Sustainable cannabis intersects with architecture

March 7, 2022
Interview

Interview with Anderson Porter Design.

Massachusetts-based architecture firm Anderson Porter Design has been in business since 1994 and is a socially responsible visionary in the architecture space. Its mantra: Focus on sustainability to provide the best long-term user experience.

With concentrations in sustainable residential housing, workplace design, and retail and production for cannabis companies, the firm’s nearly three decades of experience shows.

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In its long history, Anderson Porter Design has been involved in everything from small-town libraries and the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston to innovative retail concepts for national retailers. But the firm has also tackled extremely complex projects. What’s complex? For starters, building a 400,000 square foot neuroscience lab space for MIT. That pivotal moment for the firm helped lead them to keep designing highly controlled spaces—an essential feature for cannabis growers in the heavily regulated and specialized cannabis industry.

That brings us to the present, where Anderson Porter Design is a founding member of the Sustainable Cannabis Coalition (SCC).  

We caught up with partner and co-founder Brian Anderson to learn more about the future of sustainability in the cannabis industry.  

Sustain.Life: Could you tell us more about how Anderson Porter Design got into the sustainable cannabis industry? 

Bryan Anderson: We were in the right place at the right time, and the expertise we had gained from past work lent itself to this industry. We’re based in Massachusetts, and because the state has mandates in cannabis legislation, it was written to include lighting and power density. That’s sort of out of the ordinary because it’s typically left to standards organizations. So things came together in 2014 with laws passing. And now we’re licensed in ten states.  

SL: How are sustainability and cannabis—from dispensaries to cannabis production—naturally complimentary?  

BA: In many states, cannabis is vertically integrated—meaning a single entity will both grow the plant, process it, and sell it at retail—and the sustainable grow facilities should mean sustainable retail. The two should be directly connected but really aren’t. So part of our mission is to draw a line from the sustainability of a grow facility—the energy and material it takes to grow cannabis through to the retail store. Many cannabis retailers have the word “wellness” in their name, yet they don’t think about how to make their retail operations sustainable. So we see a big opportunity to help make that connection.  

Image courtesy, Anderson Porter Design

 

SL: Cannabis, like many plants, takes a lot of energy to grow. What does an architecture firm have to do with energy efficiency or environmental impact?

BA: When cannabis largely operated in a not-so-legal space, growers were sidestepping the actual grid to evade utility companies because they could often sound the alarm on an illegal operation. Today, the first person we call is the utility company, mainly to find out if they have a grid large enough to support a grower.  

Energy and sustainability are typically mature industry problems. But when we talk energy and sustainability early in the process, it’s difficult to balance with all the costs and “must-haves” competing for attention because growers operate as startups. They’re concerned with financing, building their team, et cetera—that’s where we can help them understand the importance of sustainability and how doing things right can lead to cost savings.  

As architects, we design facilities, but it’s just one step in the process of a cannabis enterprise. If you pay more in energy per gram of product than your competitor does, then you lose out. This is always top of mind with growers, but the correct engineering and coordination to get there are where we provide assistance.  

SA: Where do you see most of your pushback about sustainable practices from cannabis growers? 

BA: Again, it’s cost. These are white-knuckled startups. They need to be fiscally responsible. So for us, it’s all about educating the entrepreneur. Investors are also good partners for us to drive home the value proposition of a sustainable facility—balancing facility cost with long-term energy savings and operational efficiency. So we offer value in being able to show them the upside of facility investment. 

Image courtesy, Anderson Porter Design

 

SA: And how else are you thinking about sustainability when it comes to overall carbon footprint? 

BA: I write carbon footprint into contracts. What’s the carbon footprint to schlep two hours out and two hours back for a one-hour meeting? We write into contracts that many meetings will be virtual. It’s a strong signal to clients that we mean business. And Sustain.Life helps us show how it saves everybody time and money—sustainable business practices can be documented in communications and contracts. Plus, there are residual benefits in marketing—it shows us a differentiator. 

With Sustain.Life, there’s also a good opportunity to educate clients about what it takes to get specific certifications.  

SA: Could you discuss building sustainability in your internal or external policies? 

BA: That’s an impactful feature of Sustain.Life. As a company, we’ve grown a lot. How practice and attitude make it into a handbook is important and [Sustain.Life] makes it super easy to turn behaviors into company policy.  

We see the value in messaging, too. Based on what you’re tracking, it will be so easy for us to share a blog post around what we’re doing because so much is tracked in one place. 

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The takeaway

Many cannabis retailers have the word “wellness” in their name, yet don’t consider the sustainability of their operations.