Insights: Maneuvering Through a Fast Pace Cultivation Market

Cultivation Facility, Desert Hot Spings, CA
NGA Facility 2020, Desert Hot Springs, CA (photo by Steve Cummings)

As the cannabis business continues to ramp up in the continental US, the demand for facilities to grow, process, and sell cannabis products is accelerating at rapid pace. A shared concern for cultivators and retailers is product shortages; will there be enough cultivation facilities to provide product to the market place? The challenge for design professionals and builders is keeping pace on requirements for security, usage, and operations. These are all valid signs of a rush to market and market boom.

This rush to market like any new and evolving industry creates opportunity and risk. Both developers and builders are already seeing evidence of the unique challenges due to the frequent changing and the complex requirements for these facilities. While every location is regulated differently at the local and state levels, we’ve identified a set of success factors for cannabis facility site selection and construction for consideration.

Cory Hazlewood, DBIA
Diligent pre-construction planning

In a new industry, speed-to-market is critical but having a careful pace is mission critical. Carefully choosing the right design partners and ensuring that the drawings have been well vetted with operational end user input early is time well spent. Confirm that regulations are being addressed both from the ever changing cannabis-specific requirements to the local code requirements. One of the largest areas we have experienced learning is proper security planning. Similar to aviation type projects, Security comes first. These special use facilities for cannabis are much like any special use facility on or adjacent to an airport secured area. When it comes to zoning approval discussions with our design team we have learned that Security is the first concern. Understanding local community and police expectations for a secure facility, beyond what is required by law, is critical to ensuring the facility design and construction will be approved for operational use. Security in the cannabis industry is more than cameras and technology installation, the building you choose must offer secure and compliant entry areas for employees. When dealing with retail, this becomes an even more critical factor as you have much more activity and customer/employee cross over.

Facility ingress and egress

As you consider site planning the facility its critical to look at the off site areas as it relates to access the proposed cultivation and or dispensary. Depending on the facility location vehicular access, staging, and frequent activities always have impact of the surrounding offsite roadways. Assuring space is adequately planned for deliveries and or public/employee access is critical and what will be your typical operational peek times. Sizing your docs and well for growth and peak are also of high importance as you plan your facility. If you don’t have the right loading area design, you may have to make costly changes later in the process or worst case abandon a strategic site, because the site simply can’t alleviate concerns about safety or traffic.

Making low voltage and overall technology part of scope allows for “best case” scheduling.

Many cultivation facilities are largely located in previous warehouse or large storage box facilities. However, the shell is just the beginning. Beyond ensuring the construction is code compliant and aligns with the operational program, the construction timeline needs to account for the installation of multiple complex interlocking technology systems required to grow high-quality, legal cannabis. Major systems include advanced mechanical systems that regulate and measure air purity/humidity, sophisticated lighting systems, specialized equipment that requires custom environments, industrial-scale extraction rooms, and controlled water disbursement systems.

Mechanical, electrical, and specialized building system experts and the contractor for installation must have a collaborative design build approach…otherwise plan for many challenges.

More similar to laboratory pharmaceutical manufacturing than a family farm, cannabis cultivation requires highly specialized facility features. Design collaboration after schematic design is complete will minimize ambiguity and increase overall success of the project. Never shop critical subs, if you want a collaborative team. Select true partners, pay them for the value they bring and secure them to a fair and reasonable price. The products that will be grown in the facility will undergo rigorous testing and compliance monitoring, requiring sophisticated lighting, air purification and water management systems. Working with a knowledgeable team who can ask the right questions based on operational experience is critical to ensuring an environment conducive to growing high-quality cannabis.

Adapting to an evolving market place

Build in flexibility for rapidly evolving needs and regulations especially the transition from medical to recreational cultivation.

In a rapidly evolving industry, your facility needs to be compliant today, and give you flexibility to adjust as regulations change. The most significant change may come as the states legalize recreational and the private industry begins to build more facilities in unique local areas. By making future-forward decisions during the design build and site selection processes, you’ll ensure your facility is ready for that transition, saving time and money down the road.

Consider an experienced consultant or Design Build partner

Many people waste money by having an architect lay out the facility like a standard warehouse for receiving and distribution. Thinking about the operational usage should be the first step of your consulting partner. You’ll benefit from a design consultant and or build partner that can be fully collaborative in delivering this type of facility. Cost effective solutions come from team communication during design. Simple changes, such as moving mechanical systems closer to your transformers, can save tens of thousands of dollars on larger facilities. Placement of rooms within the cultivation facility can also create labor efficiencies. As a builder we don’t often think about this, but having rooms planned out properly can really benefit overall efficiency. Another reason why having the right people in the room during design is critical.

Some architects and engineers are not totally familiar with all the nuances of cannabis, and they can dismiss a lot of important things. Seek out someone with experience from the building use side that can be involved in the design process and also work closely with your contracting partner to allow for cost-effective innovation.

Cory Hazlewood, DBIA
Vice President

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