Uncharted Territory: Navigating the Complex World of Cannabis Production

| June 27, 2019

by Emily Langner

In 2016, Massachusetts residents voted to legalize recreational marijuana, four years after the state approved the use of cannabis for medical use, overturning a statewide prohibition that had been in place for over a century. After the 2016 vote, the state set up the Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) for the purpose of “safely, equitably and effectively implementing and administering the laws enabling access to medical and adult use marijuana in the Commonwealth”.

Exterior of Higher Purpose cultivation and manufacturing facility

Nearly three years later, the commission now has well-established guidelines and procedures for individuals or companies interested in operating a retail, cultivation, or manufacturing facility in Massachusetts. One of those companies is Higher Purpose Corporation, led by Nathan Girard, CEO, and his two brothers, Ben Girard and Nick Girard, both chief operating officers of the company. They are currently in the design phase of a cultivation and manufacturing facility located in Lee, Mass.

Working with architectural designer Anderson Porter Design and general contractor Key Construction Solutions, Inc., led by George Mautner, Nathan Girard and his team have opted to convert an existing building, formerly a dental device manufacturing facility, into a 45,000sf indoor space for year-round cultivation and production of cannabis products for both medical and recreational use.

(l-r) Nathan Girard, Nick Girard, and Ben Girard of Higher Purpose Corporation

These three brothers have done their homework, spending years researching how these facilities operate, and the last 18 months putting together a plan for their facility and assembling a team of experts in the field to bring it to life. With combined expertise in real estate, finance, science and chemistry, and IT and technology, Nathan, Ben, and Nick have been able to merge their backgrounds and apply their experience and knowledge to this new and complex industry, but Nathan Girard says, “The important thing is then identifying the things we don’t know and hiring experts in the field to ensure a successful completion.”

With Massachusetts’ strict requirements, sustainability is Higher Purpose Corp.’s highest priority while putting out a safe and consistent product for it’s customers, but the energy requirements of an indoor facility designed to grow living plants makes that a bigger challenge than with most other commercial operations.

Brian D. Anderson, co-founder and principal of Anderson Porter, has been an architect for 25 years, but has spent the last five designing for the cannabis industry. He currently sits on the Cannabis Energy Roundtable advisory board that reports to the Department of Energy and the CCC on topics like energy consumption, sustainability, and best practices in water usage and management.

Brian Anderson of Anderson Porter Design

The regulations and guidelines being placed on a formerly unregulated industry, Anderson says, are creating opportunities for developing and utilizing technologies that contribute to operating a sustainable facility, like incorporating LED lighting instead of the commonly-used high pressure sodium lights that have a high-energy output but also a high energy expense.

Nathan Girard says that by using LED technology to grow the plants, “We’re spending 10 times more to be sustainable than we would have with less sustainable options,” but the investment is returned through subsidies and rebates from Eversource, the utility that services the area. He and Anderson both emphasize that involving the utility company early in the design process, before any decisions have been finalized, is essential. Actively engaging the utility company and its team of review engineers provided Higher Purpose the opportunity to receive those important subsidies that offset the expense of implementing the more costly, but more sustainable, systems vital to growing a quality product. Working hand in hand with Eversource has saved the company up to 70% in energy costs, and will help them avoid unexpected usage and consumption penalties down the road.

Another decision Nathan Girard and his team made was to install gas fired chillers for ventilation, temperature, and humidity control instead of more traditional HVAC systems. Although the cost of installing them can be up to three times more than the alternatives, the return in energy savings and subsidies make up for it, allowing the facility to have a smaller environmental impact.

He says additional sustainability efforts will include “mixing our own nutrients package per crop to eliminate pesticides, and reducing our water usage by utilizing reclamation systems and condensate controls.” Using alternatives to pesticides is especially important because cannabis is a product which crosses the blood-brain barrier. Instead of pesticides, millions of ladybugs or green lacewing will be released to naturally eliminate harmful pests.

Rendering of a 110,000sf controlled environment agriculture production and manufacturing facility in Michigan, designed by Anderson Porter, similar to the Higher Purpose facility in Lee, Mass. / Anderson Porter Design

Additionally, the team is looking at automation systems like Grow Intelligence that monitor air and wind speed and circulation; temperature and humidity of each individual growing room; lighting controls; and growth patterns of the plant; to further streamline the process and make sure they are putting out a consistent product for years to come.

Nathan Girard says they expect to begin construction in late 2019 after obtaining all necessary licensing, with a projected completion in 2020. Not only do they have to comply with all state and local requirements, but with federal regulation of cannabis facilities potentially on the horizon, the team is planning for that day with every decision they make. When it comes to federal rules and regulations, Nathan Girard says, “We will be in compliance before compliance exists.”

While navigating uncharted territory can be challenging, Anderson is excited to be a part of this forward-reaching industry and the creative problem solving that goes into every step of the process when working with a company like Higher Purpose. He says, “It’s about continuous improvement to really understand our customer’s business and coming up with creative solutions to improve that.”

Emily Langner is the associate editor for High-Profile Monthly.

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