City |

Wellington Zoo's
Chimpanzee Habitat.


As a studio Isthmus is deeply interested in the concept of play and the opportunities for learning it facilitates. Usually our research and thinking on the subject is human-centric, but in 2017 a unique opportunity arose to design a playground habitat for Wellington Zoo’s troop of chimpanzees, and to closer connect the chimp’s landscape with people.

The brief, put simply, was for a chimp playground, but at the same time, it also needed to be designed in a way that allowed humans to safely immerse themselves in their fascinating world.

The first priority was to renovate the existing climbing structure by making it more complex with a variety of horizontal and vertical poles and ropes providing the Chimps with a network of ways to move through the new environment. In line with the Zoo’s recognised focus on sustainability (it’s the first certified Carbon Zero Zoo in the world), materials were carefully sourced. Hardwood timber poles for the climbing platform were recycled from Wellington’s old trolley bus network; chunky ropes were reclaimed from Centre Ports tugboats; and swings and hammocks were made from recycled hoses donated by the Fire Service.


Concentrating on what would stimulate the chimpanzees, and what materials we could safely use, helped define a design direction for the habitat, the visitor experience and the playground. Chimpanzees are five times stronger than an adult human and highly dexterous, capable of unscrewing machine-fixed M20 bolts; this meant that a seriously robust materials palette (and special, chimp-proof details) were required.

Understanding chimp behavior required a close working relationship with the Zoo’s animal care team. Chimps live within a complex social structure; in the wild they live in communities that range in size from 5 to 120 individuals, but chimps don’t like to spend 24 hours per day together. Instead, they build beds or nests in tree canopies using branches and spend many hours on these platforms. The upgrade was a response to a pressing need to create an environment that facilitated more natural chimpanzee behavior; to accommodate their fission-fusion behavior, that is, time together and time alone.

In the wild, chimps build nests from bracing forked branches against each other and adding additional foliage for comfort and protection.


On top of the tallest timber poles several indestructible steel nests have been installed for the chimps to climb up to and survey their own habitat (and also a large part of Wellington’s cityscape). The habitat was modelled on how chimps interact in the wild – it had to be exceptional to engage them cognitively and physically. Chimps are extremely mobile, so one challenge was providing them with the opportunity to use all forms of locomotion, including quadrupedal (to walk on all fours including knuckle walking), bipedal (to walk on hind quarters), walking, running, brachiating (to swing through arboreal part of habitat by the fore limbs), suspensory locomotion (to hang downwards to get food or another area of habitat), jumping, utilising space for hierarchical and dominance displays and nest building at different levels and areas.

To visually connect the chimp habitat to the new viewing area and playspace, a section of wall on the site of the old Chimp House was replaced with glazing made from 50mm thick, toughened-glass panels (especially made in New Zealand) to withstand the full force of two alpha males displaying their strength. This benefit of this viewing area is that it provides visitors with an immersive experience in which to witness the full spectrum of chimp behaviour.

The viewing frame structure resembling a chimpanzee nest is made up of sustainably sourced glulam timber beams and roof battens. It speaks of the African forests that chimpanzees originated from and includes storytelling and information on how New Zealanders can contribute locally and globally to forest and animal habitat protection.

Human play

In the design of human play-spaces, we look at how different motor skills and muscle groups can be used and encouraged. By mirroring the forms of chimps locomotion, we created a space with similar play values that was created using similar materials (including timber poles, circular woven nets, climbing nests and balancing beams) and design principles were also introduced into the new children’s playground (designed in collaboration with bespoke play specialists Te Mahi), allowing kids to mimic the play of chimps.

Glazing made from 50mm thick, toughened-glass panels can withstand the full force of two alpha males displaying their strength.

The ‘mirrored’ playspace aspires to educate valued visitors about how chimps play and behave, and how they survive in the wild, so that more people can understand what it takes to become a ‘Chimpanzee Champion’ and be aware of consumer choices that affect the habitat of these unique animals.






Two distinct plant palettes were developed; one, a dense layer of vegetation, allows chimps to immerse themselves in the habitat, hide or remove themselves from the sometimes-hostile social structure. More than 2000 plants enrich the enclosure, with several large trees specified to given them a better chance of survival (from being eaten or uprooted). On the visitor side, robust plants were chosen to withstand the Wellington environment and reference the chimps’ native habitats in Africa, such as a variety of coloured bromeliads and bulbs, which skirt the surrounds of the play-space and path up to the viewing window.



The installation of the poles for the chimps’ habitat posed the largest risk to programme, with 400-plus-metres of recycled Wellington trolley bus poles needed to be cut to length, lifted and craned into place. Prior to the sequencing of pole installation, a stock-take of available poles was undertaken, as was a point-cloud survey to model each existing pole in the habitat.

Construction was a logistical challenge. The main driver for the build was reducing the time the chimps spent indoors while construction was taking place. Timesaving build techniques included pre-engineering the large steel window frame, five panels of glazing, steel seat frames, timber for the viewing structure.

The chimps were released into their new habitat after seven weeks of watching it unfold from their indoor house. Everything was tightened, measured and triple checked, with all bolt heads within the enclosure peened to prevent them being undone. A metal detector was hired to ensure no metal fixings or construction waste were left for an inquisitive chimp to find, and the nets made from fire hose were suspended with stainless steel chain and tested for flex and weight bearing capacity.

On a crisp December morning, the chimps were introduced into their new habitat. The alpha males emerged first, ascending the poles, following old routes, before cautiously testing new poles and ropes. To the delight of all, alpha male Marty shock tested the brackets to determine his safety first, before pulling himself up to the cradle to stand tall, surveying his new realm.

Team Members
Aaron Miller, Sophie Jacques,
Past Team Members

Earl Rutherford, Sam Gwynn, Stefan Beconcini, Dan Males

Te Mahi

Naylor Love

Wellington Zoo

Best Award Finalist 2019
User Experience — Innovation

Wellington Property People Awards 2019
Colliers International Best Team Award