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Based in Birmingham, Alabama, These R my People is a blog written by Sharron M. Swain. In which I get to talk to great people doing amazing things, then share their stories with you. 

Math + Theater = Aquarium Design: Taylor Claussen

Math + Theater = Aquarium Design: Taylor Claussen

Photo Taylor Claussen. Research project in conjunction with the Carl Small Town Center (an organization within the School of Architecture at Mississippi State University). 

Photo Taylor Claussen. Research project in conjunction with the Carl Small Town Center (an organization within the School of Architecture at Mississippi State University). 

When Taylor Claussen first went to college, she was juggling marching band, bike riding, architecture school, and all the other things beginning students have on their plate. Before long, the rigorous demands of architecture school won the competition for her time and attention. Now, just a few years from graduation, she's busy working with a commercial firm that designs, among other things, some really amazing aquariums. In her spare time, she still likes to visit Disney, loves all things Harry Potter, watches college football, and occasionally can be spotted training for a marathon. We recently sat down to talk about the journey that led her to where she is today. 

When you were little, could you picture yourself doing something like what you do now, at age 27?

When I was in 3rd or 4th grade, I wanted to be a crime scene investigator. I was not interested in architecture or engineering at all. 

What changed? 

In high school, I liked chemistry but realized I was stronger at math and also wanted to go into a creative field. That's when I got turned on to architecture. 

Who helped you to figure that out? 

A bunch of people said I should look into engineering as I was getting closer to graduating high school, but engineering always sounded really boring (no offense to engineers out there). 

I was really into theater and Broadway, and one night in 2008, I was watching the Oscars ceremony, and the Honorary Academy Award for that year went to Robert F. Boyle. He was classically trained as an architect but designed sets and did production design for movies, and I thought "I could do that."

Also, I grew up going to Disney World a bunch, and you hear about the Imagineers, so seeing that too, I thought "Oh, I could do that, and I could work for Disney."

When you were in High School, you volunteered at the McWane Science Center in Birmingham, Alabama. What was that like?

One of my really good friends had done it one Summer and had had a fantastic time, so I decided I wanted to do it the next Summer. At McWane you pretty much did anything - from working in the camps to being on the floor of the museum answering guests’ questions or helping with birthday parties. 

Leaping ahead, you graduated from high school and went to college to study architecture. Tell me a little about that.

Architecture is very regimented in terms of how classes are structured. Se we had this thing called ”studio,” which was a giant building, and studio class was four hours three days a week. 

There we learned how to draw - hand drafting, then on the computer with CAD programs, and then eventually with Revit and 3D modeling programs like Rhino.

We also had to learn how to build models out of plaster, and chipboard, and wood. Eventually, we had to learn how wood buildings go together vs. how concrete is made and how it can be manipulated, and we even had to learn how to lay brick by ourselves. 

They tried to teach us everything - even the more nebulous or intellectual side. We take three years of architecture history and architecture philosophy, so we get both sides of it. 

Photo Taylor Claussen. Taylor is in the middle, wearing a red shirt. Pocket park project in conjunction with the Carl Small Town Center. 

Photo Taylor Claussen. Taylor is in the middle, wearing a red shirt. Pocket park project in conjunction with the Carl Small Town Center. 

Favorite living architect: Bjarke Ingels.

Favorite no-longer-living architect: Louis Kahn.  

Once you became an architect, you found yourself working on a team that first designed one aquarium and then another aquarium on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. How did that happen? 

We were actually at an office party and it came up that we were going to be working on the first of the two aquariums. One of my bosses said something about what would be needed, and I started talking about some of my experience at McWane, which has a small aquarium called "The World of Water." I talked about the shark and ray touch tank and all the different things that we had back there, and my boss said "Okay, I want you on this project." 

That's how I started working on the first one, and because I'd worked on that one, it only made sense to then work on the next one. 

What is it like being part of a team that designs an aquarium? I would imagine that's really different from designing a school or an office building. 

It's very different. For one, we had more consultants. On your typical building, you have a civil engineer who helps keep water away from the building and helps you grade the site and do any site changes you need to do. Your structural engineer helps buildings stand up, and then mechanical, electrical and plumbing engineers help design the mechanical system, the lighting system, and all of the sanitary sewage plumbing. 

