African savannah habitat at Taronga Zoo built with Big River timber


The new African savannah habitat known as ‘The Waterhole’ located at Taronga Zoo, Sydney is designed to represent an open grassland of sub-African vegetation. Various Big River Group timbers were specified to meet the design objectives of the project which would house multi-species animals of the savannah in their natural environment.

As part of Taronga Zoo’s $150 million revitalization and upgrade of facilities over the next 10 years, the African Savannah Enclosure is a combination of a lion breeding facility and an expanded savannah for giraffes, zebras and fennec foxes, as well as a specialized meeting space for meerkats. The objective is to improve the customer experience by offering an innovative non-exposure integrated into the surrounding landscape.

The design brief for this “forever home” called for a world-class visitor experience that included a tropical or subtropical forest ecosystem to show off a great diversity of savannah animals and plants.

With a focus on replicating the animal’s habitats as well as meeting specific sustainability goals, it was imperative that the construction materials chosen were fit for purpose, providing a functional and natural environment, where wood played an important role. Designed by Tonkin Zulaikha Greer Architects, the facility was built by Brenic Constructions in conjunction with Zaumer Constructions, who engaged Big River Group as their primary timber supplier. Sturdy woods were chosen, including recycled hardwood, speckled gum, and hardwood and plywood, for their long life, durability, long-lasting properties, and local availability.

“The nature of the construction made it important to use wood products,” explains Brendan Abric of Brenic Constructions. “It had to respect the landscape while ensuring that the main structures and infrastructure were not in the way. What we achieved provided a unique connection to the elements of nature, which this multi-species habitat needed.

Featuring exposed Blackbutt and Spotted Gum rafters, the Giraffe House is a stunning circular design incorporating an all-wood construction featuring marine plywood, the highest quality veneer, providing increased impact resistance, minimizing water penetration and offering a high quality finish. The veneer has been tinted to blend in with the earthy surroundings.

Round hardwood poles of varying diameters that had been discarded from the plywood manufacturing process at Big River Group’s Grafton factory have been recycled and used as exterior cladding on the Meerkat enclosure, blending in with the environment completely natural.

Western Red Cedar, known for its attractive appearance and beautiful grain patterns, weather resistance and exceptionally high dimensional stability rating, unmatched by any other timber used commercially in Australia, provides the canvas for background of the Lionkeeper Talks auditorium, with a striking floating wooden ceiling.

The design and use of construction materials on the amenity block are in keeping with the savannah landscape, with Blackbutt and Spotted Gum hardwoods chosen for their superior performance qualities including tolerance to ambient temperature changes, durability and resilience that make them perfect for tough areas. .

Key initiatives such as the use of renewable materials, recycled water and design choices to minimize the energy footprint drove the project’s sustainable vision. The timbers supplied by Big River Group, sustainably sourced in Australia, were part of a carefully selected palette of materials that would not only meet the ecological and sustainable objectives of the project, but would also blend seamlessly into the natural setting.

“The African Savannah is a magnificent gateway to Africa in the heart of Sydney. To step back and see such magnificent structures built with natural, earthy materials, used to create a jungle oasis in the heart of Sydney is truly special,” concludes Abric.


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