The $22 million first phase of the elephant habitat at White Oak Conservation center comprised the one barn and fencing to enclose 135 acres.

January 10, 2022

Haskell Innovates to Create a Home for Former Performing Elephants

Haskell expedited the project's completion and came up with creative cost savings, all while taking great care to preserve the natural habitat.


In their natural environment, Asian elephants roam the plains and forests in groups, forage for a variety of food and splash about in rivers and ponds. It is this very environment that philanthropists Mark and Kimbra Walter now provide for a large group of rare species.

Owners of the 17,000-acre White Oak Conservation center, the Walters already were hosts to about 30 wildlife species, 17 of them endangered, when they arranged to acquire the elephants and make them the 18th endangered species to roam the private refuge near Yulee, Florida, about 20 miles north of Jacksonville.

White Oak brought in an elephant care team that designed a habitat, which is being constructed in three phases and will eventually comprise 2,500 acres and three immense barns specially designed and equipped to meet the elephants’ needs.

Chosen as White Oak’s architectural, engineering and construction (AEC) partner, Haskell completed the first phase, which included the first barn and fencing to enclose 135 acres, in mid-2020 and is at work designing for Phase 2.

White Oak CEO and Executive Director Steve Shurter said Haskell’s ability to perform projects on a condensed timeline and its standing as a Jacksonville institution were a perfect fit for the project.

“We have been aware of Haskell for a number of years because of the community relationship with Preston Haskell and his wife and all of the wonderful work they do,” Shurter said.

Innovating to Clear Obstacles

The project posed unique challenges. Instead of clearing land to create a convenient and efficient construction site, the habitat had to be kept as pristine as possible. Much of the property is low and wet, making it difficult to employ construction machinery.

Usually docile, elephants can exhibit fits of anger, especially the males, and fortified fencing is required to contain them. The Haskell team had to develop new methods to erect the massive fence while preserving the habitat’s integrity by using as little equipment as possible.

Steve Gibson, Director of Steel Fabrication, and Shawn Hiester, Director of Project Development, tackled the challenge.

“This is a unique project type,” Hiester said. “The client reached out to us basically because of our design-build capability. They wanted the option of having a true design and construction partner to achieve their vision. Steve and his team are world-class conservationists, not design and construction experts. They needed our support, and we were happy to help.” 

White Oak has plans to build more than 50,000 linear feet, some 10 miles, of fencing. Traditionally, fencing of this proportion would have involved using two cranes and support vehicles. Haskell engineers devised a method that employed one crane and less auxiliary equipment. Haskell’s design proved effective and resulted in savings of $20 per linear foot.

Normally when constructing this sort of enclosure, posts are installed in two separate steps, with an auger cast pile foundation set in the ground and the post installed on top of it. Haskell’s method attached the foundation to the post using a circular cast cage joining the foundation and post so the two would be installed as one unit.

Haskell worked with the subcontractor to test the new installation protocol, which proved more efficient. A fence pole could be installed and rather than using equipment to hold it while the concrete cured, the auger could be moved to the next location.

The target was to set 60 poles a day. Soon crews were installing an average of 70 poles a day, and Hiester estimated the new method cut installation time by 30%.

Hiester and Gibson saw another cost-saving opportunity when constructing the first elephant barn. White Oak Conservation had unused metal tubing that it had purchased for another project. Haskell repurposed the tubing to construct the barn’s roof.

“We decided to just do the roof with the materials we had,” Gibson said. “It benefitted the customer and put more work on our steel fabrication site. We were confident we could accomplish it. We work out the details as we go.”

With the first phase complete, a dozen female Asian elephants arrived at White Oak in March and April. As the subsequent phases are built and become operational, 12 more females and eight males will join them, making the largest herd of Asian elephants in the Western Hemisphere.

At Home in Their Habitat

The elephants quickly adapted to their new surroundings. Instead of staying in the barn, the herd soon left the building to wander outside. They threw sand on their bodies to deter insects, bathed in the pools and ate from trees and shrubs. The huge animals find shade and take naps outside.

White Oak’s purpose is simply to provide a suitable environment for the elephants, in keeping with its philosophy to "accommodate the natural behavior and social bonds of animals as closely as possible." Still, it’s a unique habitat, in that they are monitored with daily health checks by a team of professionals, led by respected elephant expert Nick Newby, who joined the facility after serving as Pachyderm Supervisor at the Oklahoma City Zoo.

There are no goals for procreation or research, although the setting allows a one-of-a-kind level of socialization among the herd, so the former is expected – they have the ability to install baby elephant pens in the barn – and the latter is possible. Ankle bracelets allow the staff to study behavior, proximity to one another, etc. Accelerometers have recorded the animals walking up to 15 miles in a day.

The elephants may no longer entertain the way they used to, but they’re no less famous in retirement. They and their new home have been featured nationally on CBS This Morning and in national publications such as The Washington Post and Southern Living.

Eventually, visitors may be able to view the elephants, but for some time, curators want to limit human contact as much as possible. If and when tours begin, visitors will view the elephants from afar using binoculars as not to disturb the animals.

Haskell now is at work designing Phase 2, which will comprise a 12,970-square-foot Bull Barn and 35,000 linear feet of enclosure and paddock fence. Construction is expected to begin in early 2022. 

“We have been most impressed with the Haskell team from its design construction and their response to tweaking little things as we went along,” he said. “We are proud of the product and Haskell should be too.” 

Haskell delivers more than $1 billion annually in Architecture, Engineering, Construction (AEC) and Consulting solutions to assure certainty of outcome for complex capital projects worldwide. Haskell is a global, fully integrated, single-source design-build and EPC firm with over 1,800 highly specialized, in-house design, construction and administrative professionals across industrial and commercial markets. With 20+ office locations around the globe, Haskell is a trusted partner for global and emerging clients.

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