Going Through the Roof at Chester Zoo’s Islands Project

This post is adapted from a forthcoming article in EAZA's Zooquaria Magazine.

Bali Palm Thatch.

Two years ago, Dan Pearlman Architects approached HMJ Design for a bid on the Chester Zoo Islands project tender – The biggest zoo project in UK history at a budget of £40 million. We had been introduced to Dan Pearlman six years earlier at the EAZA conference in Barcelona, which goes to show that patience is sometimes a required trait when acting in zoo circles!

We had several product lines, which could be incorporated in the project, but a focus on our artificial fiber thatch roofing materialised rather quickly. Even though a traditional Indonesian thatching for the various huts and temples in the Islands project would certainly be desirable, there are just too many impracticalities associated with it: Natural thatching materials from the Far East rots and moulds very quickly in the colder Northern European climate, where the thatch seldom has a chance to dry out completely. The resulting frequent import of spare thatching for renovation from halfway around the world was therefore deemed to leave too big an environmental impact, as well as being too expensive to buy and install over and over.

Following talks with the project management, we ended up recommending two different types of artificial thatch: The Bali palm thatch, which emulates the traditional appearance of thick, flat grass strands, and the fiber tiles, which emulate traditional Balinese Alang-Alang straw thatch, which is in many respects similar to the thatching technique we know in Europe.

Each thatch type was delivered in three different colours, from a deep straw-like yellow to a light-brown, to a dark brown and gray. By cladding each of the different buildings in one of these respective colours, we were able to recreate the visual expression of a traditional Indonesian community, where roofs are changed cyclically every 6-10 years, and thereby arrive at an even more authentic environment for the ‘Intrepid Explorers’, as Chester Zoo terms their Islands visitors.

Some of the tasks were not entirely straight-forward: For an Indonesian temple, which is traditionally clad with an Iduk fiber made from small palm trees, we had to get creative and make a bespoke black type of thatch, in order to hit the traditional look completely.

Black thatch for a traditional Indonesian temple.

Black thatch for a traditional Indonesian temple.

The thatch was produced in South Africa under fair socio-economic conditions, at a factory that actively contributes to keep more than 1000 people out of poverty. The fibres are made of polypropylene, for longevity and ease of recycling; Thus the thatch is not plagued by the environmental side effects associated with PVC, which has been used in the past.

At the time of writing, our local UK installation partner Mike Keating, and his employees of MK Enterprises, is working double time, weekends included, to finish the last stretch of construction. The guys are sending us photos as the work progresses, and we have to say that Islands will be amazing when it opens 13 July. Needless to say, we are very proud to have been selected for this inspiring project. In addition, we feel like we have been involved in a case that underlines the vast potential for immersive experiences in zoo contexts, when the decorative and functional elements are planned meticulously and play together just right.

For information about the Islands project, check out www.chesterzoo.org