WHY EXPERIENCE COUNTS
Figuring out where to start when you’re planning a commercial cultivation facility can be exceptionally challenging. Commercial construction projects in and of themselves are long, difficult, and expensive—throw in the unique challenges and building requirements of cannabis cultivation and it can quickly feel overwhelming. Everyone has an opinion about how to do it, but there’s no definitive guide or set of Cliff’s Notes you can reference to learn the “right” way. One of the best decisions you can make to help smooth out the process, and ensure you’re getting what you need, is to hire an experienced engineering firm to help you design it.
If you’re a small-scale cultivator planning to get big, or a new mega cannabis start-up company in need of assistance in finding one of these rare, specialized cannabis cultivation facility engineering firms with years of success under their belts, we thought it best to help you on your journey to find one.
There are thousands of competent engineering firms in North America. Only a handful of them can really be considered qualified and experienced to design cannabis cultivation facilities. Unfortunately, many otherwise reputable engineering/mechanical design companies with decades of experience and expertise in commercial building projects believe they can take on the challenge of designing a commercial cultivation facility. In the process, they often find themselves leaving out, or not understanding, crucial requirements of cultivation and leaving the owner with a facility that doesn’t meet the needs of the plant. In most cases, this is with the best of intentions—unfortunately in some cases, attracted by the allure of profitable building contracts for cultivation facilities without any experience of building them, for the purposes of growing plants they know nothing about, they try to “cross over” and fake their experience and knowledge of growing cannabis.
In either case, the result is most often cultivation facilities with poor results that negatively impact the profit margins of the unsuspecting cultivation companies they design for. The companies who did not do their due diligence to investigate the engineers they hired before hand, then spend months and even years playing “catch-up” trying to correct all mistakes the engineers made.
“The internet is littered with the mishaps of people who used engineering companies that didn’t know anything about the delicate and demanding nature of cannabis environments, didn’t ask the right questions, and ended up designing facilities that were lacking critical infrastructure and functionality for their business” says Jamie English, Surna Inc’s. Director of Marketing.
These cross over engineering firms however, are easy to spot by experienced cultivators. Successful cultivators with years of experience growing cannabis acquire their licenses after legalization. Then they start making plans to expand their businesses. They do their due diligence and find engineering design companies with success and experience in building state-of-the-art cultivation facilities.
These cultivators know exactly what they need, know what to look out for and can ask all the right questions when meeting with a potential engineering company because they learned the hard way by first building their own small-scale facility in a converted house or neglected commercial building and convert everything themselves, from scratch. Since they are not design engineers however, and are cannabis cultivation experts, they hire the pros to build them a large-scale commercial facility from the ground up!
As of this writing, 11 states have legalized recreational marijuana and 33 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana. And the list of new states working towards legalization gets longer every year.
Legalized cannabis in these states is now big business. As a result, not only are the original licensed cultivators planning to expand, but new start-up cannabis cultivation companies are forming to cash in on the Green Rush.
The business owners of these new cultivation companies are first and foremost entrepreneurs. And often, the cultivation of cannabis is just one venture among many. They have neither cultivation experience or the hands-on building experience of putting together profitable large-scale growing facilities.
As a result, they must find experienced, successful cultivators to run their new facilities. As importantly, they must do their due diligence and find a reputable, experienced engineering design company to build the state-of-the-art cultivation facility they need. Even better, their long-term success hinges on them finding an experienced engineering design company that specializes in building only cultivation facilities and has a proven track record of satisfied cultivation clients with stellar results.
YOUR GUIDE TO FINDING THE EXPERTS
What follows is our special guide to show you how to determine exactly what you need your new cultivation facility to achieve and equip you with the right questions to ask engineering companies and/or builders and what to look out for so you can find the best firm to accomplish your goals.
Be advised from the very beginning of your search for a reputable, specialized cannabis cultivation facility designer, that the entire process should be one of mutual collaboration and consultation.
1. ARRANGE AN INITIAL Q&A SESSION
You and your prospective engineering company/builder need to engage in an open conversation in the first meeting where you both are free to give straight answers and ask all the relevant questions you each need to determine your mutual suitability.
