Plant Biosciences stark contrast to building it replaces

Friday’s grand opening of the Plant Biosciences Building on the Pullman campus marks the end of an era and the ushering in of a new style of research at Washington State University. From architectural design, to air circulation, lighting, space and interdisciplinary collaboration, it’s a whole new ball game in scientific research.

The difference between WSU’s new $39 million Plant Biosciences Building and Johnson Hall next door is night and day, according to WSU adjunct faculty and research geneticist Linda Thomashow.

“The laboratories in Johnson Hall don’t have windows,” she said. “The natural light in Plant Biosciences is just a wonderful thing.”

Thomashow, who works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) Root Disease and Biological Control Unit, is one of 30 scientists who moved their laboratories to the new building last summer. Most came from Johnson Hall.

“We have much more space in the new building,” she said. “It’s not entirely the amount of square feet that we have, but the design of the space is so much better. It’s designed for the kinds of research we do today.”

Forty years of change

Johnson Hall was built in the late 1950s and dedicated in 1961. Originally, it housed 42 research laboratories, 19 teaching laboratories, several College of Agriculture academic departments, some extension personnel, USDA-ARS scientists and the Army and Air Force military science programs.

Over time, the needs of the scientists changed, and the building grew old.

“Johnson Hall was never designed for the type of research that has evolved over the past 40 years,” said Pete Jacoby, associate dean of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences (CAHNRS). “The air balance was so poor that fumes were having an impact on the air quality. More than 100 complaints were filed by employees.”

Another issue was cooling.

“Johnson Hall is not air conditioned,” Thomashow said. “We bought air conditioners for two of our rooms because the equipment would not function without it.” One room contains close to $1 million dollars worth of scientific equipment.

A consulting firm was hired in 1998 to assess Johnson Hall. “The bottom line was that the building was on the verge of failure in all aspects,” Jacoby said. “The only solid thing was the concrete it was made from.”

Cost of renovation proved prohibitive. A new idea emerged after the university called in consultants: replace Johnson Hall with a group of smaller buildings, assembling scientists in one area who share interests in plant science and biotechnology.

That made sense from a funding standpoint as well.

Several more to come
The state authorized $39 million between 1999 and 2003 to design, build and equip the new building. Ground was broken in 2003, and construction was completed in May.

The Plant Biosciences Building houses research programs of scientists from four departments in CAHNRS; a plant transformation core laboratory from the Center for Integrated Biotechnology, and a number of USDA-ARS scientists.

The research laboratories located on the top three floors are interconnected and incorporate a number of shared-and common-use equipment areas to save money and encourage collaboration. Informal meeting space is provided to encourage people to get together to exchange ideas.

Because of the nature of the work and materials used, access to the research laboratories is restricted.

Public space on the ground floors includes four high-tech teaching laboratories. Each is supported by a preparation lab that provides additional flexibility for instruction and conducting experimental procedures.

“I think the state-of-the-art facilities in the new Plant Biosciences Building and its design to reflect the needs of investigators will greatly benefit our research,” said Joe Poovaiah, professor of horticulture. “WSU’s plant science research program is internationally recognized, and it is nice to have this new world-class facility to support it.” Poovaiah just had a paper published in the prestigious science journal Nature (for details see WSU Today online at

Eventually, six more buildings — all interconnected — may be built in the neighborhood, housing scientists from several colleges as well as the USDA-ARS. “I think this complex will help position the state to lead the West Coast in economic development as biotechnology is exploited to its fullest extent,” Jacoby said.

(Photos below: Top includes (l-r) Gov. Christine Gregoire, U.S. Rep Cathy McMorris, WSU Regent Peter Goldmark, and CAHNRS Dean Daniel Bernardo. Bottom includes Bernardo and Gregoire.)

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