Zoo’s river otters get first municipal green roof

There’s another reason to see the four North American river otters, who were introduced to the public April 1 at Potawatomi Zoo as part of one of the largest new exhibits in the zoo’s history.

The river otter exhibit building is also home to the first green roof on a municipal structure for the City of South Bend.

The modular green roof was built this spring as part of a public-private partnership between the City of South Bend’s Energy Office and an eight-member Green Team of the South Bend/Mishawaka Leadership program. The Green Team volunteers, led by Mike Reese from The Troyer Group, donated the labor to create the 550-square-foot green roof. The City provided $11,000 in materials.

“They worked largely on their own and made the project happen,” says Jon Burke, municipal energy director for the City of South Bend, who suggested the green roof project when approached by the Leadership group last fall. “The green roof keeps the roof surface cool in the summer, reducing the surface temperature from highs in the 150-degree range to surrounding air temperatures.”

The river otter building served as an ideal candidate for a green roof, particularly from a public-education perspective, because it:

• Receives high, diverse foot traffic.
• Is a low-slung building near a small hill.
• Is located on public land as part of an organization with a strong environmental and educational mission.

The project includes educational signage and a viewing area so Potawatomi Zoo visitors can see the architectural feature and learn about the environmental benefits of green roofs.

“The roof will keep the otters more comfortable and keep their bunkhouse from overheating,” Burke says. “The green roof mimics their natural environment, because otters naturally live under river banks covered with vegetation.”

The roof also may save the zoo as much as 10 percent on air-conditioning costs, while prolonging the life of the roof’s membrane by protecting it from the sun’s deteriorating effects. Burke hopes this project will help build public support for future green projects.

“In addition to the cost-savings benefit, the environmental and educational benefits make this a worthy investment,” Burke said.

The Potawatomi Zoological Society planned, designed and developed the new North American River Otter exhibit in conjunction with the zoo staff. The exhibit was completely funded through the zoological society with private donations and grants.

Once found throughout much of the United States and Canada, the North American river otter population has suffered because of fur trapping, water pollution and habitat destruction. This new exhibit provides a home for two pairs of otters in a Midwestern stream and wetlands environment.

Publication Date: 
June 2011
Article Type: 
Innovation in Government