Designed to Grow: Creating an Optimal Indoor Facility

February 25, 2021


Designed to Grow: Creating an Optimal Indoor Facility by David Kessler

Cultivation, one of humanity’s oldest crafts, is undergoing radical transformation. And it has cannabis grows to thank for it.  

The roots of farming go back more than 12,000 years as hunter-gatherers established agrarian communities to centralize food production, sharing the work and harvest.

Naturally, these early societies recognized that certain crops grew in abundance in certain climates and cultivated those crops that allowed their civilizations to thrive. 

With trade, commodity crops grown in one area became highly prized and profitable elsewhere – from the Far East spice trade to finding fresh papaya in a New York City bodega.  

The cannabis industry can’t follow this simple, ancient calculus. 

Hamstrung by Federal regulations, the cannabis industry has done what big-agriculture and big-science could not — established a viable, locally based, indoor agricultural industry — at scale.

As with any precedent-setting innovation, there is always room for improvement. 

Time and experience breed insights.

Technology advances to meet needs. 

Allied industries take note and gain incentive to drive improvements and efficiencies. 

The desire for superior products and the need to drive profit offer constant challenges to the status quo.  

For any new or existing indoor grow operation, three factors are critical: facility design, product optimization, operational execution.

Suboptimal performance in anyone can spell disaster in the form of inferior products, rising costs, and lower profit.

First, Go With the Flow

The most efficient and effective indoor grow facilities are designed from the start as a comprehensive workflow centered around the life-cycle of the product. 

Every step within the life-cycle — how a plant moves from germination to vegetation, flower, harvesting, curing, processing, and packaging — should be orchestrated according to plan. 

Finely tuned operations will flow like literal clockwork — with each phased step organized sequentially in a clockwise or counterclockwise direction to minimize potential contamination.   

Every phase shift aligns against a set of operational considerations for both the plant and personnel. 

Of primary importance is maintaining the bio integrity of the crop itself by reducing exposure to potential contaminants or diseases and optimizing growing conditions. 

Organizing and tightly managing crops into cohorts enables plants to migrate through each phase of the grow efficiently while remaining quarantined from other grow cohorts. 

This approach helps ensure that contamination or disease affecting one cohort does not affect all.

Additionally, by cultivating the same strain as a cohort, growers are able to make decisions based on what is best for a specific genetic as opposed to selecting “good enough” actions for diverse groups of cultivars. 

Governing human access to every stage of growth is vital to both plant and operational integrity. 

Well-designed systems will exert strict controls over who has access to plants and when.

There is no reason for someone in cannabis packaging to have access to the grow area.  

Likewise, how and where do individuals outside the grow operation to access the facility?

Do incoming deliveries and outbound shipping share space?

Are deliveries of fertilizer and pots located near the front of the growing process?

If not, are you moving and tracking material across the facility, and if so, at what operational costs and potential plant integrity consequences? 

In short, no detail is too small for consideration and coordination.  

Vertically Challenged  Grows

The potential benefits of a vertical farming operation are enticing. 

The prospect of maximizing plant cultivation per square foot, and the profit that can result, is an essential consideration for any operation. 

But the benefits of growing vertically comes with challenges.

Cannabis cultivation is a decidedly hands-on operation.

Everything becomes more difficult and potentially dangerous with height from monitoring plant health, inspecting for insects or mold growth, and trimming leaf growth to promote immense and abundant flowers.

Imagine carrying bags of fertilizer up a ladder, or bringing plants down a ladder. The potential for employee injury is self-evident.

Scissor lifts, or other mechanical means of reaching vertically grown plants offer their own challenges — and additional operational cost considerations. 

Safety harnesses fail. 

Lifts only go so high, meaning some facilities will use a risky lift and ladder combinations.

It is also nearly impossible to sanitize large equipment like a scissor lift.

While every operation is different and every cultivator will have their own individual threshold for risk and reward, the bottom line is simple: any successful operation, regardless of whether it is vertically or horizontally oriented, needs to be designed and planned with meticulous attention to detail and optimal workflow.

Next: Do Right by the Strain

Just as there is no one-size-fits-all indoor grow design, every indoor facility strain has its own needs and requirements.

As a result, the entire system must be designed to flex to meet specific strains’ needs at specific times in the grow.

