Hempcrete blocks created from CBD hemp bio waste. Photo courtesy DTE Materials.

By Elizabeth Lunt

New hemp brick companies starting up this year in North America show that hemp is creating the building blocks of a new industry. 

When hempcrete builder Dion Lefebvre of 8th Fire Innovations was building a hemp house in Alberta, Canada a few years back, he figured he was on to a good green building material. And then the half-constructed house caught fire, burning for seven hours. He recalls that the damage was minimal, amazing him with its strength and the low cost — $40 – to remediate the damage. “I realized that’s about the best real-world test I could ask for,” he recalled. “I was sold.”

Years later, Lefebvre has started up DiVita Hemp Block and told HempBuild Mag it took him years to figure out why he didn’t lose the house. 

“It slowed when it got to the wall,” he said, and slowly absorbed the CO2 produced by the smoldering hempcrete which never ignited. “Hempcrete fought the fire for me!” he marveled. 

Hemp hurd was plentifully available in Canada, having been legalized in the 1990s, he said. “This material was going to waste and I realized, ‘hey, there’s an opportunity there!’”

Lefebvre is working on a network of partnerships in North America to distribute his DiVitablocks, a system  of precast hempcrete insulation blocks designed to be retrofitted into conventional framing. 

Lefebvre said he’s dedicated to widespread adoption through showing builders how easy it can be to switch over to hempcrete, and is planning a network of affiliates throughout Canada and the US (through partner American Standard) with the goal of 100% local materials. 

Lefebvre sits on the International Code Council review panel and the ASTM hempcrete standards panel and says testing is underway for R-value fire ratings. Once these materials are approved, builders will feel more comfortable and adoption will be more widespread. 

Dion Lefebvre installs hempcrete blocks between wood studs. Photo courtesy of DiVita Blocks.

Finished yoga studio with plastered hempcrete walls. Photo courtesy of Dion Lefebvre

DTE Materials

Jose Urizar had the same realization as a student at Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo in a concrete class required for his Civil Engineering degree. Urizar stumbled on hempcrete-as-insulation in his lab explorations and decided to look into it. “We discovered that bast fibers work great,” Urizar told HempBuild Mag.

Urizar is now creating a hemp block product at Fresno, CA-based DTE  Materials, a materials science company that specializes in bio aggregates made from agricultural waste. He considers himself “cellulose agnostic,” but is working with hemp because there is so much waste available from the burgeoning CBD market.

 “You can use all the plant, not just the hurd,” he says – although it was the hurd waste that got him interested. “Its porosity is 25% higher than hard wood waste so from a thermal and insulation perspective it works well,” he said. 

Now DTE plans to work with a network of regenerative farmers in a plan to use all aspects of the plant, which in his calculation makes better sense than sourcing stalks alone. “Using CBD stalks” – and DTE’s proprietary clear wash method to process them – “there is so much more that can be done with the plant,” he explained. And because of the regenerative nature of hemp, the price of building materials should be coming down soon with ready supply. 

To get large production runs going, DTE is working with two large building companies helping them manufacture at scale, Urizar said. 

“The reason we are sourcing ag waste is so we can make the demand side legitimate for those beyond early adopters,” Urizar stated. And once ASTM establishes a standard for hemp block, a process in which Urizar has been involved, he expects adoption to come quickly. 

Lumber prices have nearly tripled in the past four months, which the National Association of Home Builders estimates is raising the price of a new single-family home by more than $18,600.

Builders and consumers alike are looking around for less expensive options.

Hempcrete is not load-bearing, and is an insulation material only, but experiments with hemp and cement-materials are expanding. “Ultimately” Urizar stated “our costs will be far cheaper based on our ag sourcing model.”

Ology Hemp Brick

Earth Merchant

Gina Engel at Vancouver, WA-based Earth Merchant agrees that hemp insulation blocks are the way to go. “We are putting families in homes full of toxic materials, “ she lamented to HempBuildMag, “and I believe that hempcrete will improve people’s lives.” 

She is forming  a network of US farmers to produce biomass for production of their OlogyBrick hemp blocks.

Earth Merchant will roll out Ology blocks at the World Ag Expo, Jan. 24-Feb. 4, in Tulare, CA, to help show farmers how to start in hemp and how to take advantage of the upcoming carbon credit offset market. Some grower partners will be there, too – all are working together to create a carbon credit platform for their hemp supply chain. Earth Merchant has developed a proprietary platform as a service (PAAS) for the credits and will be working to decentralize production of the blocks into regions all across the country.

Earth Merchant is creating a supply-chain program for hemp – “and hemp only,” Engel said. And with regional networks in the US, “we are not putting materials on barges, we are growing our own, processing and manufacturing all together.”

 The vision is that within about a 1,000 mile radius, all hemp will be grown (from supplied seed) processed and manufactured into bricks used regionally to reduce the transportation costs. 

“The real true factor in my opinion for carbon sequestration is reducing emissions by reducing transportation,” Engel said. The network will create a 100% US-produced product with carbon sequestration traceability.

Engel is currently working on R&D through two government grants – one from the US Department of Energy’s ARPA-e program in conjunction with Oregon State University. Earth Merchant will supply the blocks for a building and provide a supply chain of the materials. 

The other grant was a $100,000 award from the US Environmental Protection Agency. 

“It is such an incredible plant and there are so many opportunities,” she said, adding that for the EPA grant she submitted a concept paper and a 25-page application on why hemp is a great green building material. “They gave me a hundred grand and said ‘prove it!’”

Why so bullish on blocks? 

“No builder is going to touch a project where they have to get a crew to mix and blend and pack the walls,” Engel said. Ology bricks have a lip designed to go against the studs of a home, making them an easy installation. Engel’s goal is to produce 100,000 blocks in 2022 and have a demo home available to show people all the different applications of hempcrete, hemp wood, and hemp spