7 things I now know about koalas

As an architect, you must get to know the occupants and understand their needs to inform your design. Here's a short list of what I've learnt about Koalas since working on the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital (PMKH) and Wild Breeding Program at Cowarra.

1. The Koala Story

Listening to the story of Gula, as beautifully told by Birpai woman Aunty Rhonda, has been hugely influential to our design process. The story is of a young boy Gula (‘koala’ in the Gathang language) who is turned into a koala by the Spirit Ancestors. The story serves to teach people to care for their children.

Learning from this story has established the concept of ‘care’ as the highest design pillar: care for koalas, care for Country, care for others, and care for self. Conservation and regenerative design are especially important in the context of the ongoing climate and biodiversity emergency.

2. Koalas can jump!

A koala jumping from branch to branch is something that most people are surprised to see but they can jump up to 2 metres – even further if they ‘go out on a limb’ and bend branches down to increase their range!

With their long claws and amazing climbing ability, koalas find jumping from branch to branch quite easy. We are designing enclosures that prevent koala patients jumping between pens and ensure that local wild koalas can’t get in!

3. Koalas are connoisseurs of gum leaves

Koalas eat about half a kilo of leaf every day, trying to extract nutrients and moisture from this poor-quality food source. Interestingly, they are also very fussy eaters and have often have strong preferences for certain types of gum leaves. The koalas at PMKH are offered a range of leaf species each day. We are creating space for the hard-working volunteers to efficiently prepare the volume and variety that the fussy marsupials demand.

4. Koalas get stressed too

Koalas exhibit specific stress behaviours when experiencing stress from triggers such as noises, inability to climb high in trees for safety, or territorial males being kept in close proximity to each other. Stress symptoms can include vocalising (grunting) and pacing – similar to the stress behaviours of an architect. Our designs are seeking to prevent injury or chronic stress by carefully considering how the koalas are accommodated on the site and the environmental factors that influence their wellness outcomes.

5. There will be three categories of koalas at the hospital

To determine the care and the type of enclosures needed, we have three categories of residents. We have ‘rehab licenced koalas’ who will be released back into the wild once well enough. ‘Exhibit licenced koalas’, have been treated but can’t be released because of low survival probability and become permanent residents. And ‘breeding licenced koalas’ are subjects of a pioneering new licence that will look to repopulate the diminishing koala population in bushfire-affected areas. Each category of koala requires different types of facilities, level of human interaction and biosecurity measures.

6. Recognising koalas

Since working on these projects, I have come to be able to (reasonably accurately) tell the gender of a koala based on the shape of their face, with females typically having softer features, as well as generally being smaller. Age is a bit harder to tell – this is mostly determined by tooth wear on the pre-molar and molar teeth (top jaw), after all they spend quite a bit of time grinding leaves.

7. Vulnerable to climate change

Koalas are one of the species most vulnerable to climate change due to their limited ability to adapt rapidly—and rapid climate change is frighteningly already upon us. This gives our design team determination to create building with reduced embodied and operational emissions, so that their ecological footprint does not adversely impact koala habitat.

To find out more about The Port Macquarie Koala Hospital and how you can support their amazing work, click here.

Listening to the story of Gula, as beautifully told by Birpai woman Aunty Rhonda, has been hugely influential to our design process.

Michael Jones