ASHRAE Guideline 36 represents an important synergy between standard high-performance designs and standard control applications.
Say “no” to more projects and only work with people you like. It’s not often CEOs base decisions on interpersonal exchanges, trusting where there is respect there will also be profit, but this is exactly how Adam Clarke likes to do business.
Stratus Designs specializes in engineering building automation solutions for cannabis facilities, indoor/greenhouse food production, and specialty GMP processing facilities. The team of four (all millennials) don’t just love what they do, they are united in why they do it: sustainability—for their customers, for their team, and for our planet.
Curious how Stratus Designs works with customers, how they’d like to see the industry evolve, and the advice they have for peers? Click on the questions below to read an interview with Mark McLellan (controls manager), Michael Richards (senior controls tech), Eric Heel (co-founder and COO), and Adam Clarke (CEO).
ADAM: When I was in my late teens, my neighbor was one of the first medical cannabis patients in the country. He had fallen off a roof and broken his back, landing him in a wheelchair. We would ride his tandem bike together—he pedalled with his hands—and we’d go process hash or grow weed. He taught me a lot. He couldn’t reach the upper shelf, so I was there to give him a hand. Everything just took off from there.
ERIC: Adam and I are old friends, from grade six band. After school we went into similar lines of work. Adam has always been the visionary—the guy with big, crazy ideas—so after us complaining long enough about our jobs, he put together a plan for us to start a company together.
In the beginning, Stratus was almost entirely focused on the new cannabis sector in Canada. Adam did a lot of work in the medical cannabis industry during the years leading up to recreational legalization. When we saw legalization on the horizon, Adam knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to harness a new market and start a company. During the first few years of intense growth of the industry, we did lots of consulting for cannabis companies.
ERIC: The biggest pain point for building owners is spending lots of money on a beautiful building—a massive mechanical infrastructure—that doesn’t work right. It’s frustrating when the system is so technical, clients can’t even change a setpoint themselves. Or when things weren’t set up right, or would end up breaking. They’d have to bring in refrigeration mechanics and other highly trained people. To have a successful project, they need to have influence every step of the way. And that comes down to controls automation.
The traditional design-bid-build delivery model in Canada means you only really get control of your step. As the designer, you design it. Contractors take over completely and build it, then walk away. The owner is left to operate it and no one’s there to help them. Nobody’s really responsible to help. We’d get frustrated putting in lots of hard work up front, then not get the result we (and the owner) were hoping for. If we couldn’t see the vision through to the end, we couldn’t ensure everything worked properly.
Now we try our best to get in at the very beginning of a project, to be involved with clients right through—and not just to the end of a project, because in an ideal world their projects don’t end. The end—when the building is commissioned and starts up—is just the beginning. We stay involved through the operations and optimization, and all the fun stuff that comes when you get to actually use this big, beautiful machine. Controlling the automation at the end is the most important piece of the picture. Now we build all the other pieces (designing, purchasing HVAC equipment, etc) around the automation.
It’s interesting how our mindset has changed. Automation used to be an afterthought to design. Now we start by asking how things need to work at the end, and everything trickles down after deciding on the automation. It’s thanks to Adam, building strong relationships with clients, that we’re able to be involved every step of the way. They trust our advice about how to design the building, who to hire, and how to build a good team. When it’s time to automate, we know exactly what’s going on and can jump right in.
ERIC: For anyone planning a new build, the first pain point is wading through the sea of options: Do you go with the super-efficient-but-very-expensive equipment that pays off over years, or take the solution that’s cheaper up front? Talking about controls, how compatible are products in terms of integration? The last thing you want is to end up with a bunch of silos, having to operate one thing over here and another thing over there because they don’t talk to each other. What type of flooring will we use? What kind of walls and how are they insulated? Will we use independent or shared mechanical systems? What are the pros and cons of up-front costs and long-term operating costs and energy efficiency?
Something people don’t often think about is availability of parts and skilled technicians down the line. Typically, the more expensive systems, which are more efficient, are also much more technically complex. For example, refrigeration mechanics with certain training or certifications can be borderline impossible to find in some small towns or rural areas. When something goes wrong, you need someone to be available on short notice. If you have a hemp processing plant in the prairies and it’s -45 degrees Celsius outside, you can’t have your HVAC go down for very long without that affecting the integrity of your plants or the building itself.
If someone has experience growing a crop but not in designing the buildings or any of these complex mechanical systems, these are all daunting questions to try and answer. It’s the owner who ultimately makes these choices. We’ve found it beneficial to have very open dialogs with owners through that whole process, so we can help them confidently make informed decisions.
MICHAEL: Understanding the environment you work in and how it affects your subject, whether that’s the person or plant, is critical. People yell at you; people get mad. Plants talk back, too, but they do it by visibly showing you something’s wrong. They say I’m unhealthy.
