A greenhouse falling apart

The University is requesting $4 million from the state to build a new conservatory to house rare plants on the St. Paul campus.

Greenhouse curator Alex Eilts and Head of the Plant Biology department Gary Muehlbauer talk in the College of Biological Sciences Greenhouse in St. Paul on Monday. There is currently a legislative request to build a new Greenhouse.

Holly Peterson

Greenhouse curator Alex Eilts and Head of the Plant Biology department Gary Muehlbauer talk in the College of Biological Sciences Greenhouse in St. Paul on Monday. There is currently a legislative request to build a new Greenhouse.

by Allison Kronberg

In the winter, the College of Biological Sciences Conservatory on the St. Paul campus is an oasis for some students. It houses over 600 rare plant species from rainforests to deserts.

But the building, constructed in 1970, is falling apart.

In its 2015 capital request, the University of Minnesota requested $4 million from the state Legislature to offset the $6 million cost of constructing a new building. The state denied a request to help fund the new greenhouse last year, but many hope the mounting maintenance obstacles will help convince lawmakers that a new facility is worth it this time around.

The governor has yet to address bonding projects like the new greenhouse, so the likelihood of it receiving funding is unclear.

The current greenhouse, which is home to the most diverse collection of plants in the state, is open to the public and is used for both teaching and research.

The University first asked for funding to replace the facility back in 2000. The building, located at 1534 Lindig St., is one of the University’s oldest greenhouses.

“There’s really nothing that’s good about that facility in terms of its structure,” said Gary Muehlbauer, head of the plant biology department.

University Facilities Management does repairs on the greenhouse almost every week, CBS assistant facilities manager Brian Hjelt said. Annual repairs cost about $65,000.

“We’re on a first-name basis with all of the pipefitters and carpenters that serve that part of the St. Paul campus,” Hjelt said. “It really is very frequent, and it’s a lot of energy that goes into keeping this building running.”

The greenhouse’s concrete foundation has been shifting and crumbling over time because of the extreme temperatures inside and outside, he said. The University tried to fix the cracks in the foundation with waterproof plywood, which Hjelt said, is “not the ideal situation.”

The problems with the foundation have also caused the greenhouse frame to warp, he said, causing many of its glass panels to slide out of place. This creates holes in the greenhouse, which endangers the plants and wastes money on energy.

The heating and cooling systems themselves are also outdated.

“It’s probably one of the most energy-inefficient buildings on campus,” Muehlbauer said.

In January 2014, the facility used more than twice as much energy per foot than any other single greenhouse in St. Paul.

The proposed new greenhouse would adhere to 2015 building standards, which would make it more energy-efficient and structurally sound.

If approved, the University expects the new building to save $15,000 annually in energy costs.

It would also have new methods of temperature control to mimic different biomes and allow for a larger variety of plants, said Alex Eilts, the greenhouse’s current collection curator, who takes care of the plants.

“The diversity that we would be able to tap into would be massively larger underneath a new roof with a better environmental control system —not to mention a roof that doesn’t collapse,” Eilts said.

The existing greenhouse draws in about 600 visitors a year, Muehlbauer said, but a new location could make it more accessible to the public.

Additionally, he said about 1,600 students from 10 classes use the current greenhouse each year.

But it’s disconnected from the building that houses classrooms, so instructors have to transport plants to and from class with vans, said plant biology professor George Weiblen, who uses the plants to teach two of his classes.

“In [the greenhouse’s] current location, it’s cut off from the classrooms where we actually do the instruction,” he said, adding that even the short period of transportation outside can wilt or damage the rare plants.

The new location would be built as an addition off the Plant Growth Facilities West building, where classes take place.

Fourth-year plant biological sciences doctoral candidate Erin Treiber said she didn’t know about the existing greenhouse until the last year of her undergraduate education. But since learning about it, she said she enjoys spending time outside of class in the tropic-like setting.

“In general, we still have a great collection, a lot of the plants are in really great shape,” Treiber said.

The staff is doing their best to work with the current facility and keep up with maintenance, said Hjelt.

But many still say a more modern building in a more accessible location would make the conservatory a better public good for the state.

“The plants in there are amazing, and we want more people to see them,” Muehlbauer said. “It’s just kind of sad that they’re in such a bad building.”