For a civil engineer, Mark Hoffman â€™11 knows a lot about gorillas.
â€śThe fun fact I always tell people is that gorillas can unscrew machine-tightened bolts with their fingers,â€ť he said.
As a consultant with Walter P Moore, a civil and structural engineering firm, Hoffman helped design the Gorillas of the African Forest exhibit at the Houston Zoo. Knowing details about the strength and manual dexterity of the great apes was critical to the safety of both zoo guests and the gorillas themselves.
â€śI spent a lot of time looking into security concerns,â€ť he said. â€śBecause of the gorillasâ€™ strength, we had to make sure all those bolts were welded. Anything over a pound or so in weight could be used as a projectile.â€ť
The exhibit is the largest gorilla exhibit in North America and was a finalist for the Houston Business Journal Landmark Award, but Hoffman said he didnâ€™t comprehend the true importance of what he had built until he got home from the grand opening on Memorial Day 2015 and downloaded the images on his camera.
â€śI realized I took more photos of guests and families enjoying the exhibit than I did of the exhibit itself,â€ť he said. â€śI have always been motivated by projects that people enjoy and make Houston a better place to live; projects that are an investment in the community.â€ť
Now Director of Design and Engineering with the Houston Zoo, Hoffman is charged with making sure new projects are completed on time and on budget. With the zooâ€™s centennial coming up in 2022, three new exhibits are in the works. The biggest project will be a Galapagos exhibit complete with sea lions and tortoises.
According to Hoffman, accuracy is key to building exhibits people will connect with. One of the exhibits will be based on the Pantanal, a region in Brazil â€” and UNESCO World Heritage site â€” that is home to the worldâ€™s largest tropical wetland. To make sure the details of the exhibit are true to life, a contingent from the zoo will be visiting both the Pantanal and the Galapagos.
Hoffman said he is excited that these projects will provide zoo visitors with a window into the wild places of our world, and said that feeling is deeply held by all the zoo staff.
â€śThe coolest thing is getting to work on projects where people will build memories and experience a connection to wildlife and hopefully discover a whole world of conservation and stewardship.â€ť
His advice to students considering a civil or environmental engineering degree is to be curious about the world around them, and consider the impact they want to have on it.
â€śCivil and environmental engineers deal on a daily basis with the way people live in the world,â€ť he said. â€śWe work on making the world a better, safer, more comfortable, more beautiful place. Whether itâ€™s flood protection projects or transportation projects, or beautiful buildings or parks, we build things that people get to enjoy.â€ť
Recently named Young Engineer of the Year by the Texas Society of Professional Engineers, Hoffman credits Rice with giving him an education that was bigger than academics.
â€śRice taught me that being an engineer isnâ€™t just about being technically proficient,â€ť he said. â€śItâ€™s about solving problems and applying yourself to meet big challenges.â€ť
â€śI think I owe some degree of my curiosity to that,â€ť he added, â€śand I really value the broad focus and the ambition that the Rice engineering program taught me.â€ť