The Ultimate Grow: Part I

By Craig Allen

Like any construction project, building the ultimate grow operation begins long before the first walls are erected or the first wires are installed. It begins with proper planning and an excellent design, so when it comes time to set up your own facility, don’t make the all-too-common mistake of rushing the early stages.

The following is Part I of a three-part series on building a top-notch growing facility. Part I outlines the first steps in planning, designing and sourcing equipment for a 21,000 square-foot operation — equivalent to the largest grow operation currently allowed in Washington. Part II will narrow its scope to technical aspects of the build-out; Part III will zero in on the environments in each of the major rooms of a production operation.

Among the limiting factors for marijuana producers, some of the most common include growing expertise, physical space and financing. When designing a growing space, all producers should keep these aspects in mind. By taking a holistic approach to the system design, you can set yourself up for a much easier path to success. That being said, the mock system outlined here was laid out under the assumption that a group has a master gardener, a large and ideally-shaped building and strong finances. Not all groups will have everything, but proper planning can make a big difference in closing some of the gaps.

Site layout: If saving money and increasing production are important to your group, then system design should be a top priority. This is true whether the goal of the venture is a large-volume Tier 3 production crop or a boutique, small-batch Tier 1 brand.

When designing a system, there are two important questions to address with your facility: How big is the space and how much of the space is useable for growing canopy? Indoor gardens need area for more than just plant canopy; you’ll need aisle ways, places for key activities like transplanting or equipment maintenance and spill-over room for those times when plants get a bit too big.

Some growers will also decide to work with vertical gardens to increase canopy size on a smaller footprint. The key here is not to squeeze yourself out of a place to work. A smaller, healthy crop will produce higher-quality product than a larger, out-of-control-system. That means a stronger business might have fewer lights in the air.

The design layout for your grow operation needs to take into account factors like electrical constraints, drain locations, building insulation, bay door locations, ceiling heights and even the slope of the floor. But perhaps the most important part of your build-out has to do with labor.

The site layout can reduce your bottom line with lower staffing expenses. With cities like Seattle considering a $15 an hour minimum wage, marijuana businesses need to keep an eye on labor rates that could become the largest expense of a growing operation. One good way to do this is searching your growing system for processes that can be improved by saving time. An assembly line — a well-organized flow of operations where raw materials go in and finished product goes out — can save many labor hours.  Higher efficiency may be the key to a quicker expansion.

Key components: Once your system layout is drawn up, you should do a fair amount of research about sourcing the proper equipment to outfit the building. Remember, you’re growing living things. If you create a balanced environment for the plants, they will be healthier and have a higher yield. The major components needed to create this balanced environment are electrical, lighting, HVAC and plumbing.

Many growers may not be used to the large-scale gardening that I-502 allows, and with that scale comes heavy-duty equipment. For example, instead of mounting flip boxes to use one ballast in two bloom rooms, you can install commercial relays for half the cost. The same tactic can be employed with commercial air conditioning systems by installing automated louvers to manage the temperature in multiple rooms. These topics will be discussed in more detail in the next two installments of “The Ultimate Grow” series.

For the purpose of the mock system shown on Page 9, the goal was to illustrate a proven business model that has demonstrated results and reliability. The system outlined here implements the style found in almost all high-output, professional growing applications. Based on years of trial and error in the medicinal market, this model has been shown to create the optimal return on investment. There is something to be said for innovation — but it’s probably best to reinvent the wheel in your spare time, and not with your entire budget.

Scalability and use of space: This size of grow operation will be out of reach for Tier 1 or Tier 2 producers, and that means some folks will need to figure out good methods of scaling down and trying to increase efficiency.

When designing your space, you should attempt to build out veg rooms to about 30-40 percent of your canopy. The goal of your veg room should be to keep a healthy supply of veg plants on hand, so your bloom room can be filled up and flipped the same day it is harvested. One of the best ways to compete is to have no down time for blooming. If your bloom room is down for two weeks every cycle, you’re missing out on one full cycle a year — 25 percent of your profit, gone.

Another tip is finding ways to maximize the footprint of your building. Leased space is pricey and often under-utilized by growers. One easy way to maximize your space is to combine your drying room with your trimming room. If you plan your bloom cycles to finish once every two weeks, that can give you enough time to finish trimming the previous harvest before the new harvest needs to start drying in the same space.

If your building has tall ceilings, you might be able to grow a 3,000 square-foot canopy in a 2,000 square-foot building. Stacking rooms is a great option for some growers, allowing easy sharing of equipment and power. Some buildings may not have enough height for two bloom rooms stacked on top of each other, but they may have enough space for a drying and trimming room, finished product storage or even cloning and your small veg plants.

Conclusion: The best practice for designing your layout is to plan. And once you’re done planning, you should scrutinize your plan with critical eyes. Often small mistakes can mean big problems down the line. It may be a good idea to hire an expert to overlook your finished layout before you start building. It won’t cost you much to hire a consultant for a second opinion, and it may be really valuable.

Ultimately, if you turn on lights in a box, you’re going to grow bud. That’s a given; now the goal should be process improvement, making your facility more efficient, saving on labor and increasing output.

The conventional knowledge about production has hinged on one question: How much bud can you grow under one 1,000-w high-pressure sodium grow light? It’s been a pertinent question in the medical realm for years, and it has helped advance many techniques for increasing yield. But, these days, the big constraint isn’t so much power availability or number of plants. It will be space. So, the big question now is: How much bud can you grow per square foot?

Be sure to check out the June issue of Marijuana Venture for Part II of this series, which will explore the power systems needed for such a facility.

Craig Allen is an experienced grower and the co-owner of Groco, a retailer of commercial marijuana gardening equipment and supplies, based in Bellevue.


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