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Giving Sea Life a New Home in the Salt Lake Valley

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The roadside scenery along U.S. Interstate 15 through Draper, Utah, about 20 miles south of Salt Lake City, is not unlike that in other metropolitan areas of the West—filled with signs for fast food restaurants and motels. But the owner and builder of the new Living Planet Aquarium, slated to open in December, are hoping the new facility west of the interstate among the strip malls and low-profile office parks will stand out like a fish out of water.

Photo courtesy of LLPA
A scale-like, sea pattern cast into the panels helps add interest to the exterior.
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"I'm from here, but I left to study marine biology. I'm just fascinated by life in the ocean and always thought it would be great to have an aquarium here in Utah," says Living Planet CEO and founder Brent Andersen. Beginning in 1998 with a few small exhibits at a local junior high school, Andersen's vision and the aquarium have gradually grown, moving to larger and larger locations, leading to the current incarnation.

Andersen says the project was launched around Christmas 2009 with a $2.5-million gift from Jim Loveland and his family. Loveland is president of Utah-based Xactware Solutions, a provider of estimating software and systems for the insurance, remodeling and restoration industry. The new facility will officially be named the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium (LLPA).

Sited on eight acres, the $18.5-million, 136,000-sq-ft educational facility houses exhibits that use a million gallons of water. While primarily constructed of tilt-up concrete panels like many of its neighbors, the similarity ends there.

Ari Robinson, an artist and designer who has worked for the LLPA for several years and played a key role in the design of the new facility, says the goal was to have the building communicate a theme without it becoming too cartoonish or too literal.

"We wanted an aquatic theme, but we don't want a building shaped like a boat or a fish or something," Robinson says.

On the south side of the building near the entrance, a gleaming metal fin juts 71 ft into the sky. The fin is formed by a steel-tube frame wrapped with steel mesh and fitted with colored LED lights that allow operators to change its reflected color at night. The 43-ft-tall concrete panels, some up to 127 ft wide, are painted differing shades of blue with a cast-in-place, scale-like pattern that wraps the building.

John Ragan, project manager for R4 Constructors, which is providing construction management services and tenant improvements on some of the aquarium spaces, says some of the panels weigh around 120,000 lb. They are among the largest panels ever erected by tilt-up contractor Tom Stuart Construction, he says.

"We were really pushing the limits with the panels," Ragan says. "But we were able to get them cast with the pattern we wanted and place them with the cranes we had available."

Another unique exterior feature of the building is an array of 16-in.-sq, articulated aluminum panels covering a 33-ft-tall by 127-ft-long section of the southeast wall. Each panel is fitted with an LED light that reflects off the adjacent panel to create a range of colors and shapes on the wall facing traffic on I-15.

"We wanted a way to light the building but also change the look from day to night," says Andersen. "We didn't want just pictures painted on the wall and to up-light them. This setup with the LED lights gives us essentially 8,000 pixels, like a low-definition TV screen. We can make the look of the building change minute to minute. In the daytime, the panels will reflect the heat and dampen some of the sound from the freeway."

On the south side of the building, the tilt-up panels give way to an undulating glass curtain wall. "We wanted a look like waves or water for the entrance," Robinson says. "The form came from our logo, which is a wave-like design. The glass on the front of the building is what the logo might look like if you started to uncurl it."

Under One Roof

Andersen says the goal for the new facility was to expand the exhibits found at the current aquarium as well as add new ones. Popular exhibits like those for the penguins and river otters will get more space at the new building. Exhibits will feature aquatic environments from the arctic, a tropical rainforest, a coral reef and the rivers of the American West. Designers have created an artificial slot canyon to feature aquatic life found in the rivers of the Colorado plateau, such as the Green and Virgin rivers in Utah.

Robinson has been the main designer of the exhibits, working with aquarium staff. Provo, Utah-based Dynamic Structures built the exhibits primarily from geofoam, wire mesh and shotcrete.

In addition to the exhibits, the LLPA will include a café, gift shop, children's play area, space for private parties and banquets and a 156-seat, 4D theater providing a "multi-sensory experience," Andersen says. "We'll have 3D capability, but we are adding things like smells and breezes to really immerse you in the film."

Of the new features, the 10,000-sq-ft "Journey to South America" exhibit is the largest, with life-size artificial and live trees, free-flying birds and aquatic creatures common to the Amazon River basin. Robinson says designers came up with the idea of a ramp for visitors to walk along, giving them a view of life at various levels of the rainforest from floor to canopy.

Another greatly expanded exhibit is the new 300,000-gallon saltwater tank, which will be home to 21 different species of sharks as well as sea turtles, eels and tropical reef fish. Besides a large viewing window, visitors can observe life in the shark tank from below in a 40-ft-long acrylic tunnel.

"Installing the tunnel was one of the more challenging days on this project," Ragan says. "It weighs 26,000 pounds, and we had only an inch of clearance at each end. We lifted it over the building with a crane and lowered it in place, trying to keep it centered the whole time."

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