Sustainable vegetation for veggies—that’s the direction our world is going, post Covid. How does everybody grow their own food? How do we mass produce food that’s healthier for our population than what’s in the grocery store? Some of the methods Adam has come up with in his own farming on his property are amazing. We get to be part of it from a controls perspective, and get to mess around and make mistakes, and learn. I don’t have a background in farming, other than having a garden as a kid. My expertise is on the technical side. Everything Adam teaches me about growing cannabis and veggies—how plants interact with their environment—is easily the most fun thing to be part of.
MARK: That moment when you turn on a fully-commissioned system for the first time and everything just works. It’s the most satisfying moment. It’s also the most stress-inducing moment. Especially in this market, if things go wrong, you might be there until 2 AM fixing things that can’t wait until the morning, or manually manipulating things to keep conditions within spec, because you’ve got live plants in there.
MICHAEL: Setting clear boundaries helps our clients. Every company can do whatever it takes to meet a client’s last-minute demands, but it doesn’t make anyone happier or more money. It allows clients to not plan. Adam is very good at practicing a healthy work-life balance, and helps us do the same. In one breath, he tells us we’re responsible for making sure our projects get done, and insists we learn to manage our time and the resources we have available—one of them being to speak up and tell people when we’re unavailable.
ADAM: Our industry doesn’t necessarily allow for an epic amount of sustainability, because we’re using power to grow a product that technically could be grown outside and carbon sequester. When I run a building and turn the switch on, I need to waste power. And I keep wasting power until I get it to work. Once we get the system to actually work the way it’s supposed to, and we’re producing proper bud or flower, then I can try to save energy for the client. The client doesn’t care if they save $5,000 on energy in 2 months if they just lost $50,000 in product because we were trying to be efficient.
If we want to become more sustainable as a society, we need to ditch all of our building practices in North America because they’re all garbage and are all driven by capitalism. No new development should ever be built without pipes in the ground and water source heat pumps, or air source heat pumps, in every unit. Everyone should be sharing energy and kicking heat back and forth. We should mix industry with residential. For example, take a bottling plant. For every unit of cooling needed to make beer, you get 1.3 units of heating in return. We could heat entire communities for free if we just took the energy that’s being pumped into the atmosphere from industrial buildings. Let’s look at small towns. If you put a 100,000 square foot greenhouse in a community with 1000 people, you’ll have more than enough to feed people, you can steal heat out of the greenhouse in the summer to do other things with, and you can transfer all those loads back and forth.
If you think about it, cooling a large-scale industrial building is way more efficient than cooling a house, by nature of the equipment being bigger and more efficient. In North America, we need to stop going after the low-hanging fruit by adjusting setpoints in an office building by a few degrees, and instead tackle the bigger problem: our infrastructure.
ERIC: I’d like to see the closed-ecosystem companies show more willingness to work with others. Currently, they are doing the industry a disservice by stifling innovative uses of controls systems. Not only do they insist their sensors only talk to their controllers, they’re also overly possessive of data. That’s probably the worst part!
It’s hard to set up a project and envision every element we want to include in the controls system, and every way we want all the pieces to talk to each other. We think it’s really important to have that flexibility, to constantly improve and optimize by adding new sensors. Part of the improvement process is learning about different companies and different equipment, and all the ways of doing things. It’s important to be able to change your mind along the way and not be locked into a specific manufacturer’s ecosystem.
Our clients trust us to give them the best product, and that means being nimble and innovative and not just sticking with what we’ve always done. So we keep finding new vendors for every part of the system. Mark will often say to the rest of us, “Hey, I found this new product. What do you think? Let’s try it out!”
ADAM: When you start out, stay very focused on what will actually make you successful. Know your core competency. Don’t say yes to things just because you think you can help. When you do automation in a process building, people can’t afford to have something screw up. They could lose tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
MARK: Understand how the plants grow; the different cycles and requirements. But also understand that every grower wants different things because they grow differently, so it’s hard to make templates. It’ll never be the same, from one facility to the next.
Understand your clients’ circumstances. Small- to medium-sized facilities are often funded by private money. People need the building to be up and running before they can apply for a license. It can be a long drawn-out process with a lot of capital invested before they can start growing. You need to know all the nuances of how Health Canada works and what they’re looking for.
For example, a grower might not be required to have the entire facility 100 percent complete to start generating revenue. They may only need one or two rooms up front and can fill out the facility in the future. It’s not like a public tender where you go from start to finish right away. We create the milestones for our clients, for how they build out, so they get there quicker. This allows us to dictate how we design and deploy the system. Understanding the process is huge.
Left to right: Michael Richards, Mark McLellan, Eric Heel, and Adam Clarke.
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