Project Description

The Polk Penguin Conservation Center is the largest penguin conservation center in the world. It is home to up to 120 penguins of four species – Gentoo, Macaroni, Rockhopper, and King. The facility’s design was inspired by the harsh ice world of Antarctica. The dramatic exterior resembles a tabular iceberg, imitating the masses of ice that form and break in the Antarctic waters, complete with a waterfall. Upon entry, visitors will descend a series of ramps as they are surrounded by 4-D effects, including arctic blasts, waves, snow, and icebergs breaking.

One of the most dramatic features is a chilled 326,000-gallon, 25-foot-deep aquatic area that will allow visitors to watch as penguins explore their habitat and deep-dive – something that is otherwise impossible to see, even in the wild. Two acrylic underwater tunnels provide guests with views above and below as the birds dive and soar.

The project was planned with many water and energy-saving features utilizing sustainable systems to meet a zero carbon footprint goal. The building has net-zero water goals through the re-circulation and treatment of the habitat and animal-management pools, wash-down systems, and exterior splash-play area. The facility was designed with a super-insulated exterior building envelope, which resembles the penguins’ natural thermal system—their feather coat. It is equipped with state-of-the-art custom heating and cooling systems to minimize energy consumption and meet the internal refrigeration needs in regards to the exterior temperatures.

Unlike other projects, the Polk Penguin Conservation Center serves 3 client groups: the exhibit’s visitors, the zoo staff, and the penguins. Built on a 2-acre site near the entrance of the zoo, the Polk Penguin Conservation center is the largest project in Detroit Zoo history.

The project was awarded to the DeMaria/Wharton-Smith, Inc. joint venture as the General Contractor.

Project Awards:

  • CAM Magazine – Special Project Issue 2016 (Featured Project)
  • CAM Magazine – 2016 Project of the Year
  • ENR Midwest – 2016 Best Project, Sports/Entertainment
  • ENR – 2016 Best of the Best, Sports/Entertainment
  • AGC – 2016 Build Michigan Award
  • WCA 2017 Pyramid Award – Best Project Team, Projects over $25M

Project Highlights

BUDGET: $25,500,000

MARKET: Government

OWNER: Detroit Zoological Society


General Contracting