by NCIA’s Facilities Design Committee
Facility layout and design are important components of overall operations, both in terms of maximizing the effectiveness and efficiency of the process(s) executed in a facility, and in meeting the needs of personnel. Prior to the purchase of an existing building or investing in new construction, the activities and processes that will be conducted in a facility must be mapped out and evaluated to determine the appropriate infrastructure and flow of processes and materials. In cannabis markets where vertical integration is the required business model, multiple product and process flows must be incorporated into the design and construction. Materials of construction and critical utilities are essential considerations if there is the desire to meet Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) compliance or to process in an ISO certified cleanroom.
All these activities require a well-thought-out and documented project plan. Unfortunately, many cannabis entrepreneurs that embark on the journey into the industry fail to properly plan, and furthermore fail to understand that proper project planning is the most critical stage of the entire project. Inadequate planning is the primary reason projects spin out of control, take longer to execute, cost more money, and ultimately fail. Proper and effective project planning involves comprehensive mapping and organizing of project objectives and goals, identifying tasks and deliverables, maintaining schedules, proper allocation of resources, and defining roles and responsibilities of team members before the project even gets off the ground. Most problems that lead to project failure can be avoided with proper project planning.
Why is project planning so important? The answer is simple. Proper project planning:
- Ensures project performance and success.
- When tasks, deadlines, deliverables, and responsibilities are defined upfront, there is a better chance the project will run smoothly, efficiently, and be successful.
- Saves money (and keeps investors happy).
- Failed projects are expensive. Rework and delays may lead to project scope creep which subsequently leads to going over budget and missing deadlines.
- Improves team communication.
- When everyone is on the same page and understands the objectives and expectations, projects are effective and timely. Routine team meetings to discuss potential roadblocks to deadlines are key to a project’s success.
- Ensures resources are properly allocated.
- Identifying team members with the appropriate skillsets to lead and manage the various aspects of a project is critical to the success of the project. Assigning an overall project manager is highly recommended.
- Project status is tracked and documented.
- Documenting target dates, deliverables, and metrics is critical for keeping a project on track. This allows everyone to be aligned and informed on tasks, timelines, expectations, and workflow.
There are several considerations when designing a cannabis operation, whether it is a grow room or a product manufacturing facility. Regardless of what type of facility is needed or desired, applicable local, federal, and international regulations and standards must be reviewed to ensure proper design, construction, and operation, as well as to guarantee the safety of employees.
Materials of Construction
The materials of construction for interior work surfaces, walls, floors, and ceilings should be fabricated of non-porous, smooth, and corrosive resistant surfaces that are easily cleanable to prevent harboring of microorganisms and damage from chemical residues. Flooring should also provide wear resistance, stain, and chemical resistance for high traffic applications. Interior and exterior (including the roof) materials of construction should meet the requirements of the International Building Code (IBC), the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and other applicable building and safety standards, particularly when the use, storage, filling, and handling of hazardous materials occurs in the facility.
Critical and non-critical utilities need to be considered in the initial planning phase of a facility build out. Critical utilities are the utilities that when used have the potential to impact product quality. These utilities include water systems, Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC), compressed air, and pure steam. Non-critical utilities may not present a direct risk to product quality, but are necessary to support the successful, compliant, and safe operations of a facility. These utilities include electrical infrastructure, lighting, fire detection and suppression systems, gas detection, and sewage.
Water quality, both chemical and microbial, is a fundamental and often overlooked critical parameter in the design phase of cannabis operations. Water is used to irrigate plants, for personnel handwashing, potentially as a component in compounding/formulation of finished goods, and for cleaning activities. Water quality should be tested and monitored to ensure compliance to microbiological and chemical specifications based on the chosen water type, the intended use of the water, and the environment in which the water is used. Overall water usage must be considered during the facility design phase. In addition to utilizing water for irrigation, cleaning, product processing, and personal hygiene, water is used for heating and cooling of the HVAC system, fogging in pest control procedures, and in wastewater treatment procedures. A facility’s water system must be capable of managing the amount of water required for the entire operation. Water usage and drainage must meet environmental protection standards. State and local municipalities may have water usage limits, capture and reuse requirements, and regulations regarding runoff and erosion control that must also be considered as part of the water system design.
Lighting considerations for a cultivation facility are a balance between energy efficiency and what is optimal for plant growth. The preferred lighting choice has typically been High Intensity Discharge (HID) lighting, which includes metal halide (MH), and high-pressure sodium (HPS) bulbs. However, as of late, light-emitting diodes (LED) systems are gaining popularity due to increased energy saving possibilities and innovative technologies. Adequate lighting is critical for ensuring employees can effectively and safely perform their job functions. Many tasks performed on the production floor or in the laboratory require great attention to detail. Therefore, proper lighting is a significant consideration when designing a facility.
Environmental factors, such as temperature, relative humidity (RH), airflow, and air quality, play a significant role in maintaining and controlling cannabis operations. A facility’s HVAC system has a direct impact on cultivation and manufacturing environments, and HVAC performance may make or break the success of an operation. Sensible heat ratios (SHRs) may be impacted by lighting usage and RH levels may be impacted by the water usage/irrigation schedule in a cultivation facility. Dehumidification considerations are critical to support plant growth and vitality, minimize microbial proliferation in the work environment, and to sustain product shelf-life/stability. All of these factors must be evaluated when commissioning an HVAC system. HVAC systems with monitoring sensors (temperature, RH, and pressure) should be considered. Proper placement of sensors allows for real-time monitoring and a proactive approach to addressing excursions that could negatively impact the work environment.
