• Industrial robots hang from a custom-made gantry system as they capture and collect specimen data. - photo by Charles Davis Smith, FAIA

Texas A&M University’s Automated Precision Phenotyping Greenhouse brings new technologies to agriculture.

Project Texas A&M Automated Precision Phenotyping Greenhouse
Location College Station
Client TAMU SSC Services for Education
Architect The Arkitex Studio
Design Team Soheil Hamideh, Assoc. AIA, Michael Scott Record, AIA
Contractor Vaughn Construction
Civil Engineer Mitchell & Morgan
Structural Engineer Matrix Structural
MEP Engineer Ramirez-Simon Engineering
Greenhouse Systems American Plant Products and Services
Photographer Charles Davis Smith, FAIA

Situated on the outskirts of Texas A&M University’s campus are two distinct structural volumes. The larger is mostly transparent, with technical attachments protruding on all sides, while the smaller one is monolithic, opaque, and clad in dark metal panels. Together, these volumes form the university’s new Automated Precision Phenotyping Greenhouse—a hybrid typology consisting of a headhouse, support alley, and state-of-the-art greenhouse that is seamlessly embedded into the Texas landscape. The phenotyping greenhouse utilizes advanced sensors, robotics, and controlled environment technologies to monitor and supplement agricultural crops growing in a wide range of environmental conditions. This carefully designed space does not immediately disclose the architectural and technological complexity contained within but instead hints at the wide realm of agricultural research inside.

Upon entering the headhouse, it quickly becomes clear that the Automated Precision Phenotyping Greenhouse is not just a facility for scientific inquiry but a bold statement of innovative design, showcasing the integration of modern agriculture and robot technology. The visually striking greenhouse is designed as three archetypal gable houses of unconventional heights. A central support alley connects biotic and abiotic spaces on the left and right sides. These spaces feature bright yellow industrial robots suspended from a gantry system that allows them to move amidst a variety of plants. With the process visible through the transparent double-glazed walls of the greenhouse, the facility is transformed into a living exhibition of the pioneering research projects taking place at Texas A&M.

Initiated in 2017, the planning of the greenhouse was a multidisciplinary endeavor that brought together the users, the architects, and a greenhouse consultant to craft a vision that was both functional and forward-looking. The material palette selected by The Arkitex Studio—which includes paneled metal facades, exposed aluminum structures, wooden columns, limestone pillars, and a metal roof—reflects a commitment to modularity, resilience, and alignment with its context. Positioned strategically on the periphery of the campus, the project aligns seamlessly with Texas A&M’s 30-year master plan, embodying a vision of collaborative and interdisciplinary research aimed at spearheading advancements in plant biology, genomics, and breeding.

The greenhouse challenges and redefines traditional approaches to plant characterization, or phenotyping, a process historically marked by its labor-intensive nature and the potential for contaminating or damaging specimens. Introducing a gantry system equipped with precision robots helps automate this process, bringing the imaging system directly to the plants. This innovative reversal not only minimizes the risk of contamination and damage but also marks a significant step forward in the automation of phenotyping. As Shay L. Simpson, associate program director at Texas A&M AgriLife, explains, the building is the first of its kind. The integration of artificial intelligence (AI) and a flexible robotic system facilitates a range of research activities, from entry-level scientific inquiries to addressing pressing questions related to future food security.

According to lead researcher Seth Murray, professor in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, “the success of the research facility can also be attributed to the architectural team, who incorporated the needs of the main user groups and planned for the flexibility and modularity of the architectural spaces.” He notes that this flexibility is ultimately what unleashes the potential for researchers to succeed, enabling nearly all aspects of future growth. The Arkitex Studio team consulted extensively with stakeholders to ensure that all future usages could be accommodated within the 11,400-sf research facility. The 3,850-sf headhouse includes equipment and imaging rooms, as well as general research areas that can be quickly transformed into meeting rooms. The architects strategically placed air conditioning and heating elements and furnished the space with multiple electrical outlets ranging from 110 to 220 volts, water hookups, and conduits that allow researchers to quickly position flexible research setups and equipment. In discussing the project, Joshua Peeples, an expert researcher in the field of AI and assistant professor for Texas A&M AgriLife Research, highlights the importance of considering data flow and storage during the architectural planning phase. This is particularly critical for the building, whose most revolutionary aspect is its ability to collect vast amounts of agricultural data. In 2017, when the programming phase was concluded, the integration of AI in the facility was still in its infancy; many of the approaches and technologies being used today had not yet been invented. Nevertheless, the flow and storage of data, need for server infrastructure, and positioning of data sockets had to be anticipated, thus ensuring the design’s ability to adapt to the rapidly developing fields of AI and “big data.”

Central to the project’s design ethos is the integration of robotics within the 7,565-sf greenhouse. The impressive greenhouse structure reaches a height of approximately 24 feet—a direct result of the need to house robots that hang upside down in a gantry and move throughout the greenhouse. This setup enables the robots to be programmed to reach every corner and image plants of all different sizes, says Troy Vann, program manager for the Texas A&M Plant Growth and Phenotyping Facility. Exchangeable research equipment, such as tool heads containing multispectral imaging cameras that are dictated by the nature of data collection, is mounted on the tips of the robots. The greenhouse is comprised of four biotic spaces and one abiotic space. The four biotic spaces are separated but laid out so that they can be combined if desired, and the robotic gantry system extends across all spaces, allowing for future programmatic adaptation. These spaces must also be sealed internally and externally to prevent contamination of individual research setups and the external environment.

Nestled between the headhouse and the greenhouse lies the support alley, serving not only as a crucial firewall between the two primary structures but also as a division between their respective structural and material systems. The support alley is elegantly adorned with technical equipment, digital interfaces, and arrays of conduits that gracefully follow from wall to ceiling as perfectly designed spline curves. Project designer Soheil Hamideh, Assoc. AIA, notes a significant challenge encountered during both the design and construction phases: achieving the seamless integration of a pre-engineered metal building (PEMB) with the custom aluminum structure of the greenhouse and merging the two into a unified, cohesive building. The prefabricated nature of PEMBs, which are constructed off-site, inherently limits on-site modifications. This situation required a meticulous approach in order to address the discrepancies between the shop-fabricated metal structure and the greenhouse. The solution demanded extensive field engineering and fostered close collaboration between the architects, builders, and manufacturers throughout construction.

Additionally, the architectural team faced a subtle yet complex challenge at the building’s entrance, where they worked to integrate a decorative wooden canopy with the standard PEMB framework. This endeavor demanded a forward-thinking strategy to navigate the potential constraints of the PEMB’s design. Understanding these limitations was crucial for determining the extent to which the decorative element could be blended with the standard structure. The achieved objective satisfied both functional needs as well as the aesthetic goals that Texas A&M University and Texas A&M AgriLife have for their future facilities.

Ultimately, the exquisitely designed Automated Precision Phenotyping Greenhouse stands as a testament to meticulous coordination across multiple disciplines and represents the value of future-oriented research. This synergy is beautifully encapsulated within the building’s architectural framework, placing the greenhouse at the forefront of innovative research at Texas A&M University. This endeavor aimed to cater not only to the needs of human users but also to the well-being of the industrial robots and flora residing within the greenhouse. In this context, the project emerges as a groundbreaking initiative wherein an integrated ecosystem of sensors enables the harmonious coexistence of humans, robots, and plants. Thus, it comes as no surprise that Hamideh has dubbed this building “The Living Machine.”  

Benjamin Ennemoser is an assistant professor at the Texas A&M University Department of Architecture.

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