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A few years ago, the Maine Legislature was inching toward how to regulate the adult-use cannabis market.
Simultaneously, the leadership of SeaWeed Co. was thinking about the design of its first cannabis retail shop at 185 Running Hill Road in South Portland.
“The concept was to make a really welcoming space that felt relaxing,” says Kaspar Heinrici, SeaWeed’s director of business development.
Similar to a spa environment, the design would be Scandinavian influenced with a modern style using warm materials and textures such as tile and natural wood.
That relaxing, clean and open feel was considered essential for the business.
“Because cannabis is relatively new as a legal substance you can buy in a store, we want that experience, whether it’s first-time or returning customers, to feel as inviting as possible,” says Heinrici. “For a brand that focuses on education and the community, we want everyone to feel welcome and able to ask questions and learn.”
The legalization of cannabis has birthed new opportunities for architects.
“We’re trying to make it approachable to both the avid user and the person who hasn’t thought to use it before,” says Patrick Boothe, the commercial studio director at the Caleb Johnson Studio.
Caleb Johnson Studio, which was founded by architect Caleb Johnson in 2006 and is based on Exchange Street in the Old Port, has a team of 30 architects and designers. It is affiliated with Woodhull Construction and Woodhull Millwork. To this point, Caleb Johnson had been better known for its high-end homes, which are often featured in home magazines, and some specialty commercial projects, including store design and the revamp of the Higgins Beach Inn.
Sales of adult-use cannabis were first allowed in October 2020 and in the industry’s first full year in Maine, sales totaled $82 million. This year, sales are on pace to be more than $120 million, with the industry proving a boon to architects, builders, HVAC companies and other vendors.
For the SeaWeed project, Caleb Johnson Studio served as lead architect in collaboration with MAAM, an architecture studio in Los Angeles, on SeaWeed’s Running Hill Road location and its Portland shop at 23 Marginal Way. The projects were carried out by Woodhull Construction and Woodhull Millwork.
The goal, Boothe says, was to create an approachable environment that dispels the “head shop” image incorporating Maine aesthetics using Maine materials.
“Their product is made in Maine and they wanted their brand and, by extension, their building, to reflect that,” he says. “This wasn’t going to be a place you walk in and see bongs on the wall.”
Starting with the location, the building’s placement along busy Running Hill Road was tucked into a quiet corner overlooking an expansive wetland and nestled among tall grasses.
Though near the South Portland Target store and just over a mile from the Maine Mall, the site was designed to respect the landscape, including the selection of natural plants. The front of the building is deliberately austere from the roadside to create privacy, security and sound protection. Rear windows, nearly 20 feet tall, capture light and the wetland view. A large deck provides outdoor space.
The exterior features classic materials, including Maine-harvested white cedar shiplap, finished with semi-transparent stain paired with an anodized aluminum curtain wall system. The neutral tones provide a canvas that pops SeaWeed’s purple logo.
Inside, a bright and open floor plan conforms with certain rules related to cannabis retail while guiding customers through the shopping process.
“You’re not supposed to have cannabis visible right away, so there are screening elements,” says Boothe. “There’s a front desk and a person checking your ID. That’s the first layer of security to comply with the rules.”
Natural materials include white ash for the millwork; a white pine ceiling; and terra cotta wall tiles whose neutral color was selected to integrate with other natural materials. The floor is polished concrete. The 3,200-square-foot space includes wooden ceilings that slope upward from 10 to 17 feet. The geometry is called an “inverted hip ceiling” and includes three planes that require precision joinery where they come together.
The approach was about natural light and warmth.
“When you’re trying to sell a product, we tend to keep things on the lighter side, which puts more emphasis on the product,” he says.
Security was also a consideration. “A jewelry store is an appropriate comparison,” says Boothe.
In keeping with state rules, any cannabis product that isn’t under glass with a lock must be kept in a back storeroom with additional security measures that include key card access and other protective measure to help prevent break-in.
The sale of cannabis remains illegal at the federal level and remains a cash business, which poses security risks.
“There’s a lot of cash on hand and a lot of security measures for that as well,” says Boothe.
Although Boothe and Heinrici didn’t want to specify all security measures, the baseline includes video camera coverage, keycard access and armored areas.
“We had a security consultant onboard,” adds Boothe.
There are specific security protocols for staffers to follow.
