Designing Your Grow for Success

This year with the Corona Virus many growers are struggling and quite a few may go out of business--especially the ones that were already struggling before this pandemic in the most competitive states (like California, Oregon and Colorado). But why do growers struggle?

There are many factors, including lack of planning, funding issues, lack of strategy, branding and compliance. But one factor that most growers suffer from is disease and high production costs. These two factors are directly related to the quality of the infrastructure and the design of their facilities. Cannabis investors had a really bad performance in this sector in 2019 and 2020 is not starting well. We see more and more distressed assets and many of those same hurt investors are now looking for deals to make their money back.

One of the key differentiators when evaluating a business is the quality of the grow's infrastructure and how good is the design. And that is for a good reason: You get from 0-60 a lot faster with a Tesla. So if you want to run a successful cultivation operation, a good design is key. Not to mention how value-engineering and good design can lower your CapeX budget.

But what is a good design? Shouldn’t it be as simple as hiring a good architect and engineers? Aren’t there standards we can meet to produce the right production facility for our goals? Well, yes and no. For one, commercial cannabis cultivation is just 11 years old, just a teenager with lots of lessons to learn. Our young industry still is hashing out the different cultivation methods that will make it in commercial cultivation and the ones that won’t be viable. The infrastructure needs of hydroponics is different from a living-soil facility and different from a coco-perlite inert medium. Also, the use of the flower determines whether our plants should produce flower with jar appeal or if it just needs the trichomes developed for extraction. Moreover, if our focus is volume over quality then we would give less individual attention to each plant and automate some systems including irrigation.

CONCEPTUAL DESIGN PHASE

So this is the first step in addressing the conceptual design phase. Defining the production goals and the types of products to be developed, understanding the cultivation method in detail to really know how can the facility truly support the operations.

As you already may know, we love organically grown craft cannabis at scale in living-soil. For us the quality of the flower that comes from natures way and the pride we feel from growing exceptional products for our patients and clients is the most important. Not to mention that it is profitable and we have a lot less competition… ;)

ROOM SIZE

For craft cannabis in living soil we want to grow in small rooms. Separating the plants in smaller batches allows us two things:

  1. By compartmentalizing the production we are more organized. Our growers are more aware of each plant and they can give each plant the individual care it needs to grow to its full potential.
  2. With smaller rooms we get to isolate potential health disease and control cross-contamination from batch to batch or with a batch.

A small room is typically between 1,000 square feet and 2,000 sf. That allows us to be able to see each plant as we walk in each room and easily “work the room” when watering, spraying, transplanting or pruning.

Cannabis Cultivation Blueprint

But that size of room also allows us to have small teams. Having teams of 3-4 people makes for great collaboration potential. Having a team leader, a couple of intermediate ones and a new one usually works out great to cross-train people on-the-job and allows for couples to work together on tasks. It is big enough to have inner supervision and small enough to be cohesive.

The other important consideration is workflow. The lean-manufacturing principles that we consider during design include:

  • Eliminating waste
  • Promote Continuous improvement
  • Respecting human elements
  • Level production (reducing peaks)
  • Just In Time production (reducing wait times)
  • Quality built-in
  • Mistake proofing

Lean Systems

It is intuitive that reducing workflow by having a centralized location for supplies and tools like nutrients, pesticides, soil , shovels and sprayers can make workers more productive. But evaluating workflow requires us to know the day-to-day activities of the growers, the tools and materials they need and the order they perform each task, so when designing a facility involve the growers.

CROSS CONTAMINATION CONSIDERATIONS

Positive Pressure Rooms

We recommend positive pressure rooms for all grow spaces. Why? Positive pressure rooms work to keep outside pathogens from coming into grow spaces. How? By keeping higher pressure inside of the rooms than the surrounding environment, air can leave the room without circulating back in. Any airborne particles that were inside of the room can be filtered out. Pathogens, such as particulate, germs and other contaminants will not be able to enter a pressurized environment. Many medical settings use positive pressure rooms for extremely vulnerable patients, to keep them protected from infections and diseases in other areas of the facility.

HOW MANY GROW ROOMS?

Another important factor to consider is the number of grow rooms you can fit in your cultivation space.

When divvying up your space, it is important to remember that you'll need both space for flowering, as well as vegetative space. Typically, a commercial grow needs to be split 3:1 grow space to vegetative space. Meaning, if you have 3 flower rooms at 1500sqft each, (total 4500sqft), you will need at least 1500sqft for vegetative space in order to repropogate those flower rooms efficiently.

Perpetual harvesting is key to a commercial grow's success. To do so, you will need to build at minimum 5 flower rooms, or a multiple that allows your to harvest on a multiple of 7 days. Every week you should be able to take down a harvest and flip the room (repropogate it with plants).

