Ukraine Native Builds Hemp Housing for War Refugees
Sergiy Kovalenkov is empowering Ukrainians who have lost everything by creating a collaborative building project in his war-torn country.
How did your career lead you to hemp?
My life as a civil engineer in Ukraine and Canada led me to Australia in 2010. I met a person who was growing hemp there, so I learned more about it. He told me that his company was participating in the construction of the first-ever hempcrete home in Australia and I got really curious. I never heard about anything like this before. I asked if I could give a hand and that is how I ended up in Tasmania working with hempcrete.
From Day One I realized that this is the future of the housing industry. I read more technical documentation about hemp and about English and French experiences using it, mostly for restoration of existing buildings in the 1990s. There was still not much brand-new construction. I was blown away by this all-natural material. It is simple for a builder to understand and of course it carries so many benefits: 100% natural, energy efficient, durable, regulates humidity, doesn’t burn or rot, repels pests and more. For quality of living, it creates an acoustically calming and cozy space.
The carbon negative environmental aspect of hempcrete was also a big deal for me, since one hectare of hemp can sequester 10 to 20 tons of CO2. I was impressed that hempcrete is just so much better than current materials available on the market. Over the years I was working on numerous projects around the world and eventually founded my own company in Ukraine called Hempire. Hempire specializes in manufacturing and selling binder as well as executing hempcrete projects.
What are your main projects now?
Hempire is involved in turning an old farm building into a residential complex for refugees and orphans in Western Ukraine. Even during the pandemic and the war we are still able to execute this and other projects, because when I founded Hempire I decided to develop binder using only local natural materials. Hempire has provided binder at cost and donated the initial hemp hurds for the project. Last year I started a nonprofit, Hemp Ukraine Recover, to raise funds for this important project, and we are looking for donations to complete it. These people have lost everything due to the war and now they are building themselves new housing using local hemp biobased solutions. They have shown incredible resilience. I think it is a powerful story.
We organized a seminar where we invited builders and architects, and we taught the refugees how to install and work with the hempcrete. We left our master foreman to supervise the project. The first section of the building will accommodate 30 families.
The second section will be a rehab center for war veterans and victims of the war to make sure we can help them to recover from PTSD and other mental and physical disorders. We are going to invite American war veterans who will learn to work with hempcrete, while the food and accommodation will be provided. In return they will help the Ukrainian war veterans and other victims to recover from war, since they know a lot about this already.
We will invite some big media channels and show the rest of the world that if you are growing hemp and sourcing your materials locally, you can still build during a war.
This is how we will help Ukrainians to rebuild their homes using local, natural, sustainable materials. This complex will be the first one out of many. There will also be investment opportunities for future projects, and I can share more details later.
How do you think the supply chain is developing in the U.S. now?
I have visited a few hemp processing facilities in the U.S. and things are moving along really well even compared to three or four years ago. More and more decortication facilities are being established all over the country. All that biomass and binder was imported, and now it’s produced in the U.S. It’s awesome!
Hempire has started to operate on the West Coast of the U.S., and our binder “Fifth Element” is made solely out of U.S. ingredients. We are looking for partners and distributors as we are selling licenses in many states. The future of hempcrete is a local supply chain. Things are too expensive to move around the world.
There is no hemp industry without farmers, so as the supply chain develops, farmers need support from the government and subsidies to grow testing plots. Without local farmers there is no hemp industry.
What do you want people to understand about what you are trying to do?
People need to understand that instead of many toxic materials they can use more ecological ways of building their houses. We must talk to architects and builders and educate them, so that they understand that materials they choose for the project will affect future generations. I’m sure nobody reading this article wants their kids to live in a toxic home. They need to understand that you can grow your home in the field next door without damaging your own health and the ecosystem of the planet. It’s important to know that a local hemp supply chain establishes more jobs in farming, processing, manufacturing and construction.
What are your goals for 2023?
My goal is to finish the housing project in Ukraine by the end of the year and move to phase two, the rehab facility. It all comes down to funding and we are looking to partner up with many different organizations. We are executing this project by using donations from all around the world and we are helping people who have lost their homes against their will. For example, among the families that will receive a new home is a single mother of seven children. I cannot describe to you what this person has gone through.
Imagine you have a home and the next minute you do not have one. During the last year some of the conversations with my business partner were like: “Can we get to the manufacturing facility? Any rockets landed last night over there? OK, let’s get the boys to load the truck and get the hemp and binder delivered to the site.”
“Be grateful for what you have!” has been the main phrase on my mind every day of the last year. If, when you wake up, you are able to get out of your house, and you have electricity, hot water and no explosions in the background, you are off to a good start that day. This war has affected every Ukrainian family. And I am sure if we can build hempcrete houses during war in Ukraine, then other people can do it in peace everywhere else.