Monday, July 15, 2024

COST of Wisconsin: Artistry, quality and authenticity

For 65 years COST of Wisconsin has been serving zoos, theme parks, casinos, retail and more

by Gabrielle Russon

The otters’ new playground at the Houston Zoo features rocks that appear real. The intricate stones look slightly faded by the elements and time, all part of nature’s glory.

Yet those beautiful rocks visitors peer at in the animal exhibit are actually made with a shotcrete (pneumatically-applied concrete) application. COST of Wisconsin, a full-service fabrication shop with a long history of building zoological exhibits, used shotcrete with multiple layers of painting to create realistic results.

Mike Schmuhl, President

“That’s what we pride ourselves in – the quality of our work, and the detail that our artisans put into it, to make it look so natural that the general public cannot tell the difference between natural or faux settings,” said Mike Schmuhl, the company president. The 65-year-old, family-owned business has built rockwork, water features, sculptural elements and themed specialty fabrication on display at zoos, theme parks, casinos, retail spaces and elsewhere.

COST employs about 200 people and operates a 144,000-square- foot production site in Jackson, Wisconsin, with additional offices in Seattle, Orlando and Canada. Besides fabrication and construction, COST also offers services including pre- construction work, design assist as well as shop drawings and modeling – both physical and 3D modeling.

Christopher Foster, VP Sales and Marketing

Creating these immersive rock environments are the COST artisans. They pay close attention to an extraordinary level of detail, and what they do goes beyond materials and technology: it depends on their hands, skills and dedication. “It’s really all about the artistry, quite frankly,” said Christopher Foster, COST’s sales and marketing vice president. “The artistry is what pulls it all together, and really provides the beautiful finishes…It comes down to people that really work well with their hands and have attention to detail and a flair for artistry.”

COST handled rockwork and much of the theming fabrication for the Lost Island Themepark that opened in June 2022 in Waterloo, Iowa. COST was involved in creating pieces for four of the five themed lands at the new park, including one of the signature and complex visual elements, a giant, 40-foot-tall volcano with a rock sculpture emerging from the rockwork and an interactive fountain feature.

The company’s work is also integral to several internationally inspired zoo attractions in the United States that either opened recently or will debut next year.

Bringing Cambodia to California, authentically

In the heart of the Fresno Chaffee Zoo, COST is helping to build the Kingdoms of Asia exhibit that will be the new home for tigers, Komodo dragons, orangutans, songbirds and other animals. When the exhibit opens next year, visitors will pass through an east entry icon that resembles an ancient Cambodian temple adorned by the Faces of Bayan.

The zoo brought in an external team to help make sure the new exhibit was respectful in preserving the heritage and getting the details, both big and small, accurate. Guiding the designers and builders throughout the thematic process were local leadership at United Khmer Cultural Preservation, the Fresno Center, and the Fresno Cambodian Buddhist Society. “They were right there to work alongside the project team,” Foster said. “Their tremendous knowledge on the historic accuracy of these elements provided theme enhancements that are authentic to the original structures.”

Shown here under construction, COST’s work on the Fresno Chaffee Zoo’s Kingdoms of Asia exhibit is inspired by the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

That insight and feedback were instrumental in helping the zoo and COST’s team replicate the exhibit as authentically as possible – from how the door framing should look, to how the Faces of Bayan must always be displayed in fours, explained Foster. “The detail is so paramount. It’s not just replicating a nondescript theme of ruins. Kingdoms of Asia really immerses their guests in a Cambodian experience,” he said.

COST’s scope of work included fabricating GFRC (reinforced concrete) trim and molding that were used against the stone face plaster ruin walls to emulate the ancient Angkor Wat, and finishing the streams and ponds with earthen textures.

Immersion at the Houston Zoo

At the Houston Zoo, COST recently completed the South America’s Pantanal exhibit that recreates the South American wetlands, and then moved into work on the zoo’s state-of-the- art Galápagos Islands exhibit that is set to open in 2023.

“You’re going to see amazing animals and you’re going to experience the feeling of being in the Galápagos. So everything is really tied into this immersive, themed experience,” Foster said. “The level of detail and authenticity that has been taken on these projects is really next-level.”

