Hemp in a field

Hempitecture Goal: Bring Hemp Building to Everybody

A frisson of exhilaration routinely charged my market visits when CBD tinctures, lozenges and salves first began appearing on shelves, somewhere around 2016. These weren’t sad displays of weedy products in dreary dispensaries, which quickly grew familiar in Colorado after the state legalized recreational cannabis sales in 2014.

Instead, the CBD-bearing shelves rose in shiny stores owned by corporations, places packed with MBAs and strict rule followers. While CBD products derived from hemp remained technically illegal for over-the-counter sales (they remain so, due to complex regulatory reasons), some mainstream gatekeepers decided the risk was negligible. 

And then came CBD mania. Wild-eyed people ensorcelled by greed launched myriad CBD companies. I worked with a few of them. The messaging from CBD World grew absurd. 

Our full-spectrum CBD is great for fatigue and energy! Depressed? Cheer up — with CBD! You’ve got rheumatoid arthritis, you suffer from heart disease, your daily trail running leads to constant joint and muscle pain. We’ve got the perfect CBD solutions for you!

The cannabinoid may be useful for certain medical conditions; science eventually will tell us more. It is not good for everything.

Hemp offers far more diversity than CBD

The plant from which non-dispensary CBD is derived, however, is turning into an immensely versatile and useful resource. Hemp provides fabrics and building materials and paper. Food and biofuels. Industry experts point towards thousands of uses for hemp.

Like CBD, it’s not good for everything. But unlike CBD, hemp at least offers a vast inventory of practical and proven applications.

As a sustainability nerd, its potential in the construction trades excites me. For now, builders use hemp as replacements for concrete and insulation.

Cutting HempWool
Working with hemp insulation is equivalent to installing fiberglass insulation, minus the miasma of glass particles bit.

Passion for sustainability led to hemp

Idaho’s Hempitecture offers both products.

Company founder Matthew “Mattie” Mead grew enchanted by hemp during college, where he devoted a senior project to how built environments traditionally reflected their surrounding environments. Over time, though, buildings in Western societies and increasingly elsewhere became impositions upon their settings rather than complements.

“When I learned about hempcrete, a light went off,” says Mattie, 30. “I decided it would be my life’s work. I developed a business plan and traveled to a lot of business competitions across the Northeast.”

Hemp insulation in a wall
Works just like old-school insulation, only it’s made from hemp fibers.

He grew accustomed to “snarky” venture capitalists pointing out that he aimed to craft buildings out what then was a Schedule 1 substance. Mattie pushed hard, despite the VC derision, but grew frustrated with a lack of business opportunities. He moved to an eco-resort in the US Virgin Islands after graduation, where he built solar-powered cottages.

“I thought building sustainably was the key,” Mattie says. “It doesn’t need to be hemp.”

A phone call from an Idahoan who encountered Mattie’s mothballed business plan returned him to his life’s work.

“Could you move to Idaho and build one of these structures on land that has a view of the tallest mountain in Idaho?” he asked. Mattie wasn’t entirely sure of Idaho’s location on the map. He saved money, and moved to The Gem State.

He built the country’s first public-use building out of hempcrete, a community center providing outdoor educational opportunities for people without the means otherwise to enjoy them. The largest and most recognized hempcrete building in the United States, the Highland Hemp House in Bellingham, WA, was a Mattie project.

Team turns to hemp insulation, for scale

The projects filled Mattie with pride. But building with hempcrete, one structure at a time, would never make much of a difference. He might build only dozens during his career. And it’s hard to scale hempcrete, too.

Building with hempcrete is “a labor intensive approach for the cast-in-place method, because it involves on site mixing, formboarding, and packing into place,” says Mattie. “Hempcrete isn’t a replacement for concrete. It is a non-load-bearing thermal mass wall material. It is commonly confused with concrete.”

Mattie and his business partner, Tommy Gibbons, decided to embrace a different hemp building product: insulation made from hemp. Instead of offering hemp only as a concrete replacement (Hempitecture still builds with hempcrete, and even offers a professional training program for contractors who want to use the material), Hempitecture began using hemp as an alternative to figerglass insulation. They call their product HempWool, and anticipate hemp insulation gaining increasingly more market share in the $55 billion worldwide insulation industry.

