From “A” to Zoo: Kiewit’s history at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium

March 24, 2020 | Kieways 2020 Q1

Each year, more than 2 million people visit Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. The zoo has changed drastically in the last 55 years, and Kiewit Building Group Inc. has been there every step of the way.

For nearly as long as it’s been called Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, Kiewit has been building projects there. In 1963, Margaret Hitchcock Doorly donated $750,000 to the zoo with the stipulation that it be named after her late husband, Henry Doorly, chairman and publisher of the Omaha World-Herald newspaper. Two years later, Kiewit began its first zoo project.

Kiewit General Superintendent Bob Edick remembers what the zoo was like in his childhood days.

“When I was growing up, it was a pretty small place. It’s three to four times bigger than it was 20 years ago. As it grows, it just keeps getting better and better.”

Edick has been a part of construction at the zoo for more than 15 years. He served as the general superintendent over the Hubbard Orangutan Forest and the Grewcock Center for Conservation and Research projects, which opened in 2005 and 2006, respectively. Over the years, he has also supported Kiewit’s construction of the Desert Dome and the Suzanne and Walter Scott Aquarium.

For him, the most memorable project was the Hubbard Orangutan Forest.

“On that project, we installed 65-foot-tall banyan ‘trees’ made of steel and concrete with a net over the top. We built a state-of-the-art habitat for the orangutans that no one ever sees,” said Edick. “And we had to weld everything so the orangutans wouldn’t unscrew the nuts from the bolts. It’s crazy how strong — and how mischievous — they are.”

While Edick has worked on many building projects since he started with Kiewit in 1980, the zoo projects stand out to him.

“When we work for the zoo, we get to build the stuff that no one gets to build. It’s one-of-a-kind.”
Kiewit has worked on more than 35 projects at Omaha’s Zoo and Aquarium. Some of the most noteworthy include the following:

  • The Lee G. Simmons Aviary opened in 1983. The four-acre exhibit includes more than 500 birds such as flamingos, ducks, swans, storks, ibis and cranes.
  • The Lied Jungle® is a large indoor rain forest. Completed in 1992, the 80-foot-tall building includes a translucent roof supported by steel columns camouflaged as trees. The exhibit features a swaying suspension bridge, a 35-foot-tall waterfall and underwater viewing areas. The jungle was named USA TODAY’s Best Zoo Exhibit in the country in 2019.
  • The Suzanne and Walter Scott Aquarium opened to the public in 1995. Named after Kiewit’s former chief executive officer and his wife, the exhibit includes a 70-foot shark tunnel that allows visitors to walk among the sharks, sea turtles and colorful fish. Kiewit constructed the 1.2-million-gallon aquarium in less than two years and renovated it in 2012, adding a 13,000-square-foot conference center.
  • The Desert Dome is the world’s largest indoor desert, according to the zoo. It features animals and plants from Africa’s Namib Desert, Australia’s Red Center and North America’s Sonoran Desert. Completed in 2002, it sits under a large geodesic dome, which towers 13 stories high and is made up of 1,760 acrylic, triangular-shaped panels.
  • The Suzanne and Walter Scott African Grasslands, completed in 2016, is the largest construction project in the zoo’s history. The project was built in phases, with the first phase focused on creating new habitats and buildings for elephants, giraffes, rhinos, gazelles, antelopes and zebras. The second phase of the project included a game-management headquarters with new habitats for lions, cheetahs and other African grasslands animals.
  • The Asian Highlands, the zoo’s newest exhibit, opened in its entirety in 2019. For this project, Kiewit turned eight acres of undeveloped land into an immersive journey through Asia. The exhibit includes a diverse collection of animals like the red panda, white-naped crane, sloth bear, tufted deer, Amur tiger, snow leopard, takin, Pere David’s deer and Indian rhino.

History repeats itself

Kiewit continues to build on its legacy at the zoo as it simultaneously constructs a new exhibit and remodels another.

In the summer of 2018, Kiewit started construction on Owen Sea Lion Shores, part of a grand vision to create a coastal Alaskan-themed area at the northwest end of the zoo. Located on the site of the former Durham Bear Canyon where Kiewit started its first zoo project, the future home of the sea lions will open in fall 2020.

Although currently in the midst of major construction, Project Manager Jon Babovec can already envision what zoo guests will see.

“Visitors will be drawn into a seemingly natural environment, with new focal points around every corner. Even though this exhibit is right in the middle of the zoo, you’ll feel like you’re exploring the coast of the northwest,” said Babovec.

Zoo guests will enter through a grand sea arch, the largest single piece of rock work in the zoo. They will walk alongside a 275,000-gallon pool, which will be heated or chilled depending on the season. And they’ll even get to watch the sea lions swim up close thanks to a 40-foot-long, 17,000-pound underwater viewing window.

While the public will get to see the end result, the project team knows that the exhibit is more than meets the eye.

“The job includes more than 10,000 feet of piping below the 1.5-acre exhibit,” said Babovec. “More than half of the project is below grade. There’s a whole forest of underground pipe that no one will ever see.”

In fact, even though the project is in the middle of the zoo, there are many things that the average zoo visitor will not see. To minimize impact to staff and guests, construction materials are delivered before the zoo opens or after it closes.

“The fact that this is a functioning zoo changes our priorities. While safety is always our first priority, this project requires us to consider the safety of 2 million annual visitors and 1,100 zoo staff,” said Babovec.

Safety is also top of mind for a second Kiewit team remodeling the Suzanne and Walter Scott Aquarium. The renovation will feature a completely new entrance, including brushed stainless steel waves on the roof and a tiled plaza. Kiewit is also installing a new asphalt roof, updating the Sea Turtle Café and remodeling the restrooms.

Performing construction while the aquarium remains open is a challenge that crews take very seriously. The project team must keep members of the public safe as they enter and exit the aquarium, as well as keep them out of the construction area. To accommodate zoo visitors, Kiewit has broken the project into phases and performs much of the work at night.

With limited space for crews and materials, the team must also carefully coordinate how subcontractors can work around each other and when materials must be delivered.

55 years strong

Since its first project in 1965, Kiewit has not only built new exhibits but also a strong relationship with the zoo management and staff.

General Superintendent Don Buboltz has worked for Kiewit for nearly 30 years — many of them on Omaha’s Zoo and Aquarium projects. In addition to overseeing the zoo’s current projects, Buboltz worked on the Desert Dome, the Bay Family Children’s Adventure Trails, the Dick and Mary Holland Meadowlark Theater and the Robert B. Daugherty Education Center.

During his time at the zoo, Buboltz shared that Kiewit has learned to adapt to the zoo’s unique needs.

“With more than 1,100 employees at the zoo, we have to keep in mind things they’re doing that may affect our construction,” Buboltz said. “And sometimes we have to shift what we’re doing to accommodate a design change that will help the animals or benefit the public. We have to be flexible.”

The relationship works both ways.

“The zoo staff is awesome. They’ll go out of their way to explain not only how the zoo works but also the animals themselves,” said Edick.

“Kiewit has been a trusted partner for decades in helping us build a world class zoo,” said Dennis E. Pate, president and CEO of Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. “Our environment, with 2 million guests, creates special concerns for safety near construction sites that are top of mind for Kiewit employees and the subcontractors they manage. Communicating and addressing these concerns is one of the things that sets them apart.”


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