Cannabis Facility Selection
Starting a cannabis cultivation operation can be a daunting undertaking, especially if you have never been involved in the procurement a property, design of a facility, and the buildout of that building or space.
There are a couple of basic approaches to getting started. The first would be having a full understanding of what you plan to produce, how you want to produce it, and finding a facility to meet those needs. A second option is finding a facility and optimizing that facility’s inherent features to make the most of what is available. This is often the case due to limited availability of property that are compliant with local zoning regulations. In my experience reality falls somewhere in between when looking at existing property.
Once a plan for cultivation is in place, finding a property to implement the plan is next in line. The most obvious criteria are square footage and height of the building. You’ll need enough space to meet the production volume which you have already determined. You will also need enough interior height to fit in stands or tables, plants, lighting and HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning), all with their own unique variables depending on how you plan to grow.
The materials that the building is constructed with needs its own assessment. Will the materials hold up to humidity levels? Do they carry the risk of mold growth? Are they in good condition or will there be extensive repairs needed? Is there adequate insulation to maintain interior conditions optimized for the health of the plants? Is the building ‘leaky’ or is it sealed from the exterior environment? A leaky building not only will be less efficient on energy but also it carries the risk of pest infestation and must be dealt with appropriately. Building conditions vary widely across these criteria and shortcoming can usually be dealt with but rehab to “fix” an existing problem comes at a cost and is usually paid for by the tenant or operator vs the owner or seller.
Having adequate space for operational needs other than actual cultivation can have a significant effect on the efficiency of operations. Other spaces that support the grow operations include administrative offices, employee break and restrooms (with or without showers), shipping and receiving, secure and general storage, as well as ancillary functions such as fertigation and supplemental nutrients such as CO2. Layout of actual rooms and functional spaces needs to be sensible, employee and product flows must be carefully considered. Some facilities may get by with 10% of the overall space dedicated to operations other than cultivation, but likely 20%-30%, or more is realistic depending on individual circumstances. If workers are stumbling over each other or access corridors are congested, facility operations will be chaotic and inefficient. Workers need adequate access to tend to and observe plants, move material from one space to the other, to store materials in a safe and effective way. If plants are overpopulated in rooms, then yield can actually be reduced due to inadequate observations or maintenance. Utilization of movable tables can optimize the grow canopy while providing a means to access plants.
A cannabis business moving into an existing space will almost always require a “Change of Use” in both Zoning and Building Code. This essentially means the entire space will need to be upgraded to comply with current codes. Even if the space was previously used for cannabis, most jurisdictions are viewing a new cannabis tenant as a “Change of Use.”
Building and life safety code also plays into using a building or space effectively. Will fire suppression systems be required or need to be ungraded? Are there enough exits available and are they adequately distributed? Building code sets area requirements depending on what the building materials are, how many stories, and what the use of the building is. Then consideration is placed on whether or not structural elements are fire protected or not. And so on.
An additional conversation needs to be had if oil extraction is to be done in the facility, especially if a hydrocarbon method is to be used. But we’ll leave that for another time, or article.
Utilities currently available to the facility always warrant strong consideration.
Electrical service capacity is likely to be the primary concern. Due to the loads required by lighting, existing facilities and properties are often undersized and in need of being upgraded. Grow room lighting at 1000w/light adds up quickly. A 10,000 square foot facility could have 300 light fixtures which will need approximately 1500Amps of 3-phase power, or 3000Amps at 1-phase for grow lights alone. HVAC, general lighting and other power requirements could double the needed amperage.
Water service in terms of volume typically is not an issue for facilities in urban industrial areas. A 1 ½” – 2” city water tap is typically adequate for cannabis irrigation. If peak flow is not adequate a strategy for storing water on-site or can be utilized to balance needs. Water filtration must also be considered. It is likely that public or well water will not meet requirements. Pre-testing your water source is recommended prior to implementing a filtration strategy. Hard water may warrant a different filtration strategy than that of soft water. Filtration methods will have an impact on yield as well as the energy input.
While most jurisdictions do not impose special restrictions on cannabis facilities, this should still be researched to understand if any regulations are in place that may need to be addressed during design and construction. Septic systems however do not do well with a high nitrogen effluent and should not be drained to the exterior surface in some jurisdictions.
Your design team can usually implement your plan in most buildings, but the initial understanding of the pros and cons of an existing building is crucial. Oftentimes buildings that at first appear to be ideal can have significant drawbacks that require modifications. Initial budgets can quickly skyrocket if an unanticipated expense to correct or supplement a building’s shortcoming arises after budgets are set. Timeframe will likely be affected as well resulting in lost opportunity cost when entry into the market is delayed.
Few projects can have all issued covered at initial investigation but limiting the unknowns early in the process greatly increases the chances of success.