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When Home Is A Habitat: Historic Building Renovation Requires An Unusually High Standard Of Care

John G. Shedd Aquarium

The health and welfare of tenants are high priorities in any building renovation, and the challenge of looking out for them is compounded when the building's population is large and diverse. 

This is especially true in the case of a multiyear, high-profile project for Chicago-based structural and architectural engineering firm Klein & Hoffman, which is helping renovate a building that is home to more than 30,000 animal residents, each with a stake in the project’s success.  

Working with a team that includes general contractor Pepper/Brown & Momen, Klein & Hoffman is overseeing the structural design elements of the Shedd Aquarium’s Experience Evolution, part of the $500M Centennial Commitment strategic plan. The project's scope is far-reaching, with significant efforts devoted to conservation and public outreach. 

The Experience Evolution is a multiphase renovation that will modernize the nearly 100-year-old Chicago institution, preparing the building — one of the largest aquariums in the world — for its second century.

“The work we are performing right now involves structural improvements to the guest experience and accessibility,” said Kathleen Strnad, project manager and senior associate with K&H. “It also includes new or improved habitats for many of the animals and hopefully creates lasting memories for future Shedd guests.”

By the time the four-phase renovation is completed, many of Shedd’s thousands of fish, amphibians and other animals will have been moved to new, more dynamic and larger habitats in the building. But a Shedd resident, whether a thumb-sized seahorse or the nearly 10-foot-long arapaima fish of South America, can’t just couch surf while the Klein & Hoffman/Pepper team builds its improved exhibits. 

An unprecedented amount of pre-construction work was performed to ensure the comfort and safety of the animals, many of whom were moved to temporary quarters behind the scenes during the first phase of the project last year, said Andrew Pulver, Shedd’s head of animal care. 

Now, in the construction-intensive second phase of the project, when entire walls, floors and ceilings are being removed or rebuilt even as the aquarium remains fully open and operational, the team must be mindful at all times that the animals’ life support systems aren't put at risk. 

“Years of planning have gone into preparing for these renovations to ensure that top-quality care is never interrupted for the animals, especially those that have been temporarily relocated behind the scenes as new exhibits are developed,” Pulver said.

Dave Haas, project director for Pepper, said there is nearly constant communication among stakeholders to check on the complex project’s progress, answer questions and address concerns.

“We have multiple meetings with the animal staff, the facilities team, the guest relations team and others throughout the week,” Haas said. “We ask their feedback on things like, ‘We're going to be working in this area of your building. How do we coordinate that with your staff so they can work, too, and the animals and guests are not disturbed?’”

When completed later this year, the improvements of the second phase of the project will significantly impact how Shedd’s millions of annual visitors navigate the building and interact with some of its major exhibits. The scope of Phase 2 can be divided into two categories.

The first will improve visitors’ experience as they enter the building. Upgrades to the entryway, ticketing and security will allow for a seamless and efficient arrival. Once inside what Vice President of Design and Exhibits Sarah Hezel described as Shedd’s “stunning” renovated atrium, guests can access improved circulation pathways to get to their favorite animals and exhibits quickly. 

The work will also result in major changes to two high-profile exhibit areas. The Wonder of Water gallery will feature side-by-side habitats, one freshwater and one marine, in the building’s historic rotunda, a room Hezel described as the “beating heart of the aquarium.”

“Guests will walk between these habitats, observing vibrant corals on one side and a lush freshwater fish habitat on the other,” she said. “They will be struck by the vastness of our planet’s biodiversity, sparking a deep affinity for nature amid an urbanizing world.”

Phase 2 will also see enhancements to Shedd’s Amazon Rising area and allow guests to get up close to the room’s South American animals — hearing the pop of an arapaima as it eats or seeing themselves through an anaconda's eyes with the use of a thermal imaging camera. The animals, too, will benefit from their new, larger homes, an improvement for those that can grow to rather large sizes.

“These two newly reimagined galleries will be more immersive and science-forward than ever before, truly better for both animals and guests,” Hezel said.

K&H and Pepper have experience in high-profile projects that require the team to balance structural improvements with historic preservation, all while remaining sensitive to the needs of the resident population. But Strnad said this work, like Shedd’s residents, is special. 

“It's really exciting working in this 100-year-old structure because we are uncovering the different eras of renovations and upgrades that have occurred during its history, each with its own approach to construction and types of materials,” she said. “One of the engaging opportunities is working closely with Pepper through all the stages, from demolition to the in-progress work and finally to completion in 2027.”

The final two phases of the Experience Evolution, spanning from this summer through early 2027, will result in new experiences for Shedd visitors and habitats for its animals. These include galleries that will allow visitors to explore a kelp forest, immerse themselves in freshwater ecosystems and learn how smaller animals benefit from the natural death and decomposition of Earth’s largest animals, whales. A new in-building home for learning will also allow Shedd to engage with many thousands more area students every year.

This article was produced in collaboration between Klein & Hoffman and Studio B. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.

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