By Jason Dubose

As today’s cannabis and hemp markets legalize and expand, local and state governments are struggling to keep up with this evolving industry, especially when it comes to the development and approval of extraction or processing facilities. 

From an engineering perspective, extraction systems, the means of post-processing and methods have changed quicker than any other industry in the U.S. and Canada. What was standard five years ago is no longer standard today. This presents a unique challenge to building officials whose industry is traditionally based on static rules. This is not an attack on building officials. They are some of the finest public servants encouraging and supporting our industry and have dedicated their careers to creating safe communities. Perhaps it’s better to state that building codes – a set of safety rules and regulations – have not seen any radical change in over 50 years, so any new industry that emerges may be inappropriately classed and/or will automatically face resistance in the form of overly stringent code enforcement. To complicate matters further, in many cases an extraction facility will be handling or managing hazardous materials. Unless you establish an extraction business near a hub of high-tech or manufacturing facilities, the chances are high that your local building department has limited experience with reviewing these types of processes or facilities.

The purpose of this discussion is to not focus on extraction systems and types, but to provide guidance from lessons learned and perspectives on how to deploy an extraction facility quickly and efficiently in a rapidly expanding market. This article is by no means a comprehensive guide and you need to employ a qualified design professional to help you navigate the complexity of building code, which leads me to my first point:

Hire a qualified professional engineer or architect with experience in this industry. This may be a given as many municipalities require a design professional’s stamp for drawings.  But there is a chance these professionals can provide more than a stamp, helping you identify and add efficiencies to your building or system.  To borrow a phrase from Jack Black in Nacho Libre “They don’t think I know a butt load of crap about the gospel, but I do. Okay?” If the building code is the gospel, then you need to find the best resident expert that knows the code inside and out. There will be constant challenges to your design from building departments over-applying code in the name of public safety. A design professional with experience in developing hazardous or high-tech facilities will not come cheap, but will be worth every penny in terms of time to market and reducing overall facility risk. For example, did you know that only a small area of a butane extraction room has to be Class 1 Div 1 explosion proof, with the remaining as Class 1 Div 2 or lower? Building officials are there to oversee the implementation of safe practices, but they can be negotiated with and actual codes contested if approached appropriately.

Your extraction process dictates what kind of facility you need. Building code is broken down into different books, with the primary enforcement of extraction facilities falling into three: Fire Code, Mechanical Code and Structural Code. Specifically, in the ‘Maximum Allowable Quantities for Hazardous Materials’ section, a closed loop butane extraction system (BHO) is typically limited to about 150 pounds of gas. A closed loop ethanol system is limited to 120 gallons and there is no limit on liquid CO2 storage. There are a lot of variables which can provide for increases to these limits within your facility. A qualified engineer can help you navigate these limits. For example, if you have fire sprinklers in your facility, then chances are very high that you can double the amount of chemical you can store in your building. If you are dealing with ethanol or BHO systems, then the building department will be very focused on your exhaust systems and making sure spark- or explosion-proof fans are in use. In terms of building design versus extraction process, BHO systems tend to be the most expensive to construct followed by ethanol and then supercritical CO2. Nine times out of ten, the building inspector has no idea what your process is or how it works. Realistically, they don’t have to know. But they do know that butane and ethanol can combust, and a leaky CO2 system can be a silent killer. Their oversight of the appropriate safety measures is their core focus in service of you, your neighbors and community.

Do your homework before you sign the lease. Unless you are fortunate enough to have enough investment to construct a new facility from the ground up, you’re likely going to establish your extraction facility in an existing building. The number one mistake we’ve seen people make is setting up in a building or tenant space that is not rated or designated by the local municipality as a building suitable for extraction processing. Every commercial building in the U.S. and Canada has a “occupancy type” that is assigned by the municipality at the time of construction. Some buildings are simply office buildings or schools or warehouses and that’s all that you can do in them. For extraction facilities, in most jurisdictions, the building department will want to see a facility that is designated as a ‘F-1’, or ‘factory’ rating. Simply put, you can’t just move into any building, you have to move into a building that is approved for your purpose. It’s not hard to change the purpose of a building, but it’s a significant application process and can require extensive and costly upgrades to the building. It’s a very exciting (and stressful) process to pick out your new digs, but a little preparation and homework will save a lot of time, money and heartache.

Be kind and be humble with your local building officials. There is no need to remind them that your tax dollars pay for their services to our communities. I always encourage our clients, before they even sign a lease for a facility, to have a sit-down meeting with the city or county building officials and explain what they’re attempting to do. Ask for their advice regarding the best steps to comply with local regulations. Developing a positive relationship with the building officials makes them part of your team and is an access point to their wealth of knowledge. It can also help your applications move through the process smoothly and with the most efficient application of code. Educating building officials on your process, how it works and why you need it can go a really long way as a relationship enhancing exercise, while also keeping the building officials up to speed on the current best practices in your area of production. 

In conclusion, as you embark on the establishment of your new extraction facility, it is important to build a qualified team to assist you. By considering your local building officials as part of your team, you ensure safety in your processes. Retaining a design professional can enhance that relationship, helping you arrive more quickly to serving your consumers with quality product.