Your first question must be to determine the engineering firm’s experience. An engineering company’s successful cultivation-focused building and design experience is key to the success of your own enterprise. First, ask your prospective mechanical designer how many cultivation facilities they’ve designed and ask for client references.
Ideally, choose two of their clients to speak with at random who have operated their new systems for a full year so you can discover what their experiences with their new facility were in every season.
Next, it is crucial for you to determine the extent of your prospective engineer/builder’s knowledge AND experience with cultivation. To determine this, listen to the questions they ask you.
A top-notch engineer should be asking you the right questions to fully understand your plant strain dynamics (you likely plan to have more than one strain growing at any given time!), so the prime engineering firm you select should first ask you about your environmental priorities in the vegetative and flowering stages. They should use and understand industry terminology, be familiar with lighting technologies, and ask you questions about your cultivation techniques, grow media, and irrigation practices.
Note if they ask you whether you require a harvesting room in your planned facility for trimming and if you require a separate curing room. They should be able to freely elaborate and easily explain the pros and cons of various approaches.
2. BE WARY OF ANYONE TELLING YOU WHAT YOU NEED BEFORE ASKING YOU ANY KEY QUESTIONS
Any prospective builder who begins to tell you what you need without asking the above questions is a sure sign they have no clue of optimizing the facility they’ll build to meet your needs and enable you to achieve the final results you’ll be expecting.
Be sure your first meeting with a prospective engineer/builder is set in an open, friendly collaborative, consultative frame work where you ask what the costs will be versus shortcomings. Your prospective engineering company should be able to explain and demonstrate your options so you can make an informed decision after discussing and analyzing the various options with your team.
3. ARE THEY ASKING THE BIG QUESTIONS?
The prospective engineer should ask you a lot of questions around watering and lighting loads. The right engineer will understand the unique requirements of cultivation facilities and how those requirements fit in with local regulations and building codes. We see this overlooked often when engineers are hired. It can be very tricky to design cultivation facilities, as there is no code that directly addresses many common items in cultivation facilities like economizers, for instance. The right engineering firm should understand exactly what is required from a building code standpoint, and how to bridge the gap between building and energy codes, and what your plants need.
The right engineering firm should also be able to explain how energy is used in your facility, how that differs from comfort cooling applications, and what your options are not just from an operational standpoint, but also from a cost of operations standpoint.
4. BE CRITICAL
If your prospective engineer is “faking it” and doesn’t really understand cannabis growing facilities the way he or she pretends to, the engineer will either not be able to defend the design to local permitting personnel or over-design the system so much that the first cost is substantially higher than it needs to be. Often, they’ll design a system that they believe to be extremely energy efficient, but because of the nature of cultivation facilities and the way energy is used, that might not be the case.
5. HAVE THEY ADDRESSED THE IMPORTANCE OF BIO-SECURITY?
Whether your plan is to build a conventional facility that looks like a “big box store”, or a massive greenhouse, your building’s bio-security is essential for the biggest yields possible. The last thing you need is pests damaging or gobbling up your precious product. As much as many Americans living in warm climates will find it hard to believe, very large-scale commercial greenhouses resembling the “Crystal Palace” from the Paris, France 1900 World’s Fair, are being constructed from coast to coast all over Canada!
No matter what style your facility will be, you need to be fully protected against pests, pathogens and harmful microbes.
The right engineer will understand how vital bio-security is to your facility, and how important it is to maintain a healthy crop without a single pest. His or her understanding of these key issues (or lack thereof) will become apparent after just a few minutes of conversation, so getting a good feel for your engineer before you engage is your best assurance that the ultimate design will check all the right boxes.
At Surna, in our 13+ years of business we’ve been involved in more than 800 cultivation projects, including over 200 commercial scale cultivation facilities since 2015 alone. We offer our cannabis-specific expertise in mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) engineering design, HVAC systems and controls & automation for controlled environment agriculture. If you’ve already engaged a mechanical engineer BUT aren’t 100-percent confident in the design and would like a second set of eyes on it to be sure, reach out to us for a quick review. And if you haven’t already engaged an engineering firm, we hope this information is useful to you as you interview potential partners.