With Increased Construction And Lumber Prices, Builders Now Looking At Hemp Blocks


U.S. construction prices have been continuously escalating for years, and with it, there is huge concern for the amount of carbon emissions that are released due to the construction industry.

Because of this, homebuilders are looking for new solutions, and one such solution is the hemp industry. Albeit a small community of hemp buildings, they are slowly growing bigger in number, and are wondering whether they can finally find their way into mainstream construction.

According to a recent study that was done in April, framing lumber, OSB plywood and many other wood building materials costs have risen at an average of $36,000 for new builds, and unfortunately, these costs continue to rise.

Because of rising costs, many are looking for solutions to their homebuilding requirements such as builds that don’t need framing timber – or possibly need less of it. And one major solution that builders are looking into is the use of hemp-lime blocks.

Although the construction industry within the US has been incredibly opposing to any change, as well as introducing new innovations. And for those in the hemp industry, it has proved to be frustrating considering Europe has been using this type of technology over the past 30 years at least.

Known as ‘hempcrete,’ these blocks have been used in a number of European builds and have proven to be ‘green, carbon-sequestering, insulative wall solution’ for many years.

According to the spokesperson for Belgium-based company IsoHemp in an email to Hemp Build Mag, Charlotte De Bellefroid, “We have been working to decarbonize the construction sector for 10 years now and we remain 100% convinced that the hemp block has a crucial role to play.”

IsoHemp has been manufacturing at least one million hemp blocks annually, a number they plan to increase to five million blocks a year to keep up with the demand with their new robotic factory.

With the new US administration under the leadership of Joe Biden, the plan is to concentrate on carbon reduction in the construction industry, while also focusing on ways to build more efficient buildings, which the carbon-sequestering industrial hemp industry could have a very positive effect on this move. If the administration aims to lessen half of the U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, it will be “impossible” says the Alliance to Save Energy (ASE) President Paula Glover in a statement,  “without the rapid decarbonization of the building sector.”


They Are Also Light Weight and Quick to Assemble

Made with chopped hemp hurd and lime binder, precast hemp blocks are substantially lighter than concrete blocks. An added plus is that they are quick to assemble and can also provide rates of up to R70 for insulation. These uniform-density blocks can also be transported easily to a worksite, they are all pre-cured, and have a much shorter drying time in comparison to the hand-cast “in situ” or spray type that’s normally applied in hempcrete construction.

Moreover, walls that are built using hempcrete blocks are fireproof, pest proof, mold proof, and are even longer-lasting as compared to home that use timer frames which are normally made with poorer-quality materials.


They Require Load-Bearing Systems

Unlike concrete cinder blocks, by themselves, hempcrete blocks are not considered loadbearing, so they cannot take over the job of timber home framing. Yet, companies like IsoHemp and others such as the Vicat Group in France have also developed inner steel post-and-beam support systems which work to take the place of timber framing in the block walls.

A new Australian hemp block supplier, HempBLOCK USA, has given the Vicat system a license to build in the United States. Glen Donoghoe of HempBLOCK USA explained in Hemp Build Mag, “Cinder blocks operate on the premise of a vertical footing and a post beam around [the] top of the house.”

He adds, “The vertical post ties the building together to the beam, and hemp blocks to exactly the same thing.” Then the installed blocks are covered with stucco or lime plaster.

Although hempcrete has yet to make its way into the U.S. building codes, while also being uncommon in local or regional builds, Donoghoe explained that building inspectors ‘understand the steel cage and cement support system.’

Also licensed by HempBLOCK, the BIOSYS system uses precast interlocking hemp blocks that are both time and labor savers. This means that the outer wall portions of a house can be built using relatively unskilled labor, and in just a few days at that. This means that the work is done in about 70% quicker time than it would take to build a concrete wall using traditional methods of ‘stick framing, insulation, plastic wrap, siding and drywall.’

Donoghoe not only runs the office from the mountainous area close to Toulouse, France, he also manages the container shipments of BIOSYS blocks. The containers house around 600 blocks in each one, which is said to be enough to build the walls of a 2,400-square foot home, costing just $30,000. He also said that the shipments from France normally take around six to eight weeks to get to their destination.

While Donoghoe admits that the delivery method is not carbon-neutral, the system itself is working to find a reliable U.S. supply chain that can cater to their needs of building good quality hemp hurd in big amounts.

He explains, “If we can manufacture locally, reduce the carbon footprint and add value to local economies, people would be buying locally and we’d be employing people. Everybody wins in this scenario.”


Calling It a ‘LEGO’ System

Meanwhile, another load bearing hemp block system was created by the British Columbia-based company, JustBioFiber.

The Denver-based CEO of JustBioFiber, Dave Laouceur, shared with Hemp Build Mag, “We’re the only pre-engineered structural building system based on hemp.”

He adds, “We take your drawings and floor plans and our software automatically converts them into block-engineered buildings.”

The company is well-known for its incredible hempcrete residence called the Harmless Home, which was built in the British Columbia area for a private resident.

Notable Life

But JustBioFiber is setting its sights on something much larger than homes, hoping to developing hotels and other big projects. In fact, they also recently built a building on the University of Trent campus in Canada.

The company not only builds with hemp, but they also make foundation blocks out of recycled plastic, which is another option when looking to save time on pouring cement foundations.

CEO Ladouceur shared, “We are not the product to be found at Home Depot. Our focus is to become the premiere sustainable building products company in the world. We are looking for larger scale maser developers who are going to make a commitment to JBF products in the market. Building one-off houses is not efficient for us.”

Unfortunately, when the pandemic hit, like many other businesses it took a huge toll on the Calgary-based company. He explained, “We have back orders for millions of blocks we can’t fill.” In the meantime, he shared that the company is in discussions with other build factories in Missouri, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.


Adobe Hemp Block Options

There are also U.S. engineers and architects that are experimenting with mixing hemp with other materials that have the ability to bear more load, such as adobe clay. But so far, there has been no commercial applications available on the market so far.


Using Hemp Blocks As Insulation

When not being used in the structural component of a build, hemp blocks can be used to replace expensive lumber for insulation. The 8 x 16 x 6-inch pre-cured hempcrete bricks can be installed with mortar by masonry professionals, and used alongside the wood frame construction ‘to provide “shear” horizontal support usually taken up by particle-board OSB.

The reason why hemp blocks work well as insulation is because the air pockets get trapped inside the hemp within the lime blocks, creating a barrier from the heat or cold. Also, unlike Portland cement, the walls also don’t crack during the times of freeze-thaw cycles in the winter time, since hemp and lime regulate moisture inside of a building, then wick it to the outside. Homes using hemp as insulation also save on both heating and cooling costs while also having higher rated acoustic properties.

While it is still unknown if U.S. builders and consumers will accept the use of hemp blocks in construction, with the continued rise of lumber prices and other building materials, the industry may not have a choice but to re-think the traditional timer-framed box for building.

IsoHemp’s De Bellefroid shared, “Changing construction habits is indeed a long term challenge. Architects, contractors, project owners, we all need to adopt new ways of building.”

And considering just how effective hemp block are with their thermal and acoustic insulation abilities, means of water regulation, the fact that they are fire resistance, while having a negative carbon footprint proves that it is “a material that revolutionizes the building industry,” says De Bellefroid. Yet only time will tell if builders and the like will soften up to this new building technology.


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