Patience and the Art of Building Cultivation Facilities

Anyone who has ever built a cultivation facility can confirm that it’s a long and stressful process. And for those who haven’t? Hear us now: It’s a long and stressful process and it’s important to have realistic expectations about timelines during the pre-planning stages.
November 11, 2020

Anyone who has ever built a cultivation facility can confirm that it’s a long and stressful process. And for those who haven’t? Hear us now: It’s a long and stressful process. The fundraising and pre-planning stages alone take months and sometimes years depending on licensing requirements. Selection of real estate, zoning approval where applicable, and design partner selection adds months or more on top of that. And this is all before the facility even breaks ground. 

Choosing to work with design and construction professionals like Surna, with extensive experience in both cannabis and construction all over the world, can certainly help to reduce time to market and streamline the process. Nevertheless, even the best partners aren’t magicians, so it’s important to have realistic expectations about timelines during the pre-planning stages.

THERE’S A LOT OF PRESSURE TO BUILD OUT FAST

Once the investment dollars roll in and active construction begins, the pressure to finish building the cultivation facility and start growing begins to ratchet up. At this point, there are usually salaries being paid to certain key cultivation and operations staff in addition to the costs of construction. Sometimes, companies will begin construction without full funding. This forces them to take less desirable investments because they don’t have the luxury of time to find the right partner for additional capital mid-construction. In either event, the money is flying out the door, and the desire to see cash flowing in the opposite direction often leads to hasty, ill-advised decisions.

It’s very tempting to say a facility is “good enough” and start bringing plants in before the facility is truly ready for prime time. Our years of experience has taught us that this kind of decision is usually counter-productive. Because if you leave the wrong thing off the to-do list, moving plants in prematurely is almost certain to cost more than it saves.

EVALUATING WANTS VS. NEEDS

Certain security and life safety components of facilities are an absolute requirement for occupancy and licensing. All municipalities require that security systems and life safety systems are installed and inspections passed before a facility can be populated with plants. However, the systems that make a facility safe for human occupancy have little relevance to successful cultivation. Can you punt on certain wish list items? Sure. But when evaluating wants vs. needs vs. just not finished yet, it’s important to understand the big picture.

Some components are an absolute necessity from day one, and punting on them can be disastrous. You might choose to delay the completion of other items only to find out that they should have been treated as a necessity, or that they may have been unnecessary altogether. And still other items may be so difficult to implement after the fact that delaying their completion forces you to live without them.

THERE WILL BE A DIALING-IN PERIOD

Every grow will require a dialing-in period after completion and once plants are introduced. Even with all the planning, time and money in the world, experienced cultivators don’t expect to hit it out of the park on the first, second or even third harvest. Very early harvests in new facilities are often grown at a loss—staff is being trained, yields aren’t yet maximized, and quality has not yet been perfected to command top dollar for the product.

If plants are moved into a building prematurely, this dialing in period can drag out for much longer. Shortly after move in, cultivators could be missing critical tools, and implementing them takes longer when contractors and suppliers have to work around actively growing plants. This also affects worker productivity, and once those tools are available, they have to be learned, debugged, and commissioned. Ongoing work in the facility can cause a biosecurity risk, and sometimes requires interruptions to water or electrical service, which impacts ongoing cultivation.

WHAT IS MOST CRITICAL WHEN BUILDING A CULTIVATION FACILITY?

When planning what has to be done now, and what can wait until later, the most critical things to consider overall are those that require entry into the cultivation rooms by construction staff. Also, anything that requires a significant interruption of water or electrical service, such as new electrical or plumbing infrastructure in phased builds. From a cultivation process standpoint, the most critical systems to have in place and fully commissioned are those related to HVAC, lighting, CO2, irrigation and related controls. All of these components are critical.

In some cases, temporary systems (such as hand watering and trucking water around the building) can be implemented, but you must understand and plan for the negative impact they’ll have on productivity.

CO2 and lighting controls can be managed with simple timers for lights and inexpensive off the shelf CO2 controllers while waiting for a more sophisticated system to be implemented. If your local Fire Marshall requires a ventilation system with CO2 dosing systems, this will not be the case—you’ll need more sophisticated controls with appropriate UL listings for life safety.

Very short-term service interruptions may take place while the more sophisticated controls system is being commissioned, but these can usually be resolved relatively quickly, or overridden manually if there is a more serious issue.

HVAC systems are absolutely critical to cultivation processes. Rental systems for temporary use are unrealistic in most cases as they’re extremely expensive. Rental systems can also create biosecurity risks either through contamination or by maintaining a less than ideal climate. And active cultivation spaces are beyond difficult to retrofit with new HVAC without substantial disruption and added cost.

While anything can be done, HVAC systems are the one area where temporary solutions are extremely unpalatable. Ensure that your cultivation facility has adequate HVAC hardware and controls in place, fully commissioned, before bringing plants into the building.

STAY THE COURSE AND HAVE PATIENCE

When the pressure is on to start cultivating, our very best advice is to stay the course and have patience. We know that this is easier said than done, but if you do your best to make sure that every tool possible is operating on all cylinders before planting, you will arm your cultivation team for success. This strategy will ultimately result in the best possible outcome. Ensuring that you’ve done everything possible to support the cultivation operations before planting will streamline the dial-in period and shorten the path to positive cashflow. Even if that means taking extra time to get plants in the building.

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