top of page

Detroit Zoo - Polk Penguin Conservation Center

Royal Oak, MI

Architecture has long been inspired by the natural world, and with the evolution of manufacturing and building technologies, it can now replicate the natural world. After teams from the Detroit Zoo went to Antarctica to study the species to be housed in the new penguin conservation center, they supplied photographs and data to Kahn to design a

new home fit for these incredible creatures.

As visitors approach the building, they are immediately transported to the heart of Antarctica. The irregular shape of the building is a representation of tabular or block-like icebergs near the south pole. Sections of blue glass are recessed into the structure to suggest natural ice caves and ice calving, or ice breaking apart from the glacier. The entry way is through a representation of a 25-foot-tall waterfall in a narrow crevasse made of blue glass.

Through biomimicry, or design and production modeled on nature or natural systems, the exterior is clad in over 6,000 white metallic shingles that keeps the building insulated while repelling heat, a similar system found in penguin feathers.

Inside, 75 king, rockhopper, macaroni, and gentoo penguins can be found diving in and swimming through a 25-foot-deep, 326,000-gallon, aquatic area. Visitors can walk through two underwater tunnels as the penguins zoom around them. Above the waterline, penguins have an Antarctic-inspired space to nest and raise their young. The interior space was designed in collaboration with Jones & Jones Architects and Landscape Architects, and a team of museum consultants from interpretive, museum, and aquarium design, to make sure that every material selected would support the penguins’ health and wellbeing.

Lighting was another specially designed feature to promote the penguins’ health, providing a wide spectrum of wavelengths with ultraviolet light and nighttime lighting. These lights can also be adjusted to reflect seasonal changes. Advanced engineering systems inside conserve, filter, and recycle water, maintain clean air, and separate temperatures for public and penguin areas. A custom designed blow down system with vacuum air lines was also engineered to clean the habitat, which was inspired by the air systems designed for automotive plants.

The Detroit Zoo is driven to reduce its ecological impact while educating visitors about the effects of global warming. Throughout the design of the building are references to our changing environment.


2017 Association of Zoos & Aquariums
2017 ESD Outstanding Achievement Award For Design & Construction
2017 ENR Pyramid Best Project Team
2017 ENR Best of the Best Overall US
2016 ENR Best of the Best, Sports/Entertainment
2016 ENR Midwest Best of the Best, Sports/Entertainment
2017 Washtenaw Contractors Association Pyramid Award for Best Project Team
2016 CAM Construction Association of Michigan Crystal, Best Project of the Year
2016 AGC Build Michigan

Project Gallery

bottom of page