Monocropping strains can help solve for this challenge.

Commingling strains in the same grow room means every strain regresses to the mean.

Growers cannot take advantage of the unique properties within strains that can produce a superior product without potentially damaging a separate strain growing in the same environment. 

Consider a situation where a particular strain with the propensity to turn a beautiful shade of purple under certain conditions – exposure to a cold snap or a change in light spectrum near the end of the grow – is being grown alongside another strain that doesn’t react to those conditions (or worse, reacts poorly). 

What’s a grower to do? 

They’ll most likely play it down the middle, maintaining a consistent environment for each plant that doesn’t benefit either.

How an operation optimizes for specific strains comes down to the economics of the market. 

As yet, cannabis has not achieved commodity status where volume takes precedence over quality. 

Consistently higher quality bud will not only command a better price on both wholesale and retail markets, it will build brand equity. 

Even during periods of price compression the quality will remain a differentiator. 

Investing today in the tools, technologies and methodologies to produce a consistently high-quality product will support a business tomorrow. 

Playing it down the middle isn’t always the safest or most sure bet. 

Last: It Takes Energy to Grow

Unlike its agrarian cousins, cannabis farming is an energy-intensive process.

Recreating the outdoor world indoors requires massive amounts of specialty lighting.

It produces an enormous amount of heat and humidity, all of which must be managed within too tight tolerances to ensure the integrity and maximize each grow cycle’s quality.

All told, lighting and HVAC combined account for almost 90% of the energy consumption for cannabis cultivation.

Considering a typical indoor growing facility uses 10x more energy per square foot as compared to a typical office space(1), if a comprehensive energy management strategy is not on the top of the agenda, it is time to reassess that agenda. 

Accounting for more than half of indoor grow room energy consumption, choosing the right HVAC strategy is critical.

Thankfully, cultivation facility designers have a variety of emerging, highly efficient solutions to consider. 

While the upfront costs of these new solutions — like chilled water systems — may be multiple times the investment compared to traditional duct-driven air exchange systems, the operational savings and performance can be worth the price.  

Plus, engineering the environment within strict tolerances, including optimizing for temperature, humidity and light, can shorten growing times while maximizing product quality. 

An initial investment of $500,000 or more for a quality HVAC system must be considered as important as every other product investment — from seed, to fertilizer, to the master growers themselves. 

The Energy Clock is Ticking

According to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council (NPCC), a typical commercial cannabis grow room can consume 2,000 to 3,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of energy per pound of product. (2)

With numbers like these, it’s no wonder the clock is ticking (and ticking faster) for legislation limiting energy consumption by cannabis growers..

Already states like Illinois, Massachusetts, and Michigan are imposing strict lighting limitations of 36 watts per square foot within indoor grow facilities. 

The “standard” practice for vegetative rooms is to use 600 watts (W) of lighting for each 4-ft by 4-ft area of plants, using metal halide (MH) or high-intensity T5 fluorescent lighting fixtures.

For flowering rooms the standard practice is 1,000 W of lighting for each 4-ft by 4-ft area, using high-pressure sodium (HPS) fixtures. (1)

To meet these new requirements, indoor cultivation facility designers need to carefully consider emerging lighting strategies that take into account the optimal lighting solutions during each stage of growth.  

Grow houses operating in the Pacific Northwest, for example; operators are successfully using LED lighting fixtures in vegetative rooms, saving up to 50% of the lighting energy than the standard practice.

For flower rooms, double-ended, high-pressure sodium (HPS) fixtures save 20-25% compared to the traditional HPS fixtures.

(1)Highly efficient LED lighting fixtures not only consume far less energy than their standard lighting counterparts, they generate a third less heat due to their higher efficiency at converting electrons into photons.

Reducing the heat load drives an associated reduction in HVAC capacity and operational costs — driving a double benefit for the entire operation.

Don’t Just Replicate – Optimize Growing

Designing an indoor grow facility is an opportunity to do more than just replicate nature.

It’s an opportunity to optimize a 12,000-year-old process.

Indoor cannabis cultivation is living proof that indoor agriculture can operate at scale.

At a time when the world faces an increasingly uncertain environment, cannabis just might chart the course for the future of sustainable, locally-grown agriculture.  

To meet that future, we need to keep pushing the limits of design, operations and energy efficiency. 

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