On the aquarium, we had all those consultants, plus we had a landscape architect, a lighting specialist, an audio-visual specialist, an exhibit designer and a life support system engineer. 

Life support system engineer, what's that? 

Their job is to make sure that the fish stay alive. They design all the systems required to put water in the tanks, and then keep that water clean for the fish. 

Is that the whole team? 

That was the whole team for the aquarium - I think we had 14 different consultants and design teams. 

Who decides the theme of an aquarium, and how does that play into what the architects have to do? 

The exhibit designer - they had a cohesive idea for the whole aquarium. We took it and then applied Life Safety Code to it, so the aquarium was safe. We also helped design the “skin” of the building, meaning the outside of most of the buildings. Our contribution to that was how does the outside of the buildings look and how does it contribute to the theme of the aquarium? 

How do the people who plan the fish communities know how big the tanks need to be? 

Part of that goes back to the exhibit designers. They come up with a story, and that story starts to determine what species we include. Then we look at the AZA (Association of Zoos + Aquariums) certification requirements. An AZA certified zoo or aquarium is going to be able to trade animals with each other, but they also meet a strict set of guidelines that means that they are humane and following certain safety procedures, so that determines if you have a habitat that is so big, you can only have a certain number of whatever type of animal in it. 

Photo Sharron M. Swain. One of the whale sharks at the Georgia Aquarium.

Photo Sharron M. Swain. One of the whale sharks at the Georgia Aquarium.

How do you maintain the tank's ecosystem. For example, how do you make sure the top predator doesn't wipe out the whole thing? 

A lot of times you'll pick animals up and down the food chain that are not from the same ecosystem. For example, at McWane's shark and ray touch tank, in order to make it where the sharks didn't antagonize each other, they had a shark that was predominantly from the Atlantic and Gulf, and a shark which was predominantly from the Indian Ocean. Because those sharks weren't used to each other, they didn't see each other as a threat, and they didn't see each other as food, so they kind of left each other alone. 

Then one of those sharks was also nocturnal, so it was asleep half the time and not bothering the other sharks. 

The other way is they feed them on a very regular basis to make sure they don't eat each other. 

How do you make seawater from scratch? What are the ingredients?

I don't know all of the ingredients, but I do know that they will get city water like you would from your sink, and most aquariums have these large tanks that do not have any fish in them. They will fill them up, and they will get bags and bags and bags of salt, and pour them in there. They mix it up with the water, and I'm sure they do a bunch of tests on it to make sure there's not certain bacteria and the like in the water, then they send it on to the fish. 

People had a lot of questions about the glass. They wanted to know how do you make the glass strong enough? 

The first thing is it's not actually glass. It's actually acrylic. It's basically plexiglass, but very very thick plexiglass. There are only a few places in the world that make this stuff. It comes down to the structural engineer who looks at how much water is in the tank, where the acrylic is located, and how large as far as width and height it's going to be, and based on that they can figure out the pressure of the water pushing on it - that's how they determine how thick to make it. We've had acrylic that's four or five inches thick, that's only partially underwater, not completely submerged. And then we've had other pieces that are about a foot thick. 

How do you determine the thickness of the plexiglass? 

We actually make it the same thickness all the way across. That makes it where there's no weak point, so if we have a sheet of it, it's gonna be the same size all the way across. If it's too big to where it can't be made in one sheet, the acrylic manufacturer will actually come to the site and make a "clean room" where they chemically bond it onsite and then crane it into place. 

They'll make a what? 

A "clean room" - they don't want anything to get in between that bond. You have to be in a hairnet, and wear one of those full body suits you see people in in a disaster area. They'll wrap everything in plastic and cover it up, and bond the acrylics together. They want to make it where it is a tight bond that nothing can get through. 

How do you get the plexiglass in place? 

That is the trickier part. Most tanks are made out of concrete, so you start by making the tank, and then the plexiglass has this thing called a "rebate" around it - basically a frame that holds it into place. Then you crane it down and put it in there. It actually comes with supports so you can push it up with wood two by fours, then you seal it. After a certain amount of time, you fill it up while the wood supports are still in place, and then you let it sit again, then you drain it, take the wood out, fill it up again, make sure everything's still working, and then clean your water. 

