Flower Power: Commercial Architecture & Cannabis Facilities
By Jennifer Luoni, director of operations and architecture, and Lauren Nowicki, chief communications officer, Dacon Corp.
From cultivation to curing, manufacturing cannabis is an exacting art that requires a careful, calibrated approach from selection, atmospheric, extraction and curing perspectives.
The rapid rise in proposed health benefits from cannabis products has sparked interest in both pharmacological properties and extraction of phytocannabinoids. Former, free-flowing growing methods of the 1960s have been replaced with an exacting discipline amalgamating scientific rigor with natural farming practices and technological innovation. While seemingly antithetical in principle, this shift can result in a profitable, high-growth business model.
Science Mimicking Nature
Cultivation rooms — whether for leaves or flowers — are designed to mimic seasons via extensive control systems. High-growth rooms, such as those for leaves, create temperature and hydration conditions that simulate the summer climate. This is designed for volume production with leaf propagation stimulated within one month.
Set between 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, plants are exposed up to 18 hours of light and watered by pressure compensated drippers so that irrigation systems deliver oxygen directly to roots. For labs dedicated to flower cultivation, environmental conditions mimic autumn, with growth cycles falling between 60 to 70 days and 12 hours of lighting.
With high water demand, irrigation rooms of up to 300 feet need to be engineered into the design. While life sciences labs tend to have deionized (DI) water systems and other industrial users have water feeds, their volume usage doesn’t equate to that used for cannabis cultivation. Those facilities that harken to organic farming principles use natural pest protection, with mites being a common choice. Cross contamination is controlled with protective clothing and with extreme amounts of caulking to seal each room.
The Perils of Processing
There are multiple processing methods. Unlike other manufacturing facilities, danger can arise when highly volatile solvents — most notably butane vapors — are removed. This necessitates rooms that are explosion-proof, regulated by cryogenic temperature carbon dioxide that is pumped in and re-circulated through HEPA filters. Masterfully engineered, these rooms are self-regulating with redundant safety layers and sensors to control gas emissions and safeguard employee health.
In contemplating cannabis construction, there can be subtle differences from other industrial entities, yet similarities as well. For foundation and structural design, most commercial users require reinforced slabs and roof structures which support heavy equipment. Yet given that the cannabis industry utilizes minimal operational equipment, little additional structural support is necessary.
In assessing special configuration, commercial facilities often necessitate a significant amount of clear height approximating 25 feet due to racking and heavy floor equipment to stack pallets. Yet in cannabis facilities, the design is focused on horizontal layout averaging heights of 14 feet because a significant portion of space is dedicated to growing tables, bottling and simple food manufacturing equipment.
Additionally, climate control comes into play. With atmospheric conditions critical to optimizing growth cycles in a limited time period, lower ceiling heights allow for the regulation of air volume and save on overall energy costs. This is uniquely similar to both commercial and large sports facilities.
Sports complexes that house disparate athletic arenas, such as a pool next to an ice rink, must contain, capture and recycle energy to maximize usage. Commercial facilities with high ceiling heights have less demand for environmental controls and less equipment usage, therein experiencing lower energy costs than cannabis facilities.
A prominent area in which cannabis power usage outpaces other industry types lies in HVAC. This is due to the fact that environments vary per room, thereby allowing for less duplication and forced specialty systems. In some cases, rooms are being humidified and de-humidified simultaneously.
Plants require humification; however, they also produce moisture that tips levels out of balance, thereby needing an HVAC system rarely seen in other industrial and manufacturing operations. Given that each industry possesses unique manufacturing requirements, the key is to not assume similarity, but rather to understand performance requirements so that the team designs and engineers accordingly.
Market Growth and Future
In 2019, 12 percent of Americans self-identified as cannabis users, with national sales growing 67 percent last year despite 2020’s COVID-19-induced pause in market activity. Currently, consumer support is at an all-time high, with 68 percent of Americans in favor of the legalization of cannabis. U.S. sales totaled $61 billion last year, with females rising to account for 48 percent of all users.
Whether medical or recreational, the largest user age group is millennials, accounting for roughly half of cannabis activity. CBD-related products, largely taken for pain, were used by 14 percent of the U.S. population in 2020. As of January 2021, 34 states have legalized medical marijuana use while 12 have approved it for recreational use.
As the industry matures, the length of time between medical to recreational approval continues to gain rapid adoption. With post-recovery and educational growth, cannabis use is anticipated to remain at historically high levels, with $100 billion in sales projected by 2030, according to data from FlowHub, which provides point-of-sale and inventory management software for the cannabis industry.
— Dacon Corp. is a design/build firm based in Natick, Massachusetts.