If cannabis is your business and you’re in Illinois, chances are that your “cannabusiness” in early 2020 is good. Very good. Just five days in from when cannabis became legal for adult recreational use, some 270,000 cannabis sales have occurred in Illinois, to the tune of $10.8M according to local reports. As small-business owners ourselves, both entrepreneurship and cannabis have long been topics of interest. More to the point, as architects we are concerned with entrepreneurs building Illinois cannabis facilities. Therefore, this post is for those just delving into the burgeoning cannabis market here in Illinois. It is for all who have wondered “how do I create a safe, legal Illinois cannabis facility?”

As you probably already know, with the passing of the Illinois Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act (HB1438), adult recreational cannabis use became legal statewide on January 1, 2020. In Illinois and in this act specifically, the term adult applies to all those 21 years and older.

With this post we illustrate some of the challenges—both real and perceived—when designing these facilities. But first, to understand this act and how it can potentially benefit you, we have to discuss the five types of Illinois cannabis facilities.

What types of Illinois cannabis licenses will be distributed?

Licensing exists for the five different Illinois cannabis facilities:

  1. Cultivation centers
  2. Craft growers
  3. Infusers
  4. Transportation organizations
  5. Dispensing organizations

Each Illinois cannabis facility possesses its own specific considerations with regard to the building code. In addition to the building code requirements, each jurisdiction, through zoning ordinance amendments, will place additional requirements on the businesses in keeping with the culture of the local community. You, your counsel, and design team will work hand-in-hand to combine all of the requirements into a compliant, functional, and efficient operation.

Licensure for these types of facilities will proceed as follows:

Wave 1 of Illinois cannabis license approvals for dispensaries

Applications for dispensaries are already being accepted by the state—as of December 10, 2019. Applications will be processed and licenses issued for up to 75 of the first wave of applicants by May 1, 2020. This first wave will be processed by the state’s Department of Financial and Professional Regulation.

Wave 1 of Illinois cannabis license approvals for other business types

By July 1, 2020, Illinois’ Department of Agriculture will award licenses for up to 40 infusers, up to 40 craft growers, and an as-yet unnamed amount of licenses for transporting organizations.

Licensure, of course, will intrinsically depend on compliance. So, as such, each business needs a different plan to meet the requirements of the applicable parts of the building code.

Let’s go one-by-one through the five cannabusiness types on Illinois’ horizons.

Types of Illinois Cannabis Facilities

Dispensary Organizations

Dispensary organizations are no different from any other retail business and therefore fall into the Mercantile use group (or simply “Group M”) of the International Building Code (IBC). This use group is well defined, and its requirements are thoroughly known to most architects, engineers, and contractors. Display, sales, office and stocking, as well as ancillary areas such as break rooms and restrooms, are all required. The Illinois Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act places security, air quality, and operational requirements at the forefront as well. For instance, an operational requirement is that all buildings serving the public require compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Craft Growers & Cultivators

Illinois will provide licensing for craft growers that is different from the cultivators’ license. This difference is dictated by facility size. Craft growers are limited to 5,000 square feet (with authorizations, dependent on several factors, from the Illinois Department of Agriculture allowing up to 14,000 square feet for flowering-stage cultivation space) versus 210,000 square feet for cultivators initially. In each case if the facility is simply used for growing and all processing is done elsewhere, then the facility is nothing more than a utility or miscellaneous building, IBC Group U. This is the same as any other agricultural building and means that the IBC and the International Fire Code can be applied as written. As with the dispensary use mentioned earlier, The Illinois Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act places security, air quality, and operational requirements in place. Your local jurisdiction’s zoning laws and ordinances apply—as will any applicable ADA requirements.


Chemical structure of a common cannabinoid called CBD

Of the 113 cannabinoids isolated to date, CBD (cannabidiol) and THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) are the most well-known according to Analytical Cannabis.com. This graphic represents the chemical structure of CBD, which is popular in infused products. Note: sometimes H3C molecules are represented in other images as CH3. IMAGE BY: cytis from Pixabay.

Infusing operations are easily the most complicated as the methods and technologies used vary more than those of the other types of facilities. One major defining factor to the cost implications for the building design is whether the facility does extractions on-site. If the facility does not perform extraction it will likely fall into IBC Group F (for Factory Industrial facilities).

To qualify as a processor, the facility performs such activities as drying, cutting, trimming, packaging, and labeling to prepare products for sale. If extraction is planned, then a host of other questions must be answered to determine how the facility will be defined by the IBC. Some of these are:

  • What type of extraction will be performed: solvent or CO2-based?
  • How much will be processed at a given time?
  • Will the process utilize a closed compressed-gas piping system?
  • Will combustible materials be stored on-site, and, if so, in what quantity?

The answers to these can move the facility from a factory industrial use to an IBC Group H, or High-Hazard group, requiring that many more safety provisions be designed into the building.

Transportation Organizations

Infrastructure for a transportation organization can be minimal and can be incorporated into the cultivator or craft grower’s business plan. Although licensing is separate, there are provisions in the tax act for an entity to maintain multiple license types. Potential needs for a transporter include a yard for cannabis container storage, a vehicle maintenance building, an office, and security. All of these uses are subject to the codes mentioned previously.

Security, Accessibility, and Egress

In all of the facility types the biggest challenge often becomes melding the security requirements of the tax act with the accessibility and life safety requirements of the IBC. As Illinois is one of the few states with its own Accessibility Code, it presents a unique set of design challenges not found in many other states. Partnering with local design and legal professionals is vital to getting your business off on the right foot. The design professional will have to deftly maneuver within the confines of the multiple codes and in conjunction with the local building department to find acceptable solutions for security, accessibility, and egress. This can be accomplished via the creative application of available technology and a thorough understanding of the regulatory requirements.

Building Officials and Your Local Jurisdiction

The last item to discuss here is the local jurisdiction. As mentioned previously, the Illinois Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act gives local jurisdictions some latitude to adjust their zoning ordinances to limit or in some cases ban cannabis-related facilities. Although we have illustrated that these types of facilities are clearly defined within the existing building codes as written, such factors as personal bias, interpretation, and perception of the building official can all influence the success of the business and its licensure process.

Opening clear communication lines early on, with preplanning meetings and frequent communication throughout the process, can go a long way toward alleviating concerns. More important, however is the relationship with the local design professional. Most design professionals work hard to cultivate good working relationships with building officials because they design multiple buildings in the area and therefore work together frequently. Adequate due diligence by the owner of any facility, whether it is a cannabusiness or any other small business venture, is then key when selecting a design professional.

We hope this helps to get your new cannabis facility off on the right foot and are happy to help anyone who considers taking advantage of this emerging market here in the Land of Lincoln. Suffice it to say, growing a cannabis-based business from the foundation up is a multi-step process, of which background research like this article is one small step. May your giant leap into cannabusiness take you to never-explored heights!