Another consideration is how much space is needed between aisles of flowering plants--do not forget this when planning out how many beds you can fit in to your space! There are typically local fire code restrictions that will call for 18-24" between each aisle so growers can move about freely. Having aisle space also helps with airflow. Just because there is more space in the room, does not mean that it needs to be completely jam-packed with plants. We have seen some grows try to maximize space by installing rolling racks in a room, only allowing 1 aisle at a time for growers to walk through. While this does allow more flowering plants in a flower room, it can cause microbial issues down the road because the rows are too tightly packed together for sufficient airflow.

VEGETATIVE SPACE

Vegetative space should make up about 25% of the total grow space. The amount of space you need will be determined by the number of plants you need to repropagate a flower room weekly (for perpetual harvest). Vegetative spaces generally have an 18/6 lighting cycle, meaning 18 hours of light and 6 hours of darkness. It is important to remember that there are many stages of growth that require this lighting routine: clones, vegging plants, and mothers.

We have seen some successful grows who were able to have all three of these stages taking place within the same rooms...but you can guess our recommendation in a perfect scenario? Keep 'em separated. If you have the space, it is best to keep clones separated in their own room while they are small and vulnerable. Clones also require higher humidity, (75-80%) versus other stages of vegetative plants which should be kept around 50-60% RH.

A simple rule always to follow is *keep moms happy.* Again, if you have the space, we recommend separating mother plants from you other vegging plants. Why? If it is your method to have mother plants in your facility and they are kept happy and healthy, you will be able to cut clones producing the same potency and vigor for many years. This is a key way to preserve great genetics.

POST-HARVEST SPACE CONSIDERATIONS

While many cultivations focus solely on the space where plants are growing, it is equally important to reserve space for post-harvesting activities. It is also necessary to determine the proper environmental controls for these separate spaces. The post-harvesting rooms should represent about 15% of the total square footage of flowering rooms.

Post-harvesting spaces necessary to any commercial grow are:

  • Dry Room(s) - make sure you plan for sufficient dry space for the amount of flowering plants you plan on harvesting weekly.
  • Curing Room - We recommend having a separate cure room in order for tight environmental control. Check out our blog on drying and curing for more tips on setting up proper conditions.
  • Trim Room - If you have enough space, we recommend separating your trim room from your packaging room. Why? Sometimes microbial problems are not detected until trimming has begun on a batch. By separating the 2 spaces, you can eliminate the potential for cross-contamination. Trim room space should
  • Packaging Room - If you have the space, a separate packaging room from the trim room is desirable. This allows you to avoid cross contamination. However, we have seen many successful grows who were able to have trimming and packaging done in the same room.
  • Product Quarantine Room - depending on your municipality's regulations, some require a designated room specifically for quarantined product (product which has failed testing). It is also a good idea, even if your regulations do not call for it, in order to reduce the risk of cross-contamination of other harvest batches.
  • Storage/Vault Room - You didn't put all of that work in to your harvests to not keep your flower nice and secure! Local regulations sometimes also dictate what kind of vault/storage requirements are necessary for your space. While it is most desirable to sell your flower within 3 months, be sure to plan for enough room to hold up to 6 months worth of harvested material if you have the space for it.

OTHER SPACE CONSIDERATIONS

In addition to spaces that deal with plants (growing, post-harvesting activities, storage, etc), also consider creating space for the following activities:

  • Security/Checking In Visitors - Depending on your regulations, you will likely need a designated area to check in visitors to your licensed facility. Typically, this area needs to be separated from the rest of the licensed area where your staff can validate identification and make sure visitors are of age to enter your facility.
  • Surveillance/Compliance Rooms - Depending on the regulations in your area, a separate room for cameras and DVDs could be required. Often, these rooms need to be separate and distinct from other areas, and only allowed to be entered by a limited number of staff for security reasons.
  • Administrative Staff - You will likely need space for administrative staff whom are working on entering your harvest and inventory data for seed-to-sale (aka "track-and-trace", ie METRC) to work on computers. If you do not have an additional place of business outside of your grow, consider space needed for accounting departments and marketing departments.
  • Locker Rooms & Bathrooms - In addition to normal bathrooms needed in a facility (usually mandated by local zoning code and the number of people projected to work in certain areas), we also recommend allocating space specifically for growers--women and men's locker rooms, with showers, are recommended to ensure your growers are entering your garden without any outside contaminants.
  • Laundry Room - Will you require your growers to wear scrubs or other uniforms? It is a good idea to have onsite laundry to make sure your growers have a fresh outfit to wear into the grow.
  • Shipping/Receiving Areas - If you have the space, consider carving out an area specifically for orders to be dropped off and sent out. This will prevent visitors from entering areas of your grow unnecessarily, reducing contaminant and security risks.

Need help designing your grow?

Designing cannabis cultivations is one of our specialties. If you need help with planning your space and proper environmental controls, contact us. We can help you grow.

Want to talk business? We’re eager to learn about your cannabis idea

Whole Grow is a proud member of these organizations

  • National Cannabis Industry Association
  • Cannabis Clinicians Colorado