Hemp building material could help survive and prevent destruction 


click to enlarge Better than carbon neutral — hemp walls are carbon negative. - RON SWEETIN PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Ron Sweetin Photography
  • Better than carbon neutral — hemp walls are carbon negative.

The smoky sunsets of late make for an eerie reminder of the fires burning all around the Springs — to the west, up north and in our past. It's unwelcome déjà vu, but it seems all but inevitable each summer.

Colorado is hot, dry and windy during the summer, making it fertile ground for ravaging fires. But research suggests this recent uptick may be attributable to insect outbreaks, drought and rising temperatures — all symptoms of manmade climate change. Innovators not resigned to that fate have found an unlikely tool for both surviving wildfires and preventing them at the same time: cannabis. (But not the kind that gets you high.)

"You can't roll up a doobie with what I build with, that's for sure," says John Patterson. "But it is a natural flame retardant!"

Patterson, a carpenter-turned-hempster, teaches classes on home-building with hemp in Fort Collins. Hempcrete — a mixture of hemp stalk, water and lime — could pave the way toward a sustainable future when we don't get wiped out by climate change, he says, rattling off the material's key eco-friendly properties: It's naturally temperature regulating; biodegradable; lightweight; antibacterial; antimicrobial; and it's a carbon sequester (meaning it absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere rather than letting it keep warming the planet).

The thing is, of course, the material is hardly mainstream in the American building industry. Growing it became federally legal just two years ago under the U.S Agriculture Act of 2014 in states that permit it, which Colorado started to do a year earlier.

Industrial hemp production is on the up, but growers have since focused mainly on medicinal, nutritional and fibrous uses of the plant. Hemp grown for its seeds or the oil you can press from them tend to be shorter and bushier, without much regard for the stalk. But in the core of that stalk is stringy plant matter that can be processed into hempcrete — a value-added product for farmers trying to get the most out of their harvest.

"In Europe they've got it down perfectly," Patterson says. "They're miles ahead of us. We're just getting started with it here in the U.S., with Colorado at the forefront."

Part of the lag, he explains, is that hempcrete makes no explicit appearances in the international building code yet. Anyone looking to build with an alternative material in this city has to convince the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department that "the proposed design is satisfactory, and that the material, method or work offered is, for the purpose intended, at least the equivalent of that prescribed in this Code in quality, strength, effectiveness, fire resistance, durability, and safety."

That shouldn't be too hard, Patterson thinks, as long as the case is convincing.

"You can't go in there with your plan scribbled on a napkin reeking of weed and expect to get approved," he says. "You've got to be professional about it. But it's not a hard sell with my colleagues. Once they see it, they're convinced."

That's why education is key. Bill Billings with the Colorado Hemp Project is just starting to see the stigma of the prohibition era washing away. But it's a slower process than he'd like, given what the movement is up against.

"You know how this country is, all of the politicians are owned by the oil companies and pharmaceutical companies," he tells the Indy. "Every single one of them. So getting through that is hemp's biggest obstacle."

There is some lightening up on the federal level, Billings admits, but just some. "These other states are just getting started with research and development, but we already know what it's good for," he says. "Everyone wants to be all politically correct instead of just doing what's right for people and the planet."

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