Cultivation Facility Construction Process
While there are discrete steps in the design and construction of cannabis growth, those projects deemed successful incorporate certain practices that promote the flow of the construction process toward completion on time and within budget. Proper front-end planning is not completed until it results in appropriate values for design parameters; agreement at all levels of management, and clear direction for the design phase. Engineering the Grow following recognized industry practice and utilizing a cannabis engineer who would produce construction preliminary documents that facilitate clear procurement and process planning as well as a focused, efficient, workflow. A full return on the energy expended through the construction phase cannot be realized without a well-executed start-up and identification process that provides baseline data for effective operation and maintenance. This session describes the steps in the growing design/construction undertaking and offers practical suggestions on how to avoid pitfalls along the way.
The steps in the facility construction project include:
- Preliminary Design
- Needs Assessment
- Front End Planning
- Construction Document Development
- Start-up and Testing
One of the truisms of the construction industry is that the greatest impact on the cost of a facility can be made at the earliest stages of the process. Sometimes the special nature of cannabis grows clouds the fact that building a grow is a construction project. A traditional engineering team may be tempted to turn away from such projects due to their perceived uniqueness and lack of knowledge about the industry.
It is the experience of a qualified cannabis engineer that is most required to keep the project under control. The way to accomplish this is for the cannabis engineer to be involved in the process from its earliest stages to establish a proper layout of all processes, utility requirements, flow, and any other parameters to relay to the actual architect and build team on the project.
The Cannabis Engineer may offer design only, design/build, procurement, construction management, or combinations of these services
Procurement can pertain to purchasing equipment for the completion of the facility to a “turn-key” solution as well as overseeing the contracts of the design and construction professionals. Cannabis engineers should have input regarding design parameters such as temperature, humidity, lighting, product/workflow, cleanliness class, and energy usage as well as harvesting and storing of finished product from the grow safely and practically.
An integral part of the front-end planning should be the cannabis engineer developing a grow design based on industry knowledge in such a way as to satisfy as many requirements developed in the Needs Assessment as possible. A build and planning team may be assembled internally but frequently is drawn from specialty builders, A&E firms, and design/build firms active in the cannabis industry if not available due to location the cannabis engineer combined with an experienced local GC is optimal. The general contractor should have experience with facilities comparable in size and complexity to that being planned as well as extensive experience in construction projects of all types. The design team may offer design only, design/build, procurement, construction management, or combinations of these services. This design team should be considered a resource during the front-end-planning phase. It is the wise client who takes advantage of the experience of the design team, permitting them a large role as facilitators of the planning sessions.
An appropriate cannabis engineer/design team will demonstrate expertise in contamination control philosophies, space planning, code compliance, mechanical and electrical design, and will be familiar with materials of construction currently being used in cultivation projects. It is frequently helpful to include a member of the construction team in the front-end planning effort to advise on the constructability of the facility being planned. Unrealistic construction schedules will be avoided, and field rework will be minimized if appropriate attention is paid to the construction phase early in the planning process.
Front-end planning typically utilizes the expertise of the cannabis engineer to generate the processes and requirements of the facility to present to the design team. With this information in hand, the cannabis engineer begins the facility design process by incorporating process needs, code requirements, safety issues, material, and personnel flow, utility needs, etc.., into the first-cut approach.
All teams have an opportunity to review the effort and begin fine-tuning the design to incorporate late-breaking process changes or code compliance. The preliminary design is a target that helps both the design team and the client solidify design goals. Change is encouraged at this stage and expected as all concerned are a major objective of this phase of the design effort.
Let us review the steps in growth construction and identify what should occur at each step and the potential for trouble.
It is during this early stage that a requirement for either a “working” facility or a “touring” facility should be addressed. The need for a clean sterile environment is the priority and needs to be conveyed to the client to understand the costs associated with different levels of cleanness and IPM (integrated pest management). A working facility is designed with minimal resources needed to produce a product and is not open to the public. Whereas a touring facility is designed to accommodate more interaction with visitors, potential investors, tour groups, media, etc. with more emphasis on IPM measures, and processes and usually consists of “clean” and “dirty” zones that consist of more area for clerical, board rooms for example. Touring facilities carry a higher price tag.
