US Hemp Industry Rallies Around Building Codes
By Jean Lotus
The U.S. Hemp Building Association will host an online conference and fundraiser Sep. 9-10 to raise money to submit hemp building materials to the International Code Council. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Hemp Building Association
Leaders in the emerging U.S. hemp-building industry are gathering online for a push to certify hemp as an official building material in U.S. building codes before the deadline for ASTM certification slams shut for two years in January, 2022.
More than two dozen speakers and hemp building experts will appear virtually at an upcoming online fundraiser and conference, Hemp Build 2021 to be held Sep. 9-10, 2021.
The foundation, a non-profit arm of the US Hemp Building Association trade group, is raising $100,000 to submit hemp and lime building materials for certification by the International Code Council (ICC) to be included in U.S. building codes for 2022.
There’s an urgency to the project, because the ICC code submission process won’t reopen again until 2025, Jacob Waddell, president of USHBA told Let’s Talk Hemp.
The group is following the path blazed in the 1990s by straw bale and straw clay materials natural builders who worked to include natural building materials in U.S. building codes, Waddell said.
“We’re trying to implement a similar strategy to get into the building codes and make hemp and lime known in the codes community, and hopefully take that to the next level,” he added.
The conference will feature two days of discussions of hemp building, health and environment, architecture, engineering, materials and innovation.
The event costs $30 and is open to the public. The cost for USHBA members is $10.
Conference programming will mix up general and specific hemp industry information to engage participants of all knowledge levels, Waddell said. Organizers seek to reach as many conventional building pros and general public members as possible, he added.
Getting approved by the ICC is just the first step in a process to make hemp building accepted in the United States, as it has been in Europe for 30 years, Waddell said.
The fragmented U.S. building permitting system can shift county by county, but certain jurisdictions will just accept ICC-approved materials, he said. Others, like state building rules for California and Florida, are more challenging, Waddell said.
Specifically, the USHBA is working to get hemp+lime insulation, also known as “hempcrete,” certified through the ASTM (formerly the American Society for Testing Materials) for fireproofing standards, R-value and the test methods used in the R & D protocol.
The goal is to create performance standards but give innovators leeway on how to get there, Waddell said.
“We’re not trying to dictate that, ‘you have to use this lime with this mixture,’” Waddell said.
“We want to encourage innovation and growth in the market, because we know it’s coming.”
The ultimate goal is a set of performance guidelines that any building inspector can use to approve a hempcrete-insulated structure.
Another challenge: As U.S. farmers and processors re-enter the industrial hemp-growing business after 80 years of prohibition, getting hemp materials up-to-spec for building materials is still hit-and-miss.
As a result, some of the most experienced US hemp builders are actually importing from Europe large shipping containers of hemp hurd, the woody inner core of the hemp stalk.
As industrial hemp stalk processing plants come online across North America, U.S. hemp builders need a uniform standard for the best outputs for building materials. Hurd chips for hempcrete must be within certain size specs and must be dust-free.
The new non-profit foundation is also raising money to create stakeholders through workforce development and to create an accurate archive of educational materials for the hemp building industry.
A September project training hemp-lime builders on tribal land in Alabama will experiment with local high-calcium lime, Waddell said. If successful, the project could open up a new source for lime in the U.S.
“We’re trying to create workforces around the country based in underserved communities to make sure that there are more opportunities and demand for starting businesses in the industry to be used in the community,” Waddell said. Meanwhile, educational white papers from experienced hemp builders will help train contractors in hemp building, Waddell said.
Most hempcrete structures currently built in the United States are bespoke dream-home projects that involve special code and permitting variances. Home builders who want to insure and borrow for hempcrete builds have an uphill journey.
But as the construction industry faces the challenges of climate change and looks at limiting greenhouse gasses, renewable natural building materials like hemp can provide a solution.
The industrial hemp plant naturally sequesters about 5 metric tons of CO2 per acre while growing, and further absorbs carbon while in the walls of a hempcrete structure.
Already France has decreed that carbon-sequestering natural materials be used in new government buildings, spurring revolutionary new hempcrete-insulated social housing and a sports center in Paris.
The hemp insulation solution is waiting for the conventional building industry to discover and put into practice, Waddell predicted.
“What I hope is they see these new green possibilities and jump into the market and compete,” he said.
Jean Lotus is a Colorado-based award-winning journalist and hempreneur who writes about the American West and sustainable food and technologies.