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Students aim to bring $11 million biodome greenhouse to Michigan State

February 7, 2019
<p>Rendering of the exterior of the biodome greenhouse. Image courtesy of the Student Greenhouse Project.&nbsp;</p>

Rendering of the exterior of the biodome greenhouse. Image courtesy of the Student Greenhouse Project. 

The Student Greenhouse Project aims to construct a $11 million, 150-foot diameter biodome greenhouse on Michigan State's campus, replacing ones demolished in 1998 and 2013. 

In 1997, plans were made by administrators to tear down the Old Botany greenhouse and butterfly house in north campus. Because of its deteriorating state, it was deemed too hazardous to continue regular operations.

That news didn’t sit well with community members who paid regular visits to the greenhouse. It housed a stream, a pond, a butterfly habitat and was used by the community for many things — undergraduate student research, weddings, hospital patient walks and more. 

At a public forum held Oct. 8, 1997, concerns about demolishing the facility were addressed. A compromise reached between community members and the administration allowed for a new greenhouse to be constructed on campus in its place. 

The idea is more than 20 years in the making.

Plans for constructing a greenhouse in the shape of a biodome — a massive hemisphere that would let in more sunlight than a traditional greenhouse — were first discussed as early as 2002, according to mechanical engineering junior Matthew Rightor.

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“There was a lot of development with the floor plan, figuring out what would work with the dome,” Rightor, secretary of the Student Greenhouse Project, said.  

Rightor was recruited to the project by Jacob Bruner, the group’s president, and has been with it since 2016.

“It was a relatively small project until 2016, when Jacob and I joined,” Rightor said. “We started contacting administrators, really digging into the administrative thing, looking at how we could make the project happen so that it could really impact people of our generation.”

Bruner said the project is in a fundraising phase as design details are being fleshed out. The greenhouse would be constructed next to Shaw Hall near the center of campus, according to project plans. 

Warm tropical temperatures would be maintained year-round to offer the community an escape from Michigan’s fluctuating climate. 

According to the plans, the biodome greenhouse will also feature:

  • A study lounge and conference room, with sweeping paths and green roofs on top
  • Multiple open study areas
  • A performance area with hillside terraced seating
  • A 14-foot waterfall, connected to a river and pond
  • A 75-foot-tall, column-free open interior which will allow a full tree canopy to grow, develop and support various small wildlife

A Kickstarter for the project will launch Feb. 21. Bruner said $20,000 would fund an initial architectural review. Once this part of the fundraising phase is completed, students could then present the project to the Board of Trustees for further funding and approval.

“As part of a deal with the community, the administration said, ‘Sure, we will rebuild the greenhouses, but it has to be student-initiated,’” Bruner said.

Satish Udpa, who was named acting president of MSU Jan. 17., once expressed interest in getting the project off the ground, he said.

“Udpa was one of the first administrators we met when he was still vice president,” Bruner said. “Now he’s president, so we hope that his offer is still open so that when we go back to him, we can get approval by the end of this year.” 

Bruner is hopeful the project will be fully approved, funded and built by 2021. 

“The people who are doing this are super committed, and part of the reason we’re doing this is to show that integrating sustainable architecture, this green technology is possible,” Bruner said. 

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Implementation of that green technology includes the biodome greenhouse remaining off the university’s electrical grid. Instead, it would incorporate transparent solar cells to generate electricity. Storm water displaced by the structure will be collected, treated and reused to irrigate the ecosystems inside.

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In Rightor’s vision, the biodome greenhouse would not only be a milestone in green technology on campus, but a tool for people to use to de-stress through nature. 

“We have a whole research group looking at different studies that show the impact of nature on peoples' lives,” Rightor said. “There have been multiple studies that indicate if you’re not around nature, if you’re not outside, then it impacts your directed attention.”

Student Greenhouse Project members meet in the MSU Library’s Digital Scholarship Lab Thursdays at 6 p.m. The majority of engineering, marketing and advocacy for the project is carried out by them.

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