun because I can take my kids there and show them what I worked on.”

Designing a barrier fence for a bear also was new to the TSP team.

“They’re going to climb on it and run at it, all the different things that humans don’t think about every day,” Klobassa said.

On the zoo’s part, there is a comfort in having someone local during the construction process.

“This is an important project for us, and it gives confidence to our project team to have TSP in town and on the ground with us, working with CLR, our zoo-specific architects,” Whealey said.

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Designing a home for bears? Prepare for unique research

Sometimes, an architectural, engineering and planning firm moves beyond designing for humans. Here’s how TSP is creating a new home for brown bears.

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