At the Pantanal exhibit, COST crews provided secondary steel and structural shotcrete coats throughout the otter, macaw and jaguar exhibits, and built simulated rockwork and earthen texture finishes in the otter, macaw, jaguar exhibits, and some common areas. At the Galápagos Islands exhibit, COST’s scope of work includes building sea caves, using reference material from the Galapagos to ensure the caves and the rockwork look as authentic as possible.

“It’s a really cool piece,” Schmuhl said. “The cave is composed of concrete that’s reinforced with rebar, so our artisans here in Wisconsin artistically build the rockwork armature out of rebar to get the shape. Then when it arrives to the project, it’s pieced back together like a puzzle, reassembled, and shotcrete is applied for the structural integrity of the cave. Afterwards a finished, carved coat of concrete is applied last, where the artists will sculpt to resemble natural rock.” The final application is the paint “to make the rockwork look as natural as can be,” he said.

For both the Pantanal and Galápagos Islands projects, COST was brought onto the team during the preconstruction stages and worked with the project team through the shop drawings and scale models.

The rockwork process

In the theme industry, 3D models are often the platform of choice for a fabricator to simulate what the finished rock pieces will look like. But not all COST’s clients want something digital.

Sometimes it’s best to have something to hold in your hands. For zoological exhibits such as those created for the Houston Zoo, “the physical model is still a huge driver in the approval process and basically delivering on the design intent,” Foster said. “In a 3D environment, you’re not able to see as much realism in the depth and the coloration of the rockwork as you can in a physical model that is sculpted.”

COST’s handiwork can be found in the intricate exterior of the Totara Market restaurant at Lost Island Themepark.

The next step in the process is for COST to take finished models back to the fabrication plant where the company operates GFRC, FRP (reinforced polymer) and urethane spray departments as well as paint booths. Within the plant, there are also departments set up for theme carpentry, mechanical systems, and steel fabrication.

The plant also contains a 3D printer used to print scale models up to full size, and a waterjet machine for creating parts to build structural systems as well as artistic signage. An automated rebar bending machine follows the data from the 3D digital models which automate the rebar build to precision. “We have a CNC machine that helps us duplicate 3D digital model artwork as well,” Schmuhl said.

Stability in the plant

An important competitive factor that distinguishes COST within the industry, and helps ensure a high-end and consistent product, is the stability of its workforce. The company employs about 200 people, including artisans and field crews to assemble the projects. COST performs almost all work in-house in order to maintain its high QA/QC standards. The company doesn’t usually outsource work to subcontractors or freelancers.

“If you hire a field team and artisans for one project, and then on the next project, you hire another team, then consistency and the quality are likely to vary from project to project,” Foster said. “So by having our own employees that follow the same QA/QC programs, we can deliver a consistent level of authenticity and quality finishes.”

Many of the artisans working at COST studied at art school and enjoy working in different mediums. They have acquired skills that help them turn concrete into intricate-looking themework by hand carving, sculpting and painting it with natural-looking finishes to resemble ice, snow, ruins, rock, trees, roots and more. COST also works in the spirit of collaboration, as with the Houston Zoo projects where COST’s field team worked closely with the zoo’s artisan team. “The blending of the areas is really seamless. And I think that’s a real tribute to the teams that were working hand-in-hand to deliver this project,” Foster said. In the end, the artists’ skills, high standards and dedicated collaboration result in a finished product that looks and feels real and genuine, helping the zoo to connect, engage, educate, entertain and wow their guests. • • •

Rockwork theming at the new Lost Island Themepark, courtesy of COST of Wisconsin.
Gabrielle Russon
Gabrielle Russon
Gabrielle Russon is a freelance journalist who lives in Orlando. She previously covered the business of theme parks for the Orlando Sentinel, earning several statewide and regional honors for her coverage over theme park injuries, the economic challenges facing theme park workers and the pandemic’s impact on the tourism industry. A Michigan native, she is a Michigan State University graduate and has worked at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the Toledo Blade, the Kalamazoo Gazette and the Elkhart Truth during her newspaper career. In her spare time, she loves visiting Orlando’s theme parks and running marathons.

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