What happens if the tank leaks or breaks? 

Hopefully, that'll never happen! On our aquarium, I believe the concrete is about two feet thick, and it’s made with such a mixture that the aggregate that holds the concrete together is really small, so you get as much bonding as possible, so hopefully it shouldn't ever crack.

At the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies, in Gulfport, they had an exhibit about how during a hurricane, a bunch of the dolphins got out and ended up in swimming pools and other places. When you're designing an aquarium in a place like Southern Mississippi, or anywhere along any coast, what kinds of things do you have to take into account for the likelihood of hurricanes? 

There is this thing called "small and large missile impact" which has to do with if stuff gets blown around during a hurricane and it starts hitting your building, what's it gonna do? All of our buildings have to meet those large and small impact tests.

I believe the wind rating for where we are is 180 miles an hour, so that means all the glass on the outsides of our buildings has to be able to resist gravel and two-by-fours being thrown at it at that speed, as well as our structures. Our structural engineer takes all of that into account when they're designing to resist uplift, so anything we have outside, any shade structures, also has to be able to resist that amount of wind. 

Another thing we had to take into consideration, depending on how close it is to the water, the building could be in a flood zone, and depending on what flood zone, it could have to withstand wave action hitting against it. Either the building's gonna be up high, or it's gonna be very very strong. 

As far as the animals go, that is on the aquarium staff to come up with an evacuation plan in the event of a hurricane. 

So, some aquariums that are in situations like this will have places where they can take the animals to that are on higher ground or further North or further inland in order to protect the animals. 

I heard the tunnel glass was shipped over from Italy. 

There are only so many places in the world that make the acrylic. One of the big things we looked at was do you have to break it up into separate pieces and then bond it on site, because that adds a whole extra cost, and a seam in your acrylic. 

The place in Italy was able to make it in one piece, put it on a boat, then ship it over here. It actually arrived a week or two ago. It went into New Orleans, went through customs there, then they brought it to the port in Gulfport. So all they have to do once the tank's ready for it - is take it from the port to the place across the street where the aquarium's going to go. 

For you, stepping back, we've talked about your own journey, architecture, aquariums, plexiglass, and all the fun little details . . . to you, what's the coolest part of getting to work on projects like this? 

Photo Taylor Claussen. Studio trip to New York City.

Photo Taylor Claussen. Studio trip to New York City.

It's really cool to get to work with materials that we don't normally get to work with - on this last project, we got to use a special type of zinc metal paneling.

Getting to work with the engineers that we worked with was really cool - they've all worked on some amazing projects, so getting to talk with them and get their expertise on things was awesome.

Being part of this big multi-campus project (there's gonna be six buildings on this current site, and a couple of other stand-alone buildings) is really cool. 

What's your favorite marine animal that's involved in any of the projects you've worked on? 

Otters and penguins.

Finally, what would you say to a young person who thinks what you do is really interesting and would like to do something similar to this one day? 

Don't let your fear of the lack of skill in a certain area keep you from doing it. I've heard people say they wanted to do architecture, but they didn't think they were good enough at math or they couldn't draw well enough. Just try it. Because most people aren't good at those things when they start, and you can make up for it in other ways. 

For example, I'm not very good at hand drawing, but I can draft using a straightedge and Photoshop things on the computer to get my point across better than if I were to hand draw something.

And then . . . we don't need to use as much math as people think that we do!

You can find pictures of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies here: or here

Follow mississippiaquarium on Instagram or visit their website here

Thanks to all my nerdy science friends and their kids who helped come up with questions for this interview: Stella Aslibekyan, Henna Budhwani, Karon Bullock, Matt Claussen, Simon Cocking, Ginny Humber, Jerri + Herb Keefer, Katie Moellering, Matt Smith, Tommy Terrell + Taylor Winfrey.

Broccoli, bikinis, and bodybuilding, oh my!

Broccoli, bikinis, and bodybuilding, oh my!

Train like a beast, look like a beauty: Janelle Smith

Train like a beast, look like a beauty: Janelle Smith