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

By Noel Remigio

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.

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.

5 comments on “Guest Column: Cultivation Conundrum – Expanding Grow Facilities Sustainably and Cost-Effectively
  1. shane mckee on

    Noel
    I commend you on your article, the time rush that cannabis market participants deal with often prevents proper planning and or execution of solid facility layouts. Coming from both a long indoor cultivation and construction background I have seen this make or break a business all too many times. Often you have an investor who is not savvy with the complex issues that surround cannabis cultivation and or you have a grower who has operated at a small scale and usually in a less than professional manner, this combination can be disastrous if professionals are not brought on to assist in layout, flow, access, cross contamination, water quality, environmental impact, security, community impact, front side costs, and monthly operating costs.
    I highly encourage anyone considering a cannabis venture to plan, plan, and, plan more and do this with a team of advisers who is well versed in canna business with a strong track record and proof to back it up.
    This article hit most of the many issues, great job Noel.
    Shane Mckee
    Co Founder
    Rexroad Mckee Corporation

    Reply
  2. Cary Senders on

    There is a direct correlation of using 1000w HID lights and the huge infrastructure needed to operate and cool them,that is one of the biggest impediment to not being able to scale up and optimize existing space. Growers are limited by their technology. iGROW lights which use 2/3 less energy and HVAC, allow growers to expand in their current space with their current power, by simply racking up two or more levels. Growers can double or triple their high quality yields and not pay a penny more in rents or lose production time. This is not a concept, its being done by growers in Colorado, Washington and Oregon with great success.

    Reply
  3. Kate Quackenbush on

    Here in WA state producers and processors are often locked into whatever plan they submit, sometimes in a rush, to the Liquor Control Board. That’s why Noel’s and Shane’s points above are so important. A bad plan could hamper your business for years to come, taking the time to do it right the first time will pay major dividends in the future.

    Reply
  4. Jahpharmer on

    Noel,
    Thank you for your well thought-out, experience based insight, I am sure your advise will be most helpful to many individuals and groups, as well as their investors as they go forward with expanding their grows; however, if I may, and understanding you article focused on Washington state indoor grow operations, down here in Central and Northern California we get to use sunlight and greenhouses, and, done correctly sustaining large, monthly if not bi-weekly harvests all year long is an feasible, already being done.

    Wait, before going on’n on over indoor vs greenhouse comparing every aspect of the two styles, data from reputable testing labs has now proven same strain grown in a greenhouse, that is grown to strict standards, is equal to or superior to that strain grown in a bag, no matter how big the bag, indoors under artificial light. Check with the folks at Santa Cruz Labs (sclabs.com) for verification one’s words here.

    Yes, the big boys are coming to play. Yet, there just are no machines capable of producing the same quality finished products as dedicated, skilled, hands-on workers can, and, scaling-up “boutique” quality MMJ or recreational cannabis, though challenging, is easily achievable when you’ve given good forethought to, first, visualizing the process before putting the first shovel to the ground: a large scale grow operation here requires a number of greenhouses, some dedicated to mother plants, and rooting cuttings for clones, with the rest of the greenhouses dedicated to veg and/or blooming plants in. Also you need to design in an insulated, temperature and humidity controlled building for drying-curing product that also contains a “clean room” manicuring facility as well.

    Your mother/cuttings & clones greenhouse needs light blocking from your veg/blooming greenhouse, and here placement of your controlled environment building can be used for such blocking…placing the building between long light cycle greenhouse for mothers and your veg/blooming greenhouses. Worker parking needs addressing as well as you do not want vehicles creating dust near your greenhouses.

    Utilizing a weather proof bulletin board on front of the building is a good way to display all the currently valid permits (doctor recommendations) for easy visibility for any inquiring official(s), and here extra legal protection is provided by having a 4′ X 10′ banner proclaiming our legality, who we grow for, who our on-retainer attorneys are along with contact information on how to reach them.

    It is only a myth indoor is superior to greenhouse products. Implementing hygienic cultural practices, along with choice of high-quality, uncontaminated growing media, potable quality water, never skimping on purity of growing nutrients, and choice of organic-only IPM pest control chemicals are basic givens.

    Beside natural sunlight hi-output fluorescent lights can be used to extend the photoperiod are all that is needed to keep mothers in vegetative growth and cuttings/clones as
    well. Given all the factors sunlight is much less expensive than MH and HPS lights, and can be used as a primary heat source, when/if needed, during winter months. Shaded air intake/exchange, likewise, is much less expensive than having to constantly cool indoor air, and natural wind provides much of the needed air exchange in well designed greenhouse structures…all combining to make greenhouses much more economical than warehouses.

    Proper choice of greenhouse film easily solves the visible difference issues between light green indoor grown material and what’s typically darker green greenhouse/outdoor product, too.

    Lastly; Noel, you stressed in your article the need for ergonomic, cost effective design. One couldn’t agree with you more. Intelligent application of the higher effects from using serious connoisseur quality inhaled cannabinoids offers such insights, with much laughter along the way, too. Please, stop with the way-too-dry, business as usual, just like down at the bank or the auto dealership, or the local factory mentality. Cannabis at its root is a product that directly deals with consciousness expansion, that directly stimulates creativity, that instills conscientiousness…capitalistic goals can be part of a cannabis business plan but never-never should be the be-all and end-all of such businesses…you are dealing with peoples’ innermost spirituality here!

    Nuff said for now,
    Jahpharmer

    Reply

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