Form, Function, And Photosynthesis

Construction on Global Flora, the College’s new sustainable greenhouses, began this spring

Architectural rendering of the inside of the Global Flora greenhouse.

Courtesy of Kennedy + Violich Architecture

When Margaret C. Ferguson, professor of botany, designed Wellesley’s greenhouses in the early 1920s, she dreamed of young women getting their hands dirty, bustling between the greenhouses and the botany lab in Sage Hall, and taking a nuanced and interdisciplinary approach to studying plant life. That vision has endured at Wellesley over the past century: The Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses held the most diverse collection of plants under glass in the Boston area, and they were used as a teaching tool not just for biology classes, but in math, art, and anthropology courses.

But while Ferguson’s dream remained strong, the greenhouses themselves did not. (In recent years, they were closed when winds were stronger than 30 m.p.h., due to the unnerving possibility of panes of glass falling from the ceiling.) And so, this spring, the old greenhouses were taken down and a new home for Wellesley’s “laboratory under glass” began to grow: Global Flora, a soaring, C-shaped greenhouse that will expand on Ferguson’s original ideas and allow for possibilities never dreamed of when the greenhouse complex opened in 1925.

The organizing principle of Global Flora—which is largely funded by a gift from Wellesley College Trustee Mary White ’79—will be plant form. Plants wear their history in their form, says Kristina Niovi Jones, director of the Wellesley College Botanic Gardens. “[Form is] the plant’s response to its environment and an expression of its evolutionary history.”

Global Flora will be divided into two sections: a dry biome and a wet biome. In the dry biome, for example, there will be diverse examples of how plants respond to drought. “We have a beautiful golden barrel cactus that an alum gave us decades ago from Arizona. And that’s just classic ‘minimize your surface area to the volume,’ that sort of sphere shape. … and then there are things like a baobab from Africa that has stored water in its caudex, where the trunk meets the root,” says Jones. Also, there will be no pots in Global Flora, meaning that plants will be able to achieve a fuller expression of form.

The theme is relevant to many areas of study, Jones says. “You can learn so much if you’re a careful observer of form,” whether you’re a mathematician, art historian, or botanist, she says. Jones also hopes that Global Flora will spark interdisciplinary courses and investigations. For example, students might study the interactions among the organisms in the ecosystems within Global Flora, including microbial communities. Apart from the large anchor plants and bushes, Jones says Global Flora isn’t going to be overly planned—they’re going to see how the ecosystems evolve naturally.

An overhead view of Global Flora, with its separate pavilion for the Durant Camellia

This approach aligns well with another goal—sustainability. In fact, Jones is optimistic that the building, designed by Kennedy & Violich Architecture of Boston, will be net zero energy. Instead of attempting to create very specific climate conditions, they’re choosing plants that can survive in a broader range of conditions. Global Flora will fluctuate between 55 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit, which will be less demanding for the heating and cooling system. Heat will be provided by geothermal energy. Rainwater and graywater will meet much of the irrigation demand.

Global Flora’s soil will also be continuously monitored through a small fleet of sensors, which will track everything from temperature to water content to pH to electrical conductivity, which correlates with salinity. Greenhouses that have this kind of data are extremely rare, says Jennifer Yang ’12, a postdoctoral botany fellow who is developing research and learning opportunities for students. “I’m really excited for what we’re calling ‘day zero,’ when they have all the soil in, but the plants haven’t been put in yet,” she says, which is expected to be in the 2019 spring semester. That’s when the data collection starts; from then on, students and faculty will be able to see what happens to the soil conditions over time. Faculty in geosciences, chemistry, physics, and the Wellesley Engineering Lab are eager to explore the data, which will be used in interdisciplinary introductory science courses.

There is one small part of Global Flora that won’t be in the main structure: An adjoining pavilion will hold the venerable Durant Camellia, which Henry Durant cultivated in the 1870s and donated to the College, and which was unable to be moved. Jones imagines a peaceful, quiet space with some benches, perfect for meditation and reflection.

The College’s ambitions for Global Flora also necessitated hiring a botanist with “deep knowledge of subtropical plants, as we’re going way beyond the tiny fraction of plant diversity that is available in the horticultural trade,” says Jones. She was thrilled to hire Rob Nicholson, previously manager for the Lyman Conservatory of the Botanic Garden of Smith College. Unfortunately, this meant the College had to eliminate one of the three previously existing greenhouse union staff positions. That staff member took another job elsewhere on campus, but the change was difficult, and marked by protest at the College and in Facebook groups. “We’re in transition; it’s just painful for everyone. Especially since people have so many memories and stories from the old greenhouses,” Jones says.

While Global Flora is being built, the plants in the College’s collection were moved to the Focus in the Science Center and to a greenhouse at the neighboring Hunnewell Estate. “The cool thing is that they’ve been so well received in the Science Center. And so maybe, you know, some of them will stay,” Jones says. You never know where plants will take root and flourish.

A Lot of Labs

Earlier this spring, the parking lot behind the Science Center was cleared of vehicles and a development of modular buildings—more than 30,000-square-feet total—took their places. Beginning in June, the Science Center’s L-wing (the 1977 addition for laboratories) will be renovated, and teaching and research areas will be moved to the modular spaces, or to other spaces in the Science Center and elsewhere not being renovated. “I keep telling [the faculty], it’s like those HGTV shows on going tiny,” says Cathy Summa ’83, associate provost and director of the Science Center. While things will be cozy, the College stresses that its learning objectives will not change during the construction year, and indeed, there may be some unexpected benefits—like abundant natural light in the modular units.

In the L-wing, laboratory systems will be upgraded, and the two-story Science Library will be turned into what Summa calls a “data lounge area.” When the L-wing was built in the 1970s, Wellesley didn’t have a lot of faculty doing computational work. But now almost everyone is—from biology to geosciences. “The idea here is to create spaces where we can be working with big data and providing students the opportunities to have that same kind of interdisciplinary experience that we have in the rest of the L-wing, but around data,” she says. And when the L-wing is finished in 2019, the labs will move out of the modular buildings, and everybody in Sage will take their places for the next phase of the building.


In 2017, Global Flora won a prestigious LafargeHolcim Award. Based in Switzerland, the LafargeHolcim Foundation honors projects and visions in sustainable construction.

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