Prime Time for Primates

Wolin Electrical wires Great Ape Trust:

A Des Moines, Iowa, area electrical contracting firm knows all about primates; Wolin Electrical and Mechanical project managers and company owners can easily rattle off the comfort and safety concerns of a typical ape, orangutan or bonobo (once known as pygmy chimpanzee).

While Wolin Electrical, West Des Moines, has spent 86 years constructing electrical and mechanical systems for homo sapiens, the Great Ape Trust project was the first time it would be concerned with the other primates. With Great Ape Trust, Wolin Electrical needed to understand an African ape’s creature comfort requirements, which are not necessarily the same as their human cousins.

Great Ape Trust is a research facility intended to further understand primate cognitive development. It would provide scientists with great ape research, advanced conservation and educational opportunities as well as provide a comfortable home for the apes. When the decision was made to house the new facility in Iowa, under the guidance of founder Ted Townsend, the search was on for a team of construction specialists to be brought in as partners, rather than just as contractors. Wolin Electrical and Mechanical was selected for electrical and mechanical work, while Leo A. Daly, Omaha, Neb., provided the architectural design and electrical engineering. Hansen Construction, Des Moines, was the general contractor.

Just as the architectural and construction team knew little about apes, Great Ape Trust scientists responsible for the facility design knew little about the world of construction. Together, the team developed a plan for a world-class research facility on a 230-acre former sand and gravel quarry southeast of Des Moines. The facility would keep the apes comfortable and safe and allow for research and tours to help educate the public about these intelligent animals.

For the scientists, the environment needed to be conducive to research, while the apes had other criteria. The apes needed a retreat where they could interact with one another, explore the facility with considerable independence, and thrive in a landscape that replicated their natural habitat as well as the facilities where they lived in the past.

The building would need high-tech electronics that allowed the bonobo apes to have a say in who is admitted into the building. Bonobos are sociable creatures who thrive when spending time together and decide for themselves how much research they want to be involved in from day-to-day. All studies are voluntary and non-intrusive, meaning the cognitive projects are offered to the apes, but apes are never required to take part.

Preconstruction goals

The project was first announced in April 2002, said Al Setka, Great Ape Trust director of communications. After that, Wolin Electrical and Mechanical spent about one year in preconstruction, said Tom Mass, managing partner and owner of Wolin Electrical.

“It was an unusual amount of preconstruction,” he said.

“Once we were involved, one of the challenges was working directly with the researchers,” said Jeff Hildreth, electrical engineer at Leo A. Daly.

Rarely do researchers get as involved in facility planning as they were in this project, and that was a challenge for both sides.The researchers’ primary goal was an honorable living space for the apes, Setka said.

“It was important to stress to the contractors what we do here. They needed to understand our mission and focus,” Setka said.

Therefore, numerous meetings between researchers and contractors were held and contractors had outside study time.

“It was important for them to do their homework to understand a field that’s really new to everyone. Then they could get to the task of designing a facility with the scientists, with the apes in mind.” Setka said.

On the other hand, Setka said, “I think it was a very exciting project for the scientists. I think they were energized to design a facility with apes in mind. They were allowed to be extremely involved with the design and their input was crucial. And it was exciting for the contractors to work with people who think in ways they don’t usually hear.”

Facility goals were numerous. Center rooms needed to be designed so that video cameras could send images over the Internet to other primate researchers around the world. Townsend also wanted the structure to include sustainable materials, incorporate energy-efficient products and blend into the natural surroundings. With all this considered, facility plans included temperature-controlled radiant floors, a heating and cooling system drawing water from a 30-acre lake near the facility, and a sewage system that flushes waste into restored wetlands to be broken down naturally.

Wolin Electrical worked with researchers on design details such as how to move apes from one section of the building to another.

“We needed to build a structure for enrichment, not containment. If apes are free to move about, it’s invigorating for them and better for the scientists and the cognitive studies underway,” Mass said.

Hildreth said many of the original plans for the structure were scaled down. However, the building does include custom-made toilets, showers and an air-circulation system—all for the apes.

