by Anna Ervin
Hempcrete may very well be the future of natural building. This biocomposite material is mold and fungus resistant, fireproof, earthquake resistant, and 100% biodegradable. It has been around for nearly 30 years, and developers are constantly refining their process to make it even better. So, what exactly is it, and why aren’t we seeing more builders utilize the material?
I reached out to Jessie Smith of Oaksterdam University to gain a little insight on the benefits of using hempcrete for natural building and to gauge the direction she sees this market heading in. Jessie comes from a family of builders yet grew up with the idea that the expansion of cities was eating up precious farmland.
With an interest in sustainability and living in a natural environment, Jessie went to school for toxicology, where she learned about bioremediation, the process of using plants to take toxins out of our soil and environment and binding them into a carbon-based form.
“Hemp is a bioremediation plant,” Jessie informed me. “It has the ability to reverse climate change and a lot of the problems we’ve created. However, we can’t consume that hemp because of the toxins it has absorbed.”
This is where hempcrete comes into play. “Everyone that’s growing hemp is really trying to get into the CBD market,” Jessie said. “We’re getting a lot of people that don’t understand how sensitive cannabis is and that it’s going to pull in those toxins from the soil. Or they don’t know how to prevent mold and pests, so they’re not able to put their products into the consumer market.”
A Budding New Market
Will this surplus of non-medicinal hemp prompt manufacturers and builders to work with hempcrete on a larger scale? Only time will tell. “Right now, it’s not being utilized as much as it could be,” said Jessie. “There are a couple of companies coming out, pressing bricks. I haven’t necessarily seen commercial uses for it.”
“When you look at natural building over the last 100 years,” she continued, “using those straw, clay, and lime water mixtures, that is starting to pick back up again. Those types of buildings are starting to pop up, but for the most part, it’s residential.”
Up until recently, it has proven difficult for people to get a loan for natural building. However, with the production of hempcrete becoming increasingly common in places like France and Canada, and hemp becoming widely available, more and more lenders are beginning to see the value. “We’re at a tipping point in the market,” Jessie told me.
A Breeding Ground for Potential
“With the progressiveness of Oklahoma Policies,” Jessie said, “how many licenses are on the market, and how much lime is prevalent there, it is a huge breeding ground for potential.” If that’s the case, what is it going to take for Oklahoma to tap into this industry?
With our state being one of the few to allow the outdoor cultivation of medicinal cannabis, we need to first address the issue of cross-pollination. “The pollination radius of hemp is 5 plus miles,” Jessie told me. “Pollen can migrate. When you have hemp pollen fall onto your medical cannabis, you could end up decreasing the potency and medicinal potential of the medical plant.”
“With outdoor growing,” she continued, “you need to make sure that we don’t go to war with each other. Keep hemp production and medical production separate so they are not devaluating each other. Farmers are actually really good at figuring out how to work together.”
“Oklahoma could also learn from Oregon,” Jessie said, “who has hemp and medical cannabis growing. They are figuring it out by county. They are also finding natural pollen boundaries by topography and wind flow.”
As well as figuring out the production of hemp on a large scale, natural building is labor-intensive. We need to be honest in communicating the growing pains that both our outdoor farmers and our builders are going to face in order to see an industry like this take off in Oklahoma.
Is Hempcrete the Future?
Hemp is denser in carbon than any other plant, this is what makes byproducts of the plant so durable. The more hemp we plant, the more carbon those plants will absorb from the atmosphere. According to an article from Architect’s Newspaper, one cubic meter (35 cubic feet) of hempcrete has the potential to absorb up to 287 pounds of airborne carbon dioxide.
While the cultivation of hemp is cleaning up the environment, hempcrete itself could also create a safer, healthier household. When using natural materials, you don’t get the toxic off-gassing that comes with many conventional building materials.
Industry leaders at Hempcrete Direct report that this versatile material is fireproof, earthquake-proof, and moisture resistant, making it ideal for locations (like Oklahoma) that can suffer extreme weather conditions.
“The natural fibers and materials,” Jessie reported, “allow the vibrations of the earthquake to go through the house, rather than cracking and breaking down like concrete. Wildfires go right around hempcrete houses because the embers have nothing to catch on.”
Significantly lighter than concrete and allowing for more energy-efficient transportation, hempcrete could offer a whole new level of sustainability to the construction industry.
So just to recap, we have a product that is changing the way that we grow, build, and even exist by literally hitting the reset button on our environment, and continuing to provide benefits for our health and safety over time. How exciting is it to be able to witness this potential shift in both consciousness and sustainability take place?
After over an hour on the phone with Jessie, I felt that we had only glazed the surface of this topic. Now that I have realized just how much potential the hemp industry holds for Oklahoma, not just economically, but also when it comes to sustainability and adopting a healthier lifestyle, I look forward to keeping an eye on this industry in the years to come.