Glass Labs: Greenhouses Solving Global Problems

  Engineering, Science + Technology

With roots in North Carolina’s agricultural landscape, Clark Nexsen’s Chris Small is no stranger to the intersection of research, technology, and agriculture. Today, he embraces that intersection as a project manager and engineer overseeing the design and development of research and production greenhouses – “glass labs” that are transforming the way we approach problems from drought to disease.

Why are glass labs important?

The research conducted in greenhouse environments around the world has the potential to meaningfully impact human health on a global level. From more efficient vaccine development to addressing worldwide hunger concerns, glass labs support leading scientists as they explore agricultural and pharmaceutical advances. At the cutting edge of lab design, research and production greenhouse facilities bridge the gap between USDA and FDA regulations and balance technical considerations from biosafety to the prevention of cross contamination – all while housing game-changing research.

Plant-made Pharmaceuticals

Plant-made pharmaceuticals are anticipated to be a $100 billion industry by the year 2020, and the efficiency of creating vaccines through plant production is quite literally transformational for developing countries in desperate need of pharmaceuticals. With the ability to produce 50 vaccine doses per plant, versus 1-2 doses using the traditional egg method, plant-made pharmaceuticals have tremendous capacity to protect our population from the flu, Ebola, Zika, and other diseases.

In production greenhouses like those at Medicago, plants are raised, submerged in a solution containing vaccine components, and go on to spend four weeks in an incubator, naturally replicating the vaccine to create up to 50 doses per plant and over 10 million doses per month in their North American facility.

Agricultural Innovation

In terms of advances in agricultural innovation (also known as agtech), research greenhouses provide contained, controlled environments for scientists to explore gene editing and trait discovery to develop food crops that better resist drought, pests, plant disease and pathogens, and minimize the draw on limited environmental resources. At Bayer, researchers outline the broad implications of their work in stark terms: we will need to feed a global population of 10 billion by the year 2050 – requiring us to increase production by 60-70 percent per farmer. Developing crops with higher production rates, lower environmental requirements, and stronger resistance to disease is critical to meeting this need and expanding production capacity.

How do research and production greenhouses differ?

Within these complex environments, the users of research and production greenhouses have different goals and priorities, resulting in different design needs and choices. To deliver the best results based on intended purpose, our designers partner with our clients to inform decisions based on technical requirements, longevity, cost, capacity, and sustainability.

Bayer Greenhouse 5 research facility designed by Clark Nexsen

Bayer Greenhouse 5 research facility showing under bench DuctSox. Photo by Stanley Capps.

Intuitively, it follows that research greenhouses must be contained environments with high degrees of environmental control, enabling scientists to closely manage all aspects of their experiments to precise specifications. Controlled variables allow this research to be conducted out of the elements for optimal assessment of results. Additionally, these facilities generally require high degrees of flexibility as research projects and scientist preferences change over time as well as the ability to mimic unique climates from around the world.

Medicago USA Vaccine Production Facility designed by Clark Nexsen

Medicago USA Vaccine Production Facility automated plant benches. Photo by Richard Boyd.

Production greenhouses, on the other hand, are focused on the ability to consistently replicate results and maximize production capability. Flexibility is still important, but capacity takes precedence in terms of space and design, as these facilities are developed with a specific purpose and product in mind. Providing an additional growth season, production greenhouses enhance access to groundbreaking medicines such as plant-based pharmaceuticals and meet consumer demand for those pretty annuals we all love to pick up at Lowe’s or Home Depot during the spring season.

Complex Design Considerations

The greenhouse aesthetic is deceptively simple. Creating the complex environments housed within these glass and metal frames requires extensive technical knowledge and an understanding of the pros and cons of many design elements. Varying from greenhouse to greenhouse and related to the intended purpose of each facility, these elements include siting, structural types, glazing, cooling and heating methods, venting and shading systems, bench systems, irrigation and fertigation systems, lighting, environmental controls, and the disposal of genetically modified materials for biosafety.

To achieve a consistent but flexible greenhouse environment, designers and owners must work together to overcome design challenges through the selection and integration of these varied design elements. Having worked with public and private organizations including Bayer, Medicago, the University of Georgia, and the USDA, our design teams are well versed in tackling this challenge in a collaborative manner. Our experience is complemented by our full-service capability, as we bring greenhouse planners, mechanical engineers, and electrical engineers to the table early in the design process, allowing critical design decisions to be made at the right stage of project development.

In terms of developing effective, highly functional greenhouse facilities, making the right design decisions at the right time is fundamental to their success. For example, production greenhouses often benefit from different structural and bench systems that maximize capacity, while research greenhouses might require stricter environmental controls and mechanical systems to maintain the necessary environment. Through collaborative partnerships, we see a bright future for the glass labs that seek to solve global problems.

Chris Small, PE, LEED AP, is a project manager and engineer who specializes in the design and management of science + technology sector projects. He recently presented Glass Labs: Research & Production Greenhouses at the 2017 Lab Design Conference. To learn more about greenhouse design, our Science + Technology practice, or to speak with Chris, please call 919.828.1876 or email