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5 Reasons to Apply a “Design-Build” Model in HVAC Systems

Apart from our deep expertise and value in engineering design, where we can provide equal value to our clients is in the design-build HVAC model. The complexity of systems in cannabis facilities usually necessitates a well-coordinated effort, with an experienced, well-qualified central party taking responsibility for the mechanical system from concept to design to equipment and integration.
September 30, 2020

Recently we published a blog about our evolution at Surna, describing where and how we started and who we are now. Today, when folks ask us to describe what we do now in one sentence, we often answer that we operate as a kind of design-build partner for cultivators, but for HVAC. 

Our evolution from equipment manufacturer in 2006 to what we are now was driven entirely by the needs of the industry, and our growth into the full-scale solutions provider we are today was born from our clients’ necessity.


Clients often ask us to send them specifications for our technologies, or to provide an engineering only proposal, and we do. We’re very happy to assist with all or part of any construction project. However, apart from our deep expertise and value in engineering design, where we can provide equal value to our clients is in the design-build HVAC model.

Often, mechanical (HVAC) systems are deployed in a more piecemeal fashion, where one entity designs the system, another entity sources and installs it, a third entity incorporates controls, and a fourth is responsible for commissioning.

This is generally fine in typical comfort cooling applications (even at scale), but the complexity of systems in cannabis facilities usually necessitates a well-coordinated effort, with an experienced, well-qualified central party taking responsibility for the mechanical system from concept to design to equipment and integration. This is a model more commonly followed in large scale industrial and pharmaceutical applications and adds enormous value in cannabis applications as well. Here are five reasons you should strongly consider a design-build HVAC model for your facility.

1. Early stage budgeting

A good partner will work with you to do early stage load calculations and establish strong budgets for a number of different options before launching into the full-scale design. We are often approached by clients who have a design in hand but are unhappy with the pricing that they received from contractors after the design was already complete. This is a common pitfall in the plan and spec model.

Working in a design-build HVAC model like ours can save weeks (or months) of value engineering. It can ensure that you avoid unpleasant budget surprises by developing those budgets at the earliest stage of the project and deciding on the technologies or HVAC approach based on those budgets. This is preferable to finding out after the fact that your engineer designed something you can’t afford to implement.

2. Evaluation of technologies

Along with budget development comes the ability to evaluate various technologies or design approaches and determine the pros and cons of each approach on a case by case basis. Often, engineering firms or HVAC contractors have a relationship with a specific manufacturer, or experience designing around a specific product. Engineers are notoriously risk averse (as they should be), but this often means that they will design what they feel most comfortable with as opposed to what makes the most sense for your facility and business goals.

In our design-build model, we are laser focused on understanding the various technologies that work best in cultivation applications, and we are experts in designing for each of them. The overarching goal at the beginning of the design-build model is to present the various options, arm the owner with the information to make the right decision for their facility; not to design the same thing over and over again.

3. Coordination

We find the most common source of delays or budget overruns in cultivation construction projects are related to coordination of engineering disciplines at the design level or trades in the field during construction. Sometimes, this is due to a failure to appoint one central point of responsibility. Other times, it’s due to scope gap—each individual trade or discipline has a defined scope, and anything outside of that scope isn’t their responsibility, so they don’t concern themselves with it.

This is a common issue even with very sophisticated general contractor’s (GC’s) with years of commercial construction experience, because cannabis facilities and their requirements are so unique. We’ve seen structural engineers fail to account for mechanical roof loads. We’ve seen GC’s responsible for coordinating sophisticated cultivation controls systems about which they have no understanding And we’ve seen situations where none of the contractors had certain elements of mechanical drawings in their scope. Appointing a central point of responsibility for all things HVAC solves all of these problems.

4. Controls integration

Most controls companies in our industry have limited or no HVAC expertise, and rarely understand the full intent of the mechanical design. We’ve seen integration issues happen time and again, where controls sequences aren’t followed, systems intended to modulate are simply enabled and disabled, or certain elements of the HVAC system aren’t even captured by the controls contractor. This can lead to weeks or months of delays, diminished performance or loss of available functionality and excessive energy use.

In some cases, a poor controls system integration can even lead to equipment failure. When the entity who designs your HVAC system also implements your controls, there are no questions about the intent of the design, or what the controls company has to account for. This smooths out the hiccups, speeds up implementation, and ensures your system is doing everything it’s capable of.

5. Single point of responsibility

This boils down to a simple question. When something goes wrong, who is responsible for taking care of the issue? HVAC systems in cultivation facilities are nuanced and complex. When the inevitable issues arise, who is responsible for identifying the cause of the issue and resolving it if there are multiple parties involved? It’s very common for finger pointing to commence if there is an issue, and few owners are HVAC experts.

When the controls contractor is pointing at the engineer, and the engineer is pointing at the installing contractor, and the installing contractor is pointing at the controls team, and none of them think the issue was part of their scope, how do you wade in and get it sorted out? When there is a single point of responsibility, you don’t have to. We do.

Given the added value associated with this kind of model, it would be natural to assume that the design-build HVAC approach would result in higher costs, when really the opposite is true. When you have the opportunity to evaluate the various approaches, and their associated costs, before the project begins, you have the opportunity to address capital expenditures before a penny is spent.

Once the project is underway, there are additional cost savings associated with reducing delays and minimizing contractor change orders. And the revenue benefits associated with decreasing time to market and expediting startup are nearly immeasurable. From a financial standpoint, there is no better option.

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