Ursa International

Making a Splash at Zoo Atlanta

tim wpermit NL-splash

I guess I haven’t quite gotten the hang of Blogging as a time specific art form yet. So much has happened that I have let pass without communicating to the blog-sphere – I’m falling down on the job. So now, let me tell you a story about how we brought Wet to the Wild!

What I wanted to document was the opening of “Splash Fountain” – a splash pad for kids at Zoo Atlanta. This project had been kicking around for years at the zoo. We tried a version of this in various sites – each time, something derailed our process; price, complexity or desire – but this year it had to happen. If you look around – there are splash pads everywhere – zoos, public gardens and parks – all have some version of a cool zone for their summer guests – the most busy time of the year – and Zoo Atlanta was late to the dance. To keep their guests comfortable, and staying a bit longer, parks have turned to water play as a good source of value added revenue to add to their bottom line. These are mechanically rich projects with limited staff involvement. The right combination if you have a donor paying the capital costs.

In this case, we did some concept planning and discussions about the ‘pad’ through the fall, tested the idea with some donors, but we didn’t have one, so I thought the project was another still birth until one day in February, I was invited to attend a meeting with the zoo’s executive team. We all stood on the site, under umbrellas, in the cold rain and I presented our concept for the project, and I remember the Director asking me – “what’s your biggest fear about this project” and I thought – that you will want it open this spring! But what I said was – the site is too small. Knowing what the “Rings” at Centennial Park looks like in the summer – my concept was a kiddy pool compared to that Olympic sized pad. So we looked at one of my favorite Shade trees in the Park – and said, we can expand the project if that tree wasn’t there! And to my horror, the Horticulturalist said – it has some severe structural issues and we’ve been wanting to take it dow...while my heart sank a bit deeper, I knew if this was going to be successful, we needed more room.

Then the second shoe dropped as the director said, “if we are going to do this, it needs to be open this spring!” I remember the next 10 minutes explaining to whoever would listen that Spring is impossible, summer is unlikely and maybe fall was possible. We had yet to really design it, we didn’t have a design team in place, not only did we have to get a City of Atlanta Building permit (which can take months), Urban Design Approval, we had to get a Fulton County Health Department permit, which is notoriously a terribly involved process. Also, the bidding and construction process could all summer. But my words meant nothing – the zoo had finally made up it’s mind, that this year we would build a splash pad, and it was so important they would pay for it on their own if they had to.

So off to the races we ran – how can we build something (that I’d never built before), in record breaking time for as little amount of money as possible (no donor) – you need a great and achievable schedule. The new facilities director, Tim, and I sat down and in a couple of days re-designed the layout to enlarge the site, assemble a design team, complete a topographic survey, produce a best guess Cost Estimate and put together a timeline that turns the fountain on by July 4
th. Mission Impossible. We gathered up a design team that including Mechanical, Electrical, Civil Engineers, Manufacturers reps and consultants to guide us through the health department maize. We interviewed contractors who might be able to build this for us (in record breaking time) without having to waste time bidding, and went off to get it done. Tim coordinated the mechanical consultants (Roman Fountain) who do this type of thing in their sleep (and at a super-low cost), I managed the Civil Engineers who did the permit and construction drawings based on my quickly evolving design process - all in the month of March, and got them in front of the City’s Urban Design Committee in the nick of time, to get the final drawings submitted for the Building Permit process. At the same time, our Health Department consultant got to work to expedite our County Health application.

I won’t go into detail on the course of events that got us through Design in March (with me taking two International trips during that month!), and permitting, bidding and contracting by May 1
st – but it wasn’t pretty. The good news was that during the busy month of April the zoo found a great Donor to fund the whole project, the bad news was – they were a City-funded organization that required public bidding and 40% minority participation! This was not in our schedule – but the gods were in our favor, and two qualified teams came forward with a bid and schedule from an experienced Splash Pad builder that fit our time line and budget! Shortly after that, we had a Building Permit in hand and after some very tense days – the coveted Fulton Country Health Department approval. That one however came with a list of modifications...and some additional costs.

We jumped into demolition right away, tearing up the site during one of the wettest Springs on record, and laid out the site. Everything was working great until we understood the modifications the County wanted. They had us move some of the equipment around that changed piping and had us tearing out the floor of the existing equipment room to put the water reservoir under the roof…small stuff that cost us all of our contingency, plus some, and something had to go – so off comes our signature shade structure on one side of the pad.

Construction moved ahead like clockwork, with all trades working together on the tight site. The one thing that we didn’t have control over was the shipping dates for the benches and shade structures. These are long lead-time items that normal projects can accommodate – but our 8 week construction project didn’t have room for any delays. And like clockwork – the date we were promised arrived and so did the benches and shade structure to our great relief. The end was in sight and we were almost there.

I won’t recount the details of the stressful days involved with the final Health Department site visit – but enough to say – they had some issues. We knew there would be some issues going in. The code was written around operating a swimming pool – and this is no swimming pool – but the county treats them the same. I thought that since I had approved drawings – we were in the clear, NOT. After a couple of equipment adjustments and adding a more non-slip surface treatment to our pavers – we had the coveted operating permit in hand (see photo above) and we were good to go for our new moved up opening date – July 2

The Splash fountain will be a great addition to the zoo, providing enough room for seating and shade for parents, and water play for the kiddies in a location that should not attract the big kids (except me!) – and give the zoo another win delivering a new project – on time and on budget.