How to Select the Right Facility Design Firm for Your Vertical Farm


Surna Cultivation Technologies is an industry-leading CEA facility design expert that has been supporting growers in setting up successful farming operations for over 16 years.

Written by: Henry Gordon-Smith, Isabelle Dom, and Sarah Jordan

February 21, 2023

The journey to becoming a profitable indoor farm begins long before opening the doors to your operation. The pre-planning stage is critical, as it includes one major decision after another, including what crops will be attractive to your target market, what your business model is, your project’s budget, estimating financial feasibility, and finding a suitable site (including accessible power). In this phase, you should consider the high-level aspects of your business and operations before you engage with facility design firms.

Having a fully fleshed-out concept that includes location, crops, and budget also makes the process of finding a vertical farming facility design partner easier for you and them. (Although you may also consider engaging with an experienced architectural and/or engineering design firm to help evaluate specific real estate you may be considering.)  

Now that you have a concept ready, it's time to get serious and determine your facility’s design. Your design will address key aspects of infrastructure as well as mechanical, electrical, and plumbing considerations. These will be critical to your farm’s operations, as your facility design will affect everything from employee productivity to the efficiency and lifespan of your equipment. In fact, failure to create an efficient farm layout and workflow is one of the common mistakes operators make and is also a leading reason why vertical farms fail.

 “We see it happen all the time,” says Kenneth Loshelder, VP of Engineering at Surna Cultivation Technologies, an engineering firm and equipment provider that has specialized in CEA for over 16 years. “A farm will come to us for help on a design they received elsewhere. For instance, a client recently came to us with a design that was fine, but the equipment it required was way out of their price range. Another needed help because their existing design was failing to maintain their desired climate parameters. We provided them with a more functional design that also saved them hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional power upgrades and ongoing power costs. Another common problem we see is with plans that have specified equipment with incredibly long lead times, sometimes nine or more months, which would severely delay the project.”

But why do these obstacles occur? How can vertical farming developers avoid costly delays and re-engineering? The short answer is to partner with a firm that best matches your operation. But how do you determine which firm is your best match?

Here are the top 5 considerations for you to keep in mind when selecting your facility design firm: 

1. Experience and Reputation

One of the first things you should consider when choosing a facility design firm is the company's experience and reputation, especially regarding vertical farming. An experienced firm will have a proven track record of delivering high-quality facility design solutions that meet the needs and goals of their clients. They will have a deep understanding of the latest design trends, building codes, and best practices, and they will be able to bring a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the table.

Additionally, it is important to consider the company's reputation in indoor farming. You can assess this through references from previous clients and customer reviews. Working with a facility design firm with verifiable experience will give you peace of mind that you are working with a trusted and reliable partner dedicated to delivering the best possible results.

2. Understanding of Your Business and Needs

Surna’s co-founder and Technical Advisor, Brandy Keen, collaborates with a client to create the right facility design for their needs.

Facility design is about creating functional and efficient spaces that meet the needs of your business. When it comes to vertical farming, many focus too much on over-engineered technology and aesthetics. Others may focus only on a specific type of technology because it is the easiest to design, without considering whether it fits in with the ultimate goals of the owner.

In contrast, a good facility design firm will take the time to understand your business, operations, budget, and unique needs and goals before beginning the design process. They should compare and contrast various design options and how they align with your needs so that you can make decisions together about the best path forward.

An open and honest dialogue between the facility design firm and you, the client, is required. The design firm should ask questions about your work processes, workflows, and growth plans. They should also understand your budget, timeline, and any other constraints that may impact the design process. Only by taking the time to understand your business and needs can the facility design firm create a solution that meets your expectations.

3. Communication and Collaboration

Design is a collaborative process, and choosing a facility design firm committed to open and effective communication throughout the entire project is important. The process should include regular meetings and updates, clear and concise communication about the design process and any changes or issues that may arise, and a commitment to finding the best solution for your needs.

Working with a facility design firm that collaborates with you will ensure that the design process runs smoothly and that the final design solution meets your organization's expectations. Make sure you discuss with the firm how they plan to move through the project efficiently and how often you will communicate with each other throughout the design process. Have a dedicated manager from their team and yours to ensure that nothing falls through the cracks. 

4. Technical Expertise

Facility design is a technical field, and it is important to choose a facility design firm with the technical expertise and knowledge to handle the project's complexity. Technical expertise includes understanding building codes, the limitations of the building, safety regulations, sustainability practices, and the ability to effectively manage and coordinate the various consultants and contractors involved in the project. 

A good facility design firm will have a team of experts with various skills and specialties, including architects, engineers, and project managers. When it comes to vertical farming, it is also important that the firm you select has experience with growing plants indoors, as there are unique aspects of humidity, light, VPD, and more that will affect HVAC and operational layouts.

Some people like to call vertical farms “factories,” but it's better to think of them as “plant factories” so you and your team remember there are living organisms that need varying climate and light conditions through their growth cycles to thrive. In addition, biosecurity is a crucial aspect of indoor farming facility design and is something your facility design partner should be familiar with.  

The facility design firm will present options and their pros and cons, ensuring you truly understand each of them.

5. Cost and Value

Cost is an important consideration for any organization, and choosing a facility design firm that offers value for money is important. However, it is important to remember that the cheapest option is not always the best option. A good facility design firm will provide a detailed estimate for their services, indicate what the scope of work includes and excludes, and be transparent about any potential cost overruns or changes.

They should be able to assist with budgeting in the early design stages to ensure the final design meets the pre-established budget. In the end, a well-designed facility will be delivered on-time and on-budget, improve employee productivity, reduce maintenance costs, and, most importantly, produce high-quality clean food!

Comparing Design Proposals

Now that you know the top 5 considerations to keep in mind when selecting your facility design firm, you are ready to go out and procure proposals. It’s good to have options to consider, so you will want to get 3 or more proposals before selecting a firm to work with. Knowing what you want out of the design process before contacting suppliers is key to your success, so keep these considerations in mind and have answers prepared before sending out requests for proposals (RFPs).

To make your assessment of proposals easier, download our “10 questions you should ask your potential facility design firm.”



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