Hemp could be the building material that accelerates the sustainable industry.
The year 2020 marked a devastating time period for myriad reasons. Among the pantheon of pain was the immense damage brought on by natural disasters. In early 2021, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released its billion-dollar disaster report, calling 2021 a “historic year of extremes.”
More precisely, the U.S. saw disasters on an unheard-of level that year, witnessing 22 individual billion-dollar weather and climate disasters. From hail to forest fires to hurricanes and beyond, homes, businesses and other important buildings were leveled in the destruction—and numerous lives were lost.
Hemp hasn’t come up much in the rebuilding efforts. However, a late-August op-ed in The Hill from University of Florida Associate Professor Benjamin Hebblethwaite did make a case for hemp and bamboo in Haiti. Hebblethwaite called concrete structures unsafe, noting that intense weather on the island can weaken diluted concrete, increasing the potential for collapses. As a replacement material, he cited the hemp’s ability to create lightweight hempcrete, which can be used to insulate homes and build bricks.
Like the U.S., Hebblethwaite cited laws he called draconian for banning the renewable resource.
As both nations and others rebuild from a disastrous 2020, could hemp materials provide an ecological, more efficient solution?
Hemp Offers Construction Potential in Many Instances
Like cannabis consumption, using hemp for concrete isn’t a one-size-fits-all scenario. For some situations, depending on the construction needs, including local laws, budget and other factors, hemp could be an ideal option to rebuild or when beginning new projects.
Sources touched on an array of benefits to using hemp. Jacob Waddell, president of the U.S. Hemp Building Association, told High Times that utilizing hemp uses carbon sequestering building materials, replacing current options he said were unsustainable.
“By utilizing an agricultural product for our materials, we are trapping carbon absorbed during the growth of the plant and preserving it in the building,” said Waddell.
Volodymyr Barabakh, co-founder and project director of Chicago-based Fortress Home, said hemp works particularly well in damp, humid conditions as it is more breathable than concrete. Noting that most places in the U.S. are prone to natural disasters, particularly floods and hurricanes and have humid summers, he sees hemp potentially aiding in future construction.
“From a purely structural standpoint, there is definitely a use case for hemp concrete for disaster rebuilding projects,” Barabakh stated.
Waddell said that homes prone to mold could see health hazards lowered when building with hemp. He added that areas prone to fire also could benefit from a hemp-based dwelling.
“Hempcrete provides a fire-resistant option that could prevent the total loss of homes that is occurring on an almost annual basis in some places,” he stated.
Jim Higdon, the co-founder of Kentucky-based Cornbread Hemp, said hemp has “huge potential” in construction. He cited the plant’s ecological benefits, noting its ability to grow faster than trees and its annual harvest.
“Whether as a substitute for concrete or wood, hemp has huge potential,” he stated.
Jeff Sampson is the founder and CEO of the THC and CBD marketplace Everscore. He believes that hemp should be in the mix when looking to build sustainable structures. Sampson, who also serves as non-executive director for the Native American Cannabis Alliance, believes that the plant “should be given serious consideration by anybody involved in rebuilding efforts, from architects and contractors to owners and administrators.”
Prohibition Likely Driving Down Market Awareness, Increasing Costs
Hemp may be an ideal construction component in many instances. But, for now, its pain points make it difficult for mass appeal.
Waddell said his industry still must contend with non-optimal performance concerns as well as cost. He cited the drug war and decades of prohibition that limited hemp from legal sales or adequate research and development.
“As innovation occurs and we get closer to economies of scale, hemp products have the potential to be the best building products on the market,” he stated.
It isn’t easy to gauge the actual cost of hemp for a construction project. Domestic hemp typically costs between $100 and $200 per square meter, depending on the company. While you can save money by making your own hempcrete from unprocessed hurds, the cost of labor and additional effort often makes this option unworthy for most.
Barabakh elaborated, stating that without much market demand, the cost for hempcrete projects remains high.
“It is not popular enough for us to currently have the infrastructure to produce it at scale,” he said. Barabakh further explained that until interest can help lower costs, hempcrete is typically only used on “novelty” projects.
Waddell added that U.S. law creates additional problems for the plant despite its 2018 legalization. He cited cannabinoid testing and the lack of hemp’s inclusion in building codes as current sticking points for the market. He noted crop testing and the THC threshold hemp must abide by.
“If these plants are harvested properly, they will be harvested before they go to flower, but still, the entire fiber crop could be destroyed if the plant has a THC level above 0.3 percent,” he explained.
He calls the current laws a risk to investments, stating that he believes testing laws shouldn’t apply to plants meant for fiber or grain end products.
He added that the USHBA is working on getting hemp included in building codes, potentially making it a more viable option for housing projects. He directed readers to the group’s website for more information. They’ve also launched a GoFundMe to reach their goal.
Hemp Not Likely a Factor in Today’s Rebuilding Efforts
Sources say they believe hemp will find its way into more building projects in the years to come. However, that day isn’t coming just yet. As costs remain high and regulations prevent hemp from becoming viable for most projects, it is likely to remain a costly niche option for sustainable endeavors. Therefore, current rebuilding efforts in the U.S. or elsewhere are unlikely to include hempcrete.
Still, sources remain optimistic for the future. “At this point, the barriers are more about awareness and perception than technical,” said Sampson. “Heightened consumer interest in renewable and sustainable products and processes makes hemp difficult to ignore,” he added.
“To increase our overall market share, we need to increase the recognition of hemp as a viable high-performance building material,” he said. The task is immense for a single company, but he believes industry can achieve the goal if everyone works together.