The facility was built with durability in mind, because it would have to be able to take a lot of abuse, Hildreth said.

Wolin Electrical was charged with creating an indoor climate where heating and cooling systems could run simultaneously. The result would be an internal atmosphere with the perfect aura of comfort and familiarity for the apes. Apes’ extremely sensitive skin chafes easily, so researchers wanted to replicate the humid atmosphere of a rainforest. For that reason, Wolin also integrated state-of-the-art humidification systems.

Researchers required consistent, optimal temperatures and recirculation of indoor and outdoor air every six minutes, which necessitated multiple HVAC systems.

The electrical system had to be secured. Everything would be concealed—whether built into the ceiling or floors or poured into the concrete. Ultimately, there was only so much room to conceal all of the pipes, ducts and wires in the 13,000-square-foot bonobo scientific research facility, Mass said.

“The main challenge was that all the different systems had to be poured into the concrete,” Mass said.

Keeping lighting safe from the apes and the apes safe from electric current was another priority. Ceiling height was calculated to keep fixtures out of the apes’ reach. The fixtures themselves, said Wolin Electrical project manager Dennis Vos, were stainless steel and vandal-resistant. Workers also built metal screens over the fixtures for further security.

Because traditional fluorescent lighting has a cycle flicker that bothers the apes, so the company installed electronic T8 lighting instead. Wolin Electrical installed a control system for programmable lighting, most of which is on the office side of the building.

Wolin Electrical ran electric power for heated coils outdoors in the ground to keep apes comfortable on mild winter days, which allows them to be outside. In addition, the company Wolin Electrical installed the electric fencing; backup generators; raceways for low-voltage; lighting and specialized fixtures; electrical distribution; and mechanical power.

Keeping the apes secure

The trust’s location keeps some separation between residential developments and the ape research area. Although the area was not heavily populated, physical security—for the apes as well as the surrounding community—was a big focus of the project. While the planners initially considered using the neighboring river and tributary as a natural barrier—bonobos don’t swim—there were natural constraints to this idea. Cold Iowa winters mean frozen rivers and an easy route off campus for apes. Although they looked into strategies to keep the water from freezing in the winter, Hildreth said that ultimately they determined that sturdy electric fences, at multiple levels, were the best way to go.

The entire site is surrounded by 12-foot chain-link fences with barbed wire and electric strands. Around the top of the building and concrete retaining walls, there are more electric fencing strands.

The security system was installed by T-3 Technologies, Des Moines. Forty-nine cameras and 50 lexigram boards used in the research were also installed by T-3 Technologies, along with large keyboards animals used to select choices during some of the research. T-3 also installed digital recording devices.

The residents check in

Seven bonobos reside in one building while three orangutans are located across the street in a separate building. Keeping the species separate is essential to keep them safe from each other. The bonobo building includes a tower constructed of glass and concrete to give the bonobos plenty of natural light and an airy feeling; the tower allows for movement and climbing. Orangutans have their own climbing areas, which feature fire hoses collected from state fire departments for swinging.

“What we were able to do was create homes that are like large scientific instruments,” Setka said. “It’s safe to say that when it comes to facilities for ape cognitive research, there has never been a structure built like it.” 

By September 2004, the first two orangutans arrived at the facility and the bonobos arrived in spring 2005. Another phase to expand the building for more primates and more research is likely to begin in late 2007 or early 2008, Setka said. The building will also include gorillas and chimpanzees.

What’s next?

Wolin Electrical continues to do service and maintenance on the building, always keeping the needs of the apes in the forefront. Vos said visiting contractors warn the apes before they arrive and keep intrusion among the bonobos and orangutans to a minimum.

Now that the first phase of construction is finished, contractors and researchers feel more than the usual pride.

“There were times when it was frustrating,” Vos said. There were times, he recalled, when during meetings either the researchers didn’t understand the needs of the contractors, or the contractors didn’t understand the needs of the researchers.

“There was a lot of education on both sides,” Vos said. “It was a really big success.”     EC

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at



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