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Medical Cannabis Grow Facilities: 5 Things AEC Professionals Should Consider

Since June 2017, twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes, and this legislative activity has created a burgeoning market for the growth and manufacture of the controversial substance.  While the legalization of cannabis remains a topic of debate, the demand for high-tech grow facilities is nevertheless reaching its way across the country, creating new and unique opportunities for architects and engineers.  The demand, however, is not without its challenges for building and systems designers.  When faced with a grow facility project, professionals should go in understanding that with little precedent, there are bound to be unique considerations and questions raised on a variety of fronts.  As a growing number of states issue more cultivation licenses, here are five things to consider when taking on a grow facility project.

1) Flexibility in design is a must. Considering the age of the industry, there are no standards for facility design, and to add to the challenge, many different cultivation methods exist.  As Engineering News-Record puts it, “opportunities come with challenges in the embryonic industry.”  However, with cannabis now being grown at an unprecedented scale, facility projects require a much higher level of design, outside of normal criteria.  Nathan Mendel, a facility contractor in Colorado, explained “for projects in the tens of thousands of square feet…a different level of sophistication and automation is needed for irrigation, fertilization and lighting control systems that growers are learning as they go.”

2) Cannabis growth and manufacture is not required by the FDA to adhere to Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) guidelines – but this could change in the future.  While today, marijuana is still classified as a Schedule 1 drug according to the Controlled Substances Act’s criteria – which means the United States government still considers the drug to “currently have no accepted medical use” –  the FDA is in the process of conducting an analysis on whether marijuana should be downgraded. Should it be legalized at the federal level in the future, it would be prudent for professionals to design their facilities in accordance with the same GMPs that pertain to other controlled substances in the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry.  Forward-thinking designers will save time and money down the road.

3) Project financing could pose some challenges.  Despite the growing interest in the medical cannabis industry, large-scale projects are still “few and far between,” according to a December 2016 article by Quartz Media – and not without reason. “It’s difficult to get financing to go into a business that is still illegal federally, so big marijuana project – while potentially profitable – are shirked by the corporations most likely to be interested in this new industry.”  Essentially big pharmaceutical companies are still steering clear, as are traditional banks, who are likely to stay away from such ventures until marijuana is federally legalized.  What does this mean for professionals in the AEC industry?  It means most of these projects are funding by non-institutional, private investors, and those contracting with medical cannabis developers need to be cognizant of the financing hurdles that these projects could face, understanding that any hiccups in the process would trickle down to consultants and contractors.

4) Security Design will be a priority.  For the same reasons traditional banks have distanced themselves from lending money, they’ve also distanced themselves from the business of cannabis altogether, making medical marijuana a cash-heavy operation, and thus making facilities vulnerable to criminal activity.  The Cannabis Business Times stated last year that “as part of an emerging industry, growers are still on a learning curve when it comes to preventing and dealing with instances of criminal activity, but there is much to learn from consultants, security contractors and other cultivation businesses.”  However there’s a second layer to security needs; as the industry becomes more regulated and more in line with pharmaceutical manufacturing standards, facilities may also find themselves requiring sophisticated security and monitoring systems designed not just to protect against crime, but to comply with essential state of federal quality control requirements.

5) A growing cannabis workforce means heightened considerations for the health and safety of facility employees.  Grow facility owners and government entities alike have recognized a need to have better health and safety protocols and programs to protect workers in the marijuana industry.  Everything from exposure to pesticides and chemicals, grow lamps, and carbon dioxide can present potential risks to workers, and thus requires the appropriate HVAC, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection systems designed to mitigate these potential hazards. 

This article was originally published at www.philadelphiacfa.org.  The Rock Brook Consulting Group is a multidiscipline engineering design firm providing effective and innovative solutions for clients in the Education, Corporate & Commercial, Science & Technology, Data Centers, Pharmaceutical, and Hospitality & Entertainment Markets, both nationally and internationally.