John Ball Zoo announced as 2023 Innovative Project Award Winner

The Innovative Project Award honors projects that break the mold of standard building construction, design, and operations. The projects in question exemplify innovation and astute practices that reflect the goals of the U.S. Green Building Council of West Michigan (USGBC-WM)’s programs. The Innovative Projects were voted on by the  Board of Directors and Staff. The USGBC-WM was excited to announce John Ball Zoo as our first-place winner for their Pygmy Hippo Habitat project. 

John Ball Zoo’s Pygmy Hippo Habitat project opened its doors to visitors in June of 2023, helping the Zoo to reach a record attendance of over 700,000 guests. The Living Building Challenge Materials Petal certified habitat is a project that rises above standard practices. It brings a level of innovation and sustainability that not only meets but exceeds global regenerative design standards, all while maintaining fiscal responsibility. The project stands as a testimony to what can be achieved when innovation, sustainability, and community vibrancy come together in harmonious synergy.

One of the most pivotal aspects of the project is the integrative design process that set a new benchmark in sustainable architecture for the region, especially within the constraints of a non-profit budget. This project has inspired other zoos and has impacted habitat design across the country. Early design of the project began in 2018 which involved partners CLR out of Philadelphia as the Primary Architects of Record, as well as Satchell Engineering out of San Marcos, CA, Tower Pinkster (MEP & Structural), Moore & Bruggink (Civil), Catalyst-Partners(3rd party certification), and John Ball Zoo animal care team. Construction broke ground on the Pygmy Hippo Habitat in August of 2021 with substantial completion in January of 2023. Wolverine Building Group acted as the Construction Management, with other major construction contributors being  B&V Mechanical, Windemuller Electric, Jack Dykstra Excavating, and many more.

The project brought together a multidisciplinary team orchestrated by Allmon Forrester, Director of Facilities, Planning, and Sustainability at John Ball Zoo. The team included architects, engineers, and specialized trade partners focusing on plumbing, HVAC, electrical systems, life support, supply-chain transparency, and biophilic and regenerative design. This team acted  as an ecosystem of expertise that worked in real-time to bring the best sustainable solutions and practices to the table.

The project achieved these notable components to achieve Petal Certification: 

  • Designed a filtration system for a 35,000-gallon pool to keep it clear and clean of waste from the 2-500 pound hippos 
  • Designed for an HVAC system that does 8 air change-outs per hour for the 10,000 square foot habitat without generating on-site CO2 emissions
  • Vet every material selection using the product’s SDS (Safety Data Sheets) information to assure Red List compliance 

What made this approach exceptionally groundbreaking was the ability to provide quicker pricing feedback and vet all construction materials' chemical makeup to eliminate any red-listed items. This created a live, adaptive feedback loop that significantly improved budget and schedule accuracy. It allowed the team to perform sustainability audits at various stages, ensuring every decision aligned with the rigorous criteria of the Living Building Challenge Materials Petal certification.

Operating on a non-profit budget presents its challenges, but this project proves that financial constraints do not have to be a barrier to world-class regenerative design. Through careful planning and real-time cost evaluations, the project adhered to its budget while achieving sustainability milestones that are often considered unattainable in similar financial settings. The integrative process enabled the achievement of high performance-based sustainability targets without sacrificing financial responsibility.

In addition to this, the team had the foresight to tackle long-term operational costs. With significant energy and water usage reductions, the project demonstrates that performance-based sustainability can go hand-in-hand with long-term operational savings. The project's focus on early planning and budget-conscious design eliminates the need for expensive, last-minute changes. It paves the way for the Zoo's ambitious future plans for environmentally-sound habitats and amenities. 

Key project outcomes are as follows: over 95% of demolition and construction waste was diverted from the landfill, effectively a zero-waste project. 95% of the materials used on the project are Red List compliant. Over 60% of the materials used were sourced within 200 miles of the project site. The project is all-electric, utilizing ground-source heat pumps to reduce energy use intensity by over 30%. A 110 kW solar array provides more than half of the project’s power needs. Combined, the project uses 70% less than similar water exhibit habitats.

In addition to the Material Petal Certification goal, the Zoo wanted to aim for a net-positive water exhibit. It pushed the project team to pursue this to the greatest extent possible, even challenging the City of Grand Rapids to consider unique and innovative approaches to rainwater management and non-potable sourcing for various water demands (including plumbing fixtures). While the project team didn’t quite achieve a net-zero water exhibit, the unique filtration system reduces wastewater by approximately 50%, significantly lowering the Zoo’s impact on the local sanitary sewer system. In addition to this filtration system, all irrigation is sourced from non-potable water.

“This system by far is the most sophisticated system we have on campus,” said Forrester. “Best practices from this design will help us reduce water consumption, thus wastewater in the future. One of our more lofty goals is to appropriately clean up stormwater and use this water to replenish our water needs in habitats and other non-potable applications on site.”

The filtration system filters over 1,000 gallons of water per minute. It has a Parkson Strainer that serves as a pre-filter that captures larger particulates in the water. The habitat has 3- 10’x 6’ filters with various levels of pea stone and sand particle sizes and finishes the disinfection with ozone; a fully automated system. With this level of design, only needed levels of filter backwashes are necessary, saving tens of thousands of gallons of water annually and reducing wastewater.

“At John Ball Zoo, we build habitats to last 40 years and beyond,” stated Forrester. “Choosing systems, materials and products that can be regenerative and resilient, exceeding stringent animal welfare guidelines and providing an exceptional guest experience is truly rewarding.” 

The USGBC-WM Leadership Awards promote outstanding green building initiatives by recognizing projects, organizations, and people who have made extraordinary contributions to achieving healthy, energy-efficient green buildings in the state of Michigan.

“Michigan is one of the top 5 states for clean energy commitments, number two in the country in drawing down federal funding for climate and clean energy, and number one in the Midwest for clean energy jobs, clean energy growing twice as fast as the overall economy,” said Cheri Holman, Executive Director of USGBC-WM. “These investments by the federal government, concrete action from the state, and the  collaboration inside our community has energized me like never before.”

John Ball Zoo was awarded at our 2023 Annual Party & Leadership Awards Ceremony on December 5, 2023. Hosted by the U.S. Green Building Council of West Michigan, the evening event was held in the Ballroom at the LEED-certified CityFlatsHotel located in downtown Grand Rapids. The program included a keynote address by Dr. Brandy Brown, Chief Innovation Officer of Walker-Miller Energy Services, an Awards Ceremony, and the celebration of this year’s achievements.  

To learn more about the event and to read our 2023 Annual Report visit our Annual Party & Leadership Awards Ceremony page.