“In the last year, we reached 60 customers with hemp wool,” says Mattie. “We are in the process of launching a manufacturing facility, the first in the United States producing hemp-based insulation, which will support US farmers and hemp processing companies by providing them an outlet for the agricultural products they are growing.”

He added: “We think the facility is an essential step to grow industrial hemp in the United States.”

Using hemp insulation
Particles and dust fly, but it’s hemp, rather than glass, floating through the air.

The CBD craze, he says, was not helpful. While some CBD companies did pursue product development with honorable aims, and treated farmers fairly, for too many CBD was a “green gold rush,” he says. 

The flood of interest persuaded farmers to devote hundreds of thousands of acres towards hemp cultivation. But the kind of hemp grown for the sake of cannabinoids like CBD is different from industrial hemp. Meanwhile, the CBD market alone cannot support the volume of new hemp farms. The result: too many hemp farms with products grown explicitly for CBD, and not enough sales outlets.

As hemp agriculture matures, Mattie anticipates increasingly more hemp farmers will grow industrial hemp rather than hemp nurtured for the sake of CBD.

Processing facilities essential for hemp insulation to thrive

A lack of useful processing facilities — companies turning hemp raw material into industrial goods, like hemp fibers, that others can use to create new products — has set back the hemp industry, Mattie says. He hopes HempWool offers struggling farmers important new markets.

One of HempWool’s market advantages, says Mattie, is the ease with which it can be swapped for fiberglass insulation. It serves as a 1:1 replacement, meaning the insulations can simply be traded. Installing it is simple, requiring no more than 10 minutes of instruction to understand how to install it to keep the house warm.

Installing hemp
A Hempitecture worker installing HempWool in a house.

Its main benefits, though, don’t revolve around its ease-of-use, or its comparatively friendly disposition towards the people doing the installing; fiberglass insulation is famously scratchy. People itch for hours and even days after working with the stuff.

Pivot to hemp insulation dramatic environmental improvement

Instead, it’s the product’s sustainability. Fiberglass production demands intense heat. When insulation heads to a landfill — it’s nearly impossible to recycle it — the formaldehyde used to make the insulation leaks out into the environment. In addition to the small shards of glass that comprise most of fiberglass insulation, it also contains bonding agents like silica sand, soda ash, borax, aluminum, feldspar and more. All of them add to the product’s environmental footprint. They also are unhealthy to breathe. 

By contrast, turning hemp into insulation requires hemp harvesting and then processing that separates the woody fibers inside of hemp stalks from the rest of the plant; the fibers are the insulation, and the rest of the plant is used for other things. The insulation, which is just as effective as fiberglass insulation at conserving heat in buildings, can be recycled, and most of it can be composted, too. The products does not irritate the skin when installed, nor does its presence damage the lungs.

vanlife embraces hemp insulation
#Vanlife enthusiasts routinely insulate their homes on wheels with HempWool.

Another advantage: hemp wool absorbs moisture, but the moisture does not permeate the insulation. With fiberglass insulation, the moisture remains in the material. Without a vapor barrier, mildew growth often results.

Hemp serves as an outstanding carbon sink, too. The crop absorbs more C02 per hectare than any other forest or commercial crop. 

One of the most avid early-adopters of hemp insulation (it only started being produced in 2018 in the United States) has been #vanlife enthusiasts. Given the tight spaces of  vans, people avoid essentially poisoning their air with fiberglass insulation.

As consumer education about healthy homes continues to grow, Hempitecture is poised to meet demans with practical, environmentally sound products that can scale.

A big downside, for now, is price. Hempitecture sources its hemp fibers from Europe, and it is costly. But once the new facility is up and running next year, prices should for HempWool products should decline dramatically. Mattie anticipates HempWool soon will only be about 20 percent expensive than cheap fiberglass insulation.

“Building healthy homes has become a movement,” says Mattie. “We imagine a future when you walk down the aisles of Lowes and see bags of this on the shelf.”

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