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Hempcrete could change the game in construction 

New build

click to enlarge Jeremy Tackett with hemp hurd. - DANIEL JITCHAKU
  • Daniel Jitchaku
  • Jeremy Tackett with hemp hurd.
Smokebrush Farm, an urban farm located on roughly 6 acres in Manitou Springs, plans to use an innovative building material this season. Hempcrete — a mixture of water, lime and the plant’s “hurd,” the woody portion of the hemp stalk broken up into small pieces — will be used for several projects that will eventually lead into workshops.

The farm is an offshoot of the Smokebrush Foundation for the Arts, an organization that hosts a variety of creative community events in the area. It utilizes biodynamic farming practices, an agricultural approach similar to organic farming but with a stronger emphasis on building holistic systems that maximize efficiency. And hempcrete fits well with that ethic.
“We’ll be doing hempcrete here over the next couple weeks,” Smokebrush Farm Manager Jeremy Tackett said in early March. “There are three hemp projects on this property.”

Among them, a “cosmic solar system slab” that will resemble a patio slab and serve as the centerpiece to an interactive rock garden, as well as fortifying the back end of a greenhouse with hempcrete insulation, and housing insulation for the farm’s ducks. On this last project, Tackett summarizes the construction process.

“We’ll frame with timber all around the window well, then we’ll get our OSB [oriented strand board] and screw that to the frame, then we’ll mix our hempcrete and pour that in. A few hours later we’ll take off the OSB [the form] and let it cure.”

The matter of hemp’s legality as an agricultural crop has largely been settled in Colorado; however, the debate around how all this newly cultivated hemp might best be used and marketed is only beginning.

While the current local market largely revolves around medicinal extracts that take advantage of the plant’s natural CBD, there is a burgeoning movement being built (pun intended) around the plant’s construction capabilities.
According to an article on the National Hemp Association website, hempcrete takes awhile to cure and isn’t generally suitable for load-bearing walls, though it’s a great insulator. Most often, it’s mixed on-site and poured directly into a frame, though hempcrete bricks are manufactured and some are suitable as replacements for traditional brick.

Not unlike the material it’s derived from, the Association notes, hempcrete boasts major and manifold benefits. It’s fire-, pest- and mold-resistant, nontoxic, and effective at regulating temperature and humidity. Hemp absorbs carbon dioxide as it grows, takes far less time to reach maturity than trees (only about four months), and is a less fussy crop than most, saving on water, pesticides and fertilizers. What’s more, an article in the Hemp Business Journal notes, while hempcrete is more expensive than traditional building materials, it has excellent sound-absorbing qualities, and hempcrete has been found to absorb carbon dioxide as it undergoes calcination. And while other insulators become less effective over time with moisture buildup, the article states, permeable hempcrete retains its insulating value in the long run — meaning a hempcrete building will save on energy costs.
So why isn’t it more popular? Well, in Europe, where it has been used for decades, it is. A 2015 article in The New York Times notes that across the pond, where hemp was never banned, “Hundreds of buildings now use hempcrete, including a seven-story office tower in France, a Marks and Spencer department store in the United Kingdom, and even a home built by Prince Charles.” But due to the restrictive laws stateside in recent decades, local examples of hempcrete’s viability are harder to come by.

Sure enough, though, with recent legislative strides and much bipartisan support in tow, more and more are cropping up. Just last year, Boulder-based company Left Hand Hemp helped create the first hempcrete structure in Denver, a 16-by-20-foot workshop space, while the first residential hempcrete home can be found in Asheville, North Carolina.

Closer to home, Tackett says Smokebrush may cultivate its own hemp, but not until at least 2019. And, at that point, the farm would grow hemp “for the sole purpose of food” such as sprouts, juices and salad greens. Tackett is adamant in his belief that hemp fulfills a need in society, one that can heal the land while healing us, and that whether it’s through food or hempcrete, the immediate goal is preparing people to become comfortable with the new ubiquity.
“I believe I can help people talk about cannabis like they talk about kale,” he says. “And that way we get to slowly broaden the spectrum of what we use cannabis for.”

As hempcrete illustrates, those uses not only stretch into the home, but can comprise the home itself.

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