The expansion and renovation of the Seal and Sea Lion exhibit at the National Zoological Park evokes the coastal environment of the Pacific Northwest, creating a natural, sustainable habitat as well as an exciting, immersive experience for visitors.

Quinn Evans Architects designed the life support building featuring fresh water and salt water holding pools, advanced systems, and a new concession kiosk. The renewed Seal and Sea Lion exhibit is the feature exhibit along the new American Trail, which winds from the Elephant Outpost to the Amazonia exhibit.


  • Renovated aquatic animal exhibit
  • Integrated design with new American Trail
  • Created universal visitor access throughout the exhibit
  • New 11,000-square-foot building for animal holding and life support


  • 2016 Built by Women Award, Beverly Willis Architecture
  • Foundation
  • 2013 Presidential Citation for Universal Design, AIA | DC
The American Trail now features universal visitor access throughout the public areas, with public paths all falling within the ADA-accessible slope range of less than 5%.  © Ron Blunt PhotographyThe renovation was designed to provide the highest quality of animal care based on excellence in conservation science, while engaging visitors and supporting sustainable operations.   © Sisson StudiosMultiple fresh water and salt water holding pools, wave machines, and a design that reflects the coastal environment of the Pacific Northwest are highlights of the revitalized Seal and Sea Lion exhibit.  © Sisson StudiosMultiple vantage points enable visitors to view wildlife above and below the water. © Sisson StudiosThe renovated and expanded Life Support System building features marine life support systems, varied pools with fresh and salt-water ready systems, wave action, and adjustable shade systems.  © Sisson Studios
“We tried to create a little piece of the West Coast. You might think you’re in Oregon.”

Chuck Fillah, Associate Director of Planning and Strategic Initiatives, National Zoological Park


The Seal and Sea Lion exhibit on the American Trail project transformed the public spaces, exhibit environments, pools, animal care areas, systems, and the Life Support System (LSS) building supporting the exhibit pools. The design introduced the natural and cultural vocabulary of the Pacific Northwest while integrating local, site-specific traditions and materials and protecting the rugged grandeur of the heavily wooded, sloping valley. The LSS building provides a human context for the exhibits while functioning as an efficient space for operating, monitoring, and adjusting systems. Specially designed features include advanced life support and water-cleansing systems, varied tide pool sizes and configurations, fresh and salt-water ready systems, wave-action equipment, and adjustable shade systems.

© Ron Blunt Photography

“American Trail showcases species that are gems of North American wildlife, and treasures to us all. These animals represent the triumph of the American spirit and conservation success stories.”

Smithsonian National Zoological Park