Carnegie Mellon University

Missy Unkovic

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Building the Greenest Greenhouse

Phipps Conservatory & Botanical Gardens

As a child, Missy Unkovic (S '68) loved running through Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens with her brother, stopping frequently along the trails to study the fish swimming in the ponds.

Today, she is vice chair of the conservatory's board of trustees and has spent years working to help the greenhouse reach its potential in energy efficiency.

"We have built the most energy-efficient conservatory in a public garden in the world," Unkovic said.

She speaks of three new buildings that have recently been completed: a front entrance known as the Welcome Center; production greenhouses where plants are grown; and the Tropical Forest which currently hosts an exhibit on Thailand.

"All were designed to minimize construction waste, to limit toxic chemicals contained in building materials and to use local materials as much as possible in order to cut down on energy used in transportation," Unkovic said. "And each building has specific design features that allow it to be environmentally sound."

Unkovic's involvement with Phipps began in the mid 1980s. Since the conservatory privatized in 1993, she has held various leadership positions there including a recent two-year term in which she served as chair of the board of trustees.

"It may not appear to be the most likely path for a math major to take, but when you do math, one of the things you learn on a daily basis is logical thinking, and that certainly has been a help to me all of my life," she said. "At Carnegie Mellon, I really learned how to solve problems."

As a result of her experience at Carnegie Mellon, Unkovic says she has always maintained an interest in science and math. And the media spotlight on high energy prices, global warming and greenhouse gases has kept key scientific issues at the forefront of her mind.

"Any scientific issue that becomes a political football, I have to say that I am very interested finding out which side I'm on and searching for ways to make a difference," she said.

Unkovic hopes today's Carnegie Mellon students have a good time getting their education but also realize it is something that will be of benefit to them for the rest of their lives.

"So, try to appreciate it even when you're buried under books," she mused. "The combination that the school has to offer — the math, engineering, computers and artistic side — makes it a really exciting place to be. If you're on the engineering side, try to enjoy some of the arts and vice versa."

Unkovic has been thrilled to have Carnegie Mellon's help during Phipps' recent construction and planning.

"We've had professors from the architecture department help us with the design," she said, noting that the earth tubes that cool the Tropical Forest were an idea that came directly from Carnegie Mellon. The tubes are large pipes that run fifteen feet under the ground where the air is a constant 55 degrees year round. As air passes through the tubes from the outside into the conservatory, it is cooled in the summer and warmed in the winter with no energy input. 

"And they really work! It's amazing when you walk into that building on a hot summer day from other parts of the conservatory; the air really feels cooler."

Unkovic has lived most of her life in Pittsburgh. "I am very, very proud of the years I spent at Carnegie Mellon."

Related Links: Phipps Conservatory & Botanical Gardens  |  School of Architecture  |  Environment