Guest Column: Cultivation Conundrum – Expanding Grow Facilities Sustainably and Cost-Effectively

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How do you design and build a marijuana grow facility to meet the legal and practical demands of the market today, while looking ahead to future business needs and regulatory restrictions?

This is one of the most complex and confusing questions in the marijuana industry.

Many producers with a background in small-scale grow operations don’t really know where to start in planning for facilities that reach 5,000, 10,000 or even 20,000 square feet. Nor do they understand how to incorporate areas for growing, processing, packaging, quarantining and shipping.

Having designed a number of producer and processor facilities in Washington State, I’ve gained some valuable insight into how growers can minimize these complexities and establish the groundwork for expansion that will take them through the inevitable changes that will transform our industry.

Study Up on Regs

First off, I strongly recommend that producers take their local, county and state laws extremely seriously.

Restrictions around plant quantity, processing guidelines, tracking, tracing and labeling can come into play in your facility design – and how you expand in the future. In Washington State, this means getting to know your Liquor Control Board investigator on a first-name basis and diligently complying with the guidelines for security cameras, quarantine areas, canopy restrictions and trimming and packaging equipment.

But the state regulatory body is just one of several you need to take into consideration.

Larger manufacturing facilities in most counties must also undergo scrutiny in the form of building permits and inspections from their respective jurisdictions. And if your operation includes a commercial kitchen for making edibles, or a room to extract oils, you’ll also need to comply with local/state health department standards for equipment, finishes and air quality.

Many growers don’t realize that the regulatory burdens often grow dramatically as they increase in size and scope. For instance, you may lease a space with the right zoning but the building may not be suited for agricultural use.

The costs to comply may double or triple depending on the size of the operation and the needs of the city and county. Keep in mind, all buildings were designed for a specific use and federal and state regulations may require upgrades or additional safety features for new owners/tenants with a different use in mind.

Recognize New Issues

As marijuana enters the realm of legal commerce, things that may have seemed small to producers of the past generation are rapidly growing in importance.

One good example is surfaces. Whereas small-scale or home growers rarely think about the surfaces they use for handling, trimming and packaging marijuana, in today’s legal markets it’s vitally important that growers use non-porous surfaces to discourage bacteria and to eliminate the potential for cross-contamination.

Water is another example: water systems must be closed-loop, approaching “clean room” requirements to ensure that contaminated water does not make its way into your production facilities or the local water table.

, Guest Column: Cultivation Conundrum – Expanding Grow Facilities Sustainably and Cost-Effectively

Structure Around Scalability

Just as important as the above issues is the scalability of your operation. Many producers have business plans to start out with a small facility and then gradually increase their canopy size as their business gets established. This is a great approach that should be accurately expressed in the operation’s facility design. Specifically, your operation should be planned as a series of modules designed to be scaled up or down as your business needs dictate. Adapting best practices from factory design and Lean Manufacturing can be one way to implement this.

Focus on the Flow

In planning for all of these imperatives, one thing that can sometimes get overlooked is flow. How will workers move throughout your facility? How will product move? Is there a logical use of space to ensure you are maximizing every square foot?

The larger your facility the more important these flow issues become. I have worked with growers whose initial plans called for only two feet of space between rows of plants. Not only is such a design less than feasible for workers dealing with dozens of plants, it’s also not enough to accommodate disabled workers, something most businesses that are updating or renovating commercial space must do to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Plan for the Long Term

Last but not least, I recommend that growers think about the whole scope of their business, both present and future. Will you process oil at some point? How about edibles? If you are in a state that allows it, will you have a dispensary or retail outlet function at some point? The ideal facilities plan takes these future business lines into consideration, so that later additions to your revenue streams don’t get tacked on inefficiently, as afterthoughts.

There’s no doubt we are entering uncharted territory in the growing, processing and provisioning of our favorite plant. But this doesn’t have to mean growers are destined to suffer from errors in their facility design and build.

With careful planning and attention to the whole range of details, today’s producers and processors can create facilities that drive their business forward, rather than add to their list of headaches.

Noel Remigio is co-founder of Calvin Noel Design, an architectural firm specializing in designing grow and processing facilities for the marijuana industry.