- Compressed Air
Compressed air is another, often overlooked, critical component in cannabis operations. Compressed air may be used for a number of applications, including blowing off and drying work surfaces and bottles/containers prior to filling operations, and providing air for pneumatically controlled valves and cylinders. Common contaminants in compressed air are nonviable particles, water, oil, and viable microorganisms. Contaminants should be controlled with the use appropriate in-line filtration. Compressed air application that could impact final product quality and safety requires routine monitoring and testing.
- Electrical Infrastructure
Facilities should be designed to meet the electrical demands of equipment operation, lighting, and accurate functionality of HVAC systems. Processes and procedures should be designed according to the requirements outlined in the National Electrical Code (NEC), Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), National Electrical Safety Code (NESC), International Building Code (IBC), International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), and any other relevant standards dictated by the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ).
- Fire Detection and Suppression
Proper fire detection and suppression systems should be installed and maintained per the guidelines of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), International Building Code (IBC), International Fire Code (IFC), and any other relevant standards dictated by the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ). Facilities should provide standard symbols to communicate fire safety, emergency, and associated hazards information as defined in NFPA 170, Standard for Fire Safety and Emergency Symbols.
- Gas detection
Processes that utilize flammable gasses and solvents should have a continuous gas detection system as required per the IBC, Chapter 39, Section 3905. The gas detection should not be greater than 25 percent of the lower explosive limit/lower flammability limit (LEL/LFL) of the materials. Gas detection systems should be listed and labeled in accordance with UL 864, Standard for Control Units and Accessories for Fire Alarm Systems and/or UL 2017, Standard for General-Purpose Signaling Devices and Systems and UL 2075, Standard for Gas and Vapor Detectors and Sensors.
Product and Process Flow
Product and process flow considerations include flow of materials as well as personnel. The classic product and process flow of a facility is unidirectional where raw materials enter on one end and finished goods exit at the other. This design minimizes the risk of commingling unapproved and approved raw materials, components, and finished goods. Facility space utilization is optimized by providing a more streamlined, efficient, and effective process from batch production to final product release with minimal risk of errors. Additionally, efficient flow reduces safety risks to employees and an overall financial risk to the organization as a result of costly injuries. A continuous flow of raw materials and components ensures that supplies are available when needed and they are accessible with no obstructions that could present a potential safety hazard to employees. Proper training and education of personnel on general safety principles, defined work practices, equipment, and controls can help reduce workplace accidents involving the moving, handling, and storing of materials.
Facilities management includes the processes and procedures required for the overall maintenance and security of a cannabis operation. Facilities management considerations during the design phase include pest control, preventative maintenance of critical utilities, and security.
A Pest Control Program (PCP) ensures that pest and vermin control is carried out to eliminate health risks from pests and vermin, and to maintain the standards of hygiene necessary for the operation. Shipping and receiving areas are common entryways for pests. The type of dock and dock lever used could be a welcome mat or a blockade for rodents, birds, insects, and other vermin. Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) should define the procedure and responsibility for PCP planning, implementation, and monitoring.
Routine preventative maintenance (PM) on critical utilities should be conducted to maintain optimal performance and prevent microbial and/or particulate ingress into the work environment. Scheduled PMs may include filter replacement, leak and velocity testing, cleaning and sanitization, adjustment of airflow, the inspection of the air intake, fans, bearings, and belts, and the calibration of monitoring sensors.
In most medical cannabis markets an established security program is a requirement as part of the licensing process. Facilities should be equipped with security cameras. The number and location of the security cameras should be based on the size, design, and layout of the facility. Additional cameras may be required for larger facilities to ensure all “blind spots” are addressed. The facility security system should be monitored by an alarm system with 24/7 tracking. Retention of surveillance data should be defined in a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) per the AHJ. Motion detectors, if utilized, should be linked to the alarm system, automatic lighting, and automatic notification reporting. The roof area should be monitored by motion sensors to prevent cut-and-drop intrusion. Daily and annual checks should be conducted on the alarm system to ensure proper operation. Physical barriers such as fencing, locked gates, secure doors, window protection, and automatic access systems should be used to prevent unauthorized access to the facility. Security barriers must comply with local security, fire safety, and zoning regulations. High security locks should be installed on all doors and gates. Facility access should be controlled via Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) access cards, biometric entry systems, keys, locks, or codes. All areas where cannabis raw material or cannabis-derived products are processed or stored should be controlled, locked and access restricted to authorized personnel. These areas should be properly designated “Restricted Area – Authorized Personnel Only.”
The thought of expansion in the beginning stages of facility design is probably the last thing on the mind of the business owner(s) as they are trying to get the operation up and running, but it is likely the first thing on the mind of investors if they happen to be involved in the business venture. Facilities should be designed so that they can be easily expanded or adjusted to meet changing production and market needs. Thought must be given to how critical systems and product and process flows may be impacted if future expansion is anticipated. The goal should be to minimize downtime while maximizing space and production output. Therefore, proper up-front planning regarding future growth is imperative for the operation to be successful and maintain productivity while navigating through those changes.