Tips and pitfalls for designing and building a marijuana cultivation facility
Designing and building a marijuana cultivation facility is no small undertaking. Like any other major project, it’s rife with pitfalls. But fear not: You can plan and take steps beforehand that will help ensure your cultivation operation won’t sink before it swims—and doesn’t bankrupt you.
Below are tips from experts to help you succeed and rest assured you’re on the right path.
1. Do find the right site and location.
Evaluate the climate and environment where you plan to build, said Luke Wilson, director of field operations at Canna Advisors, a Boulder, Colorado-based, full-service cannabis consultancy.
Wilson prefers Colorado because it has a consistent, predictable climate. It’s not too humid, and the Centennial State doesn’t have big swings in temperature, humidity and moisture.
“Every decision you make is about mitigating the opportunity for pests, disease, bacteria and microbial growth,” Wilson said.
If you pick a place to build that’s in a climate with wide swings in humidity or temperature, then you’ll spend tens of thousands of dollars on equipment such as HVAC systems to keep those variables balanced and your plants in a comfortable environment.
2. Do make sure you have enough money.
“The first thing you need to think about is your budget,” said Anya Gordon, CEO of GroTec Builders in Portland, Oregon. Her company specializes in industrial agriculture, not just cannabis. Gordon has seen several entrepreneurs start out thinking they had enough money, “which almost no one in this industry ever does,” she said.
Hidden costs can include not having adequate infrastructure to power your facility. It’s common for a project to take much longer than the original timeline and schedule. Also, prospective builders should be aware that local municipalities will likely have zoning requirements that will need special attention.
3. Do consider available power and water.
Growers in rural areas might not have adequate electricity from the power grid alone. Building the necessary infrastructure to power your grow can take years and hundreds of thousands of dollars.
David Kessler, senior vice president of horticultural solutions for Denver-based TriGrow Systems, said he’s seen a single transformer upgrade cost more than $100,000.
Also, some rural plots of land don’t have water rights. In a more urban setting, you need to consider drainage. Cannabis growers can’t have wastewater flowing back into the community’s water supply. A well-versed real estate agent—especially one who’s dealt with cannabis businesses—should be able to assist.
4. Do develop a realistic timeline.
One strategy to eliminate guesswork ahead of time is thoroughly planning your facility before breaking ground. A business plan will go through many iterations before you’re ready for construction.
Issues will no doubt arise during the construction process. State or local regulations could change while you’re building your facility, for example.
Any changes you make as you go will affect your entire timeline. For example, if you decide on different lights halfway through the building process, you may need to alter your electrical plan and, subsequently, your heating, air-conditioning and water plans.
Be aware that “it’s going to take way longer than you think,” Gordon said. A typical project can take anywhere from nine to 18 months to complete.
5. Do pay close attention to biosecurity.
To maintain a pesticide- and disease-free environment, you need to design your facility to protect your investment. Kessler recommends building changing rooms for employees to keep street clothing away from plants. He also would include “quarantine entries,” which have air curtains that blast air from above to create a physical barrier against insects and knock off any critters that might be hitching a ride on workers’ clothes.
Kessler said TriGrow’s facilities also have foot mats, so employees can clean their shoes. “This will give employees and owners the best chance of reducing the potential of entry of pathogens and pests,” Kessler said.
6. Do consider your workflow.
Kessler likes his facilities to be designed with a directional workflow for efficiency. You want to limit the movement of product and employees as much as possible, he said.
Cannabis cultivation involves many repetitive tasks, so you can save time and money by designing your facility with workflow in mind. For example, building an intake area where you bring in clones from another nursery near the potting area is ideal because the pots will be heavy and grow media will travel a minimal distance.
“Having a little bit of forethought in terms of how things are laid out can really pay dividends on making the labor more efficient and minimizing potential risks,” Kessler said.
1. Don’t ignore your building’s return on investment (ROI) or initial rate of return (IRR).
Most cultivation facilities will take about five years before they start to return profits, Kessler said.
For example, your lighting is likely going to take up to 31/2 years to pay for itself. When designing a facility, Kessler suggests business owners factor falling wholesale prices for cannabis flower into their pricing models.
2. Don’t get fooled by contractors or consultants making promises they can’t keep.
“This is a wildly predatory industry,” Gordon said. To sidestep any swindlers, make sure you walk through the project with your builder and outline exactly what you expect. You need to determine that your contractor has actually done work in the industry and isn’t just saying he has. Builders should be able to provide you with specific examples of the work they’ve done in the past. Doing that will help ensure you’re confident with the company doing your construction.
3. Don’t judge your general contractor by the company’s first project.
Everyone had to start somewhere when working in the cannabis industry; determine what your general contractor learned from the process. Check references. Visit previous projects. Scrutinize the builder’s portfolio.
“Understand that who you’re working with throughout this process is going to be a partner to you,” Gordon said.
4. Don’t accept the cheapest bid.
There’s a big difference between cheap and economical.
Watch out for a bid that gives a basic square-foot estimate, underbids the job, then tries to make up for it financially on the back end with change orders and other unexpected costs.
“If it’s the cheapest bid, then it’s not a good one,” Gordon said.
5. Don’t allow your surfaces to create contamination.
Flat surfaces collect dust and other contaminants. They also may lead to cracks where microorganisms can collect.
While Kessler sees a lot of people hanging Unistrut metal framing to mount lights and fans in grow rooms, he likes to avoid such systems because they contain tiny cracks and are difficult to clean, which creates a good home
The same goes for porous surfaces: Don’t use wood to build your bench tops. The material absorbs moisture and humidity, which leads to mold.
6. Don’t try to be your own general contractor and manage the construction project yourself.
“I don’t have a single client who has ever told me that was a good idea once they’ve done it,” Gordon said. If you’re trying to run your business and manage a construction project at the same time, you’re going to do a poor job at both.
She added, “If you’ve never had to navigate your way through a municipality, through state regulations, through permitting, it will be a million times harder in this industry than it will be in any other.”
Without a general contractor experienced with dealing with municipal codes and zoning, you’ll end up spending a lot of time at the city planner’s office.
If someone offers to do it on the cheap, be wary that person might try to cut corners.