Making Waves at the Suzanne and Walter Scott Aquarium

Zoo Case Study 5

Outside of wakes in local lakes, the only waves in Omaha are the kind seen at water parks.

In the spring of 2020, while the world was making its way through the pandemic, Miller Electric and Morrissey Engineering were putting the finishing touches on a renovation that would change that by bringing waves to the heart of the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium.

The work that went into the new façade outside the entrance to the Suzanne and Walter Scott Aquarium is a picture of engineering and prefabrication strength. While it replicates the simple beauty of crashing waves, behind the scenes, it is a complex tapestry of steel and light.

Giving the Aquarium an Identity

Todd Scholz, Vice President of Capital Projects for Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, said the impetus for the project was to give the aquarium a unique identity through a façade that would make it instantly recognizable to anyone visiting the Zoo.

“Before the renovation, the Suzanne and Walter Scott Aquarium looked like any other building at the Zoo. While it is the largest aquarium inside a Zoo, it lacked fanfare because it was built at a time when the emphasis from a building design perspective was entirely on the animals inside the building without much attention directed to the outside of the structure,” he said.

A donor wanted to make a difference by giving the aquarium the recognition it deserves with an identity in line with trends at other leading Zoos across America.

That desire led to the addition of the illuminated façade and other updates, including:

  • Changes to guest entries and exits
  • Videoboards at entrances
  • Digital menu boards at Sea Turtle Café
  • Upgraded concession equipment
  • Additional concession window
  • New carpet
  • Exhibit enhancements
  • Filter upgrades
  • Renovated restrooms
  • Tile throughout the plaza area

The result of all that innovation is an Aquarium and Aquarium Conference Center that are both better defined and which create an enjoyable experience for visitors.

“One of the most satisfying moments was standing in front of the Aquarium one evening after its unveiling and seeing the crowd’s reaction to the new feature,” said Jeff Boots, Senior Project Manager for Miller Electric, who worked on the project. “You could hear the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ go through the crowd. It made you feel good, like we really hit it out of the park on this project.”

Planning the Work, Building it, Then Hiding it

What may appear simple required a stunning amount of complex, behind the scenes pre-planning, coordination and innovative thinking.

“It’s mind boggling to look back at how quickly Miller Electric and Morrissey Engineering were able to accomplish our ask for this project,” Todd remarked. “Both of them did a tremendous job in coordinating the unique lighting opportunities that were part of the original project, as well as what was added to the project. It really showed the teamwork required to execute the project on the original schedule.”

Steve Gollehon, Lighting Designer for Morrissey Engineering, describes the challenge involved in replicating the light, sound and dynamic movements of a wave crashing as one of the most difficult, yet invigorating assignments he’s tackled.

“It’s hard to describe the challenge we had in front of us in how to light these waves and not lose the detail with the execution,” Steve said. “It was tough to light them so it looked like a wave crashing, but through full-scale modeling, prefab work and many nights of cold, winter work, we got it done.”

Moving a Model From Kansas City

The fast paced project got its start in the spring of 2019. By the summer, there was a full-scale mockup of the facade canopy at a warehouse in Kansas City. Unlike other projects, which typically  bring in mockups during the construction phase, this project was unique in that materials and fixtures needed to be tested beforehand to ensure they achieved the desired effect.

“There are so many reflective surfaces in the design,” Jeff said. “Had we not been able to make choices based on actual events, we could have spent forever trying to put the right lighting in there.”

A full-scale model helped avoid exhaustive rework.

“We built one column, part of the canopy and a ten-foot wide portion of one of the waves on the top of the structure with the materials that we planned to use on the project so that the design team and donor could assess the construction and weigh in with any feedback on the design,” Steve recalled.

With a project timeline that maxed out at one year, there was no clean break between designing and handing off the completed design. Tweaks continued throughout construction.

One important adjustment came into play when the structure was nearly complete.

“We’re used to visualizing things ahead of time, because we have to design before we build,” Steve said. “But you can’t replicate what you can’t see. We noticed the sunlight reflecting off the metal wave displayed part of the roof into the wave design. On the full install, we added blue panels on top of the canopy that no one can see, but which ensure the wave always looks like a wave.”

Replicating Mother Nature is Harder Than it Looks

The most challenging aspect of the project was creating, then hiding the technology creating the illusion of a wave.

“All of the lights are concealed, or extremely minimal,” Steve said. Three main layers or fixture types combine to create the desired effect – the fixtures on top of the canopy light up the waves atop the building. Those are mounted on top of the canopy and are the easiest to hide.”

The front edge has a coral panel look to it that was created from laser-cut, brushed stainless steel. That panel is backlit with color-changing, programmable LED nodes. A layer of acrylic diffuses the light. And, all of the cabling for the nodes had to be tucked away, out of sight.

The lighting below the canopy is minimal and sleek, but required much coordination to create and install.

“Each panel had to be custom cut for that particular light fixture, sprinkler heads, wireless access points and more,” Steve said. “So much work went it to making it look as minimal as it does.”

On Miller Electric’s side, the project provided an opportunity to craft innovative panel designs in its prefab shop.

“Behind the coral panel were custom panels that had to be bent around existing structures,” Jeff said. “These were things we hadn’t done before. Constructing the panel sections in a controlled environment, in our onsite prefab shop, sped up the process and helped us avoid having to install one pixel at a time. With 1000 pixels or more back there, it would have taken forever, especially in the cold winter days.”

Make Time to Stop and Wonder

The next time you visit Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, see the African Grasslands. Visit Glacier Bay Landing. And of course, meander through the Aquarium.

But, make time to stop and gaze at the waves crashing above your head. Knowing what went in to creating them, will make you appreciate them even more, and hopefully, make you just that much more proud of our Zoo.


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