At this point, a study should be undertaken to determine the benefits to be realized by the new facility as well as the costs to be incurred. Costs arise not only from construction but also from ongoing operation and maintenance. In addition, the day-to-day operation of the facility generally requires that special attire be worn. Also, special procedures, frequently more time-consuming than those presently used, may be required. It is important that this information is complete and acknowledged by all parties to prevent any unrealistic expectations on the part of management and the cultivation personnel and to permit planning for revised procedures once the facility is in use.
The study should describe the goals of the cultivation program. Impact on present operations, budget restraints, tentative schedule, and the path forward. It will serve as the basis for front-end planning and will provide the standard against which the success of the program is measured.
Front End Planning
While the needs assessment and preliminary design may be conducted by a Cannabis Engineer the frontend planning process should be open to all. The A&E team will be responsible to generate final signed and stamped plans for construction including all local codes and regulations. The general contractor will be bearing the brunt of the responsibility for bringing the facility online, on schedule, and within budget. Cannabis engineers/build team and the project manager are responsible for ensuring that the facility will adequately house the proper equipment and that the facility incorporates sufficient space, utilities, process flow considerations, and provision for the flow of people and material to the facility, either out of the requirements of potential employees as well as the conditions under which they will be working.
A budget based on the agreed-upon preliminary design should be developed to make sure that the overall project is on course. This will minimize surprises further along in the design/build process phase. This permits the production work on the design documents to proceed unhindered. The more unknowns left at the end of the preliminary phase the more difficult it will be to complete design documents in a timely fashion.
Construction Document Development
The construction documents should convey the intent of the design team and client to the construction team. A good set of construction documents should result in a tight spread of construction bids as there should be little room for varying interpretation on the part of the potential construction contractors. The documents should have sufficient notes to convey the design intent without creating a cluttered appearance. The written specifications should be as brief as possible and consistent with clarity.
Complicated documents create the impression that a project may be more involved and therefore higher costs than it should be. Cautious contractors may unnecessarily inflate their bid to cover perceived contingencies. Specifications that are too wordy may be difficult to follow and similarly result in higher prices as bidders make sure all bases are covered. No one likes surprises.
The development of construction documents should be a straightforward process with little involvement by the client except to monitor the process and ensure that the original design intent is followed. While changes will always occur during this phase, (changes need to be kept in control to the best extent) they are certainly less costly at this point than during the construction phase. It is desirable to minimize such changes. A continuous sequence of changes suggests that the preliminary design phase was not executed correctly. It demonstrates a lack of preparedness on the part of the team and a lack of ability to communicate and draw out the client’s needs as a team. As a sense of clarity of purpose slips away with ongoing change the possibility of errors in construction documents can surface as costly construction changes increases.
A detailed scope of work describing the materials and services required is a vital part of the procurement process. There is no purpose in keeping the project bidders in the dark regarding what is required of them. The role of the procurement function is to obtain the maximum value, that is, the best quality and schedule at the lowest price. The clearer the scope of work and construction documents the better will be the chance of this happening. A low price is not a good value if the schedule slips by several months as a result. A poorly built facility that does not maintain design conditions is a poor value even if it was delivered within schedule.
The procurement process should qualify potential bidders by ensuring that similar cannabis projects have been delivered on time, within budget, and on schedule. References should be checked. It is expected that references offered by a potential bidder would have good things to say about that bidder, but this is not a certainty and pointed questioning about personnel, schedule, quality, change orders, follow-up, etc. can help develop a warm feeling or an uncertain feeling about potential bidders. If bids are quite close it is the quality of references that might suggest a bidder be given preference.
There are several ways in which the cannabis project can be procured. The use of in-house engineering and construction expertise may work in special situations especially if aided by an experienced cannabis engineer. Typically, problems arise when design departments, with a lack of knowledge in the industry, must lower the priority of the growth to meet their level of industry knowledge.
Grow specialty contractors and cannabis engineers have proven over the years to be adept at installing small turnkey facilities of limited complexity in a timely and economical fashion. If extensive engineering is required, if local code compliance becomes an issue, if complex process requirements must be met, or if the client requirements exceed the experience of the supplier there could be cause for concern and can lead to delays.
Design/build is a popular approach in that it suggests a single source of responsibility for all phases of the project. Frequently firms billing themselves as “design/build” are strong in either design or build, but not both. A strong design firm can put the essentials on paper, but the final price and schedule may suffer. A strong design firm can put the essentials on paper, but the final price and schedule may suffer. The traditional construction firm may lack the expertise to create a clean environment and other parameters that pertain to cannabis growth. The project may be outstanding in all respects except performance. A good review of references is essential before selecting a firm in this category.
Construction management has been increasingly used on larger projects. A good construction management firm will work closely with the client-selected engineering company to review the constructability and adequacy of construction documents. It will assist to qualify the bidder, maintaining the schedule, tracking costs, administering and overseeing, and generally ensuring that a team incorporating the strongest skills is assembled to complete the project. Grow room construction experience is essential. If not available in the area the cannabis engineer might offer construction oversight or have a reputable source to assist in management. Some consulting companies offer oversight services.
The construction process should proceed smoothly if the remarks presented are followed. Cost can increase during this phase if changes must be implemented. While change is inevitable a construction change procedure, negotiated during the bidding phase and in place during construction, will keep such change from getting out of control.
Imposing a clean zone construction protocol should be developed during the construction document phase and be an integral part of the bid documents. Once the decision is made to work clean strict protocols should be followed by everyone on the job site associated with the clean areas. A poorly conceived and enforced protocol will be a costly and futile exercise. The tendency to “build clean” on every grow project should be resisted as only the most stringent grows will benefit from such a protocol.
Client and operation teams should be encouraged to observe construction as it progresses. They will be more intelligent about how the cultivation components go together and therefore more attuned to maintaining the facility once it is completed and in operation. While suggestions should be welcomed as construction progresses a chain of command must be enforced. Any questions or suggestions or concerns should not be expressed to workers on the site but rather through management channels. In this way, good ideas can be implemented, and bad ideas shelved without negatively impacting the construction effort. Note the one exception to this practice is regarding safety. Everyone on the site has a safety responsibility. Any unsafe acts should be questioned, and supervisors consulted immediately.
Start-Up & Testing
Subcontractors on the job site should be responsible for the start-up as well as installation of equipment usually supervised by the cannabis engineer and GC. If several trades are involved in a particular piece of equipment then one trade should be assigned, by contract, as having coordinating responsibility, for that piece of equipment. This will minimize finger-pointing when equipment does not start or operate properly. This can be a sensitive issue and a construction manager can set the tone for cooperation in this area.
An independent contractor responsible to the construction manager or owner should do testing of mechanical systems with a cannabis engineer present. All start-ups should be complete and initial process settings made by the subcontractor/cannabis engineer before testing begins. The contractor should not have to repair equipment or troubleshoot inoperative equipment but rather only adjust and verify the performance of equipment.
The cannabis engineer should certify the facility is suitably qualified and operational. There should be no question of equipment being operative at this stage of the project since start-up and testing are complete. If the facility design is well conceived and the construction team has installed a quality project any failure will most likely be corrected through minor adjustments. It is important that a clear understanding of responsibility be communicated before problems are encountered. Failure to plan for potential problems could result in extending the schedule and incurring unforeseen costs at a crucial point in the project.
Recognizing the step-by-step process involved in even the smallest cultivation project can help focus attention in a manner that will result in a successful project. The schedule of a well-conceived project will include needs assessment, front-end planning, and preliminary design. It is important that project progress is measured against an overall schedule and not just by the speed with which the walls are erected.