“For instance, if you’re taking a delivery, we’ve created almost an airlock system where, if one door’s open, the other is closed,” says Heinrici. “There are a lot of common sense things to protect first and foremost the employees, then the product and the cash.”
In a lot of ways, designing for marijuana retail is no different than for any other type of retail operation.
“Whether it’s cannabis or selling food in a restaurant, we take a lot of pride in being able to provide an experience that helps elevate their product,” says Boothe.
But the industry, emerging from the shadows, does providing opportunities for new thinking about design.
“With cannabis, what was different is that no one had ever done it in Maine before,” says Boothe. “We had to take cues from other states that had some history with it, like Washington and Colorado.”
“A lot of people who take the effort to hire an architectural designer to do their dispensary design have enough business savvy to realize how important that is,” says Johnnie Rush, head of innovation for Manchester Center, Vt.-based McBride Co., which performed the conceptual, graphic and interior design work for Grass Monkey Cannabis Co.’s dispensary at 85 Western Ave. in South Portland.
“With legalized cannabis use becoming more mainstream, there’s a growing opportunity for dispensaries to embrace the counter culture from which it began, and engage customers with playful art and design,” says Ryan McBride, creative director for the McBride Co.
“At Grass Monkey, we brought to life a dispensary experience that invites customers to share in the fun side of the cannabis community that has been lost in many of the original dispensary environments.”
The approach for Grass Monkey was to create something of an art gallery experience. The 2,000-square-foot dispensary includes artwork and graffiti created on-site by Valentino Mikalef, owner and creative director of Queens, N.Y.-based Mural Art & Consulting. There’s also a 6-foot banana sculpture and monkey-inspired finishes and lighting.
McBride’s designs of cannabis dispensaries outside of Maine go back a number of years in places like California, Florida and Chicago. Like SeaWeed, common elements often include soft lighting and natural materials, a contrast to spots that were “kind of seedy looking and didn’t feel safe,” says Rush.
The look at some dispensaries might have a clinical feel, which Rush describes as “really beigey and ferny.”
The vision at Grass Monkey included well-orchestrated street art that was humorous, colorful, memorable and repeatable for other locations. Based on the monkey icon, “the first conversation we had with them, I sketched a big fiberglass banana,” Rush recalls. “We landed on that idea and then hired prominent street taggers from around the country to come in and create art.”
The space was designed to be both fun and to invite dialogue with the clerks.
Rules governing dispensary set-ups vary by state.
“We’ve had to get up to speed really quickly with the differences in every state’s legal requirements,” Rush says. “With Grass Monkey, it was required by the state that they have a segregated entry vestibule with a check-in desk. You have to show proof of age, of course. You come in and show your ID. They put your name in the system. Then someone calls you to the sales floor. That happens in a lot of states. A lot of states also might or might not require the entry vestibule.”
Checklists unique to each state include considerations such as counter heights and number of customers in the store.
For cannabis storage, there must be a safe room, an individually keyed holding room.
Generally, the goal is to create a pleasant and engaging experience that brings repeat business — as with any retailer.
“Different states require different design solutions,” Rush says. “There’s nothing magical, other than the lockable room and security systems. Other than that, there’s a break space, an office space and storage — all the normal things you’d expect.”
Still, the industry’s unfolding rule-making process can impact the design process. That was the case at SeaWeed.
“We had to constantly revise plans for the interior layout,” says Heinrici. “Adult use marijuana was voted to be legal in 2016. In 2020, we opened our doors. In the interim, the changes in wording and guidance were really hard to parse. And we wanted to be the first to open. To do so meant we couldn’t wait as everything was worked out. We were building as things were incorporated into the law.”
That sometimes meant making changes on the fly. For example, the original design included freestanding, glass-topped display tables. A reinterpretation of the law required that cannabis products be displayed behind a screened area.
“As a designer myself, you can look at these constraints as frustrating or as an opportunity,” Heinrici says. He chose the latter. “Now the tables contain non-marijuana goods, like crafts by local artisans, and our own branded merchandise, like hats.”
Overall, SeaWeed’s design is meant to grab the attention of someone who’s sensitive to aesthetics and who wants to be treated with care.
“We assumed it would attract that type of customer and it does,” says Heinrici. “When you stand in our store, you might see a woman in a fancy outfit and a metal worker in overalls and an elderly couple who’s there to get a CBD tincture. It’s blown us away how broad the customer spectrum is.”