February 25, 2022

Designing A Facility to Combat Hunger and Drought with University of Missouri

For designers, a greenhouse is usually a cut-and-dry project with limited room for creativity. However, that was anything but the case for University of Missouri’s (MU) dynamic East Campus Plant Growth Facility.

The project is a “wish come true” for MU as its previous home presented serious challenges around space and capabilities. Now, the state-of-the-art facility houses extensive research greenhouses and cutting-edge, controlled-environment plant growth chambers. 

MU made the project’s expectations clear from the outset. With 11 percent of the world’s population facing severe hunger each year, MU sought a space where it could conduct plant research that catalyzes solutions for hunger, drought and other related challenges. 

I think there’s a really interesting dynamic between the simplicity of the facility architecturally and then the incredible work these people do every day within it,” said John McAllister, design lead on the project. 

The Plant Growth Facility’s design consists of a long, skinny, brick head house that connects to the greenhouse and growth chambers. Inside, researchers have complete control over lighting, evaporative cooling and more. There are high clearances for plant growth, separate spaces to prevent soil contamination and a wide variety of growth chambers. The building is simple in form, elegant in execution. And it empowers agriculture magic inside. 

In the growth facility, there are growth chambers with a continuous growing season and greenhouses with an extended season outside the core of the building. Inside the chambers, you can essentially ensure there’s never ‘nighttime,’ all helping radically accelerate experiments and genomic research,” said Marc McManus, our engineering lead. The building is also guided by a space plan that will help it flex and evolve within its existing shell, making it ready to welcome new growth chambers over time as research demands.” 

Given the intense technical demands on a greenhouse, sustainable design can be a challenge. Our design team proved itself up to the test, tapping into the university’s combined cooling, heat and power plant to provide electricity generated entirely on campus, as well as chilled water and waste steam for all the building’s heating needs. 

Laboratory designer Trevor Calarco focused on the lab and science programming for the project. To ensure the building delivered on its mission, he worked with the MU researchers and its greenhouse manager throughout the life of the project. 

Their existing greenhouses and dispersed plant growth chambers were limiting the research programs. Beyond space needs, the existing facilities lacked the infrastructure to cool during shoulder seasons and systems to monitor and control environmental parameters. It was not ideal,” said Calarco. “Having their perspectives to guide this project was incredible and inspiring.” 

The greenhouse can support live soil and controlled soil in separate wings which helps researchers study farm plant material year-round. The facility includes a daylight warehouse of plant growth chambers from reach-in to extended height chambers to walk-in growth rooms. These highly controlled environments can simulate growing conditions anywhere in the world, as well as simulating the effects of climate change and increasing carbon dioxide levels on plant health and yields. 

While much of the team’s work day-to-day focused on the design and details, the big picture of this project and its mission resonated deeply. 

The research they are doing is amazing. The work here is fundamental to our collective pursuit of increasing production yields to address world hunger and includes research on how plants adapt and respond to changing environments and drought resistance,” added Marc. 

As we started thinking about the Plant Growth building design, we couldn’t help but think about plant growth and the critical role food plays in our environments. So, as we’re developing the facility, there was a sense of importance this research meant to the greater community and that we were developing a building that’s much different than most projects,” said McAllister.  

Faculty members say the building has opened the door for them to do things they couldn’t do before, and as the building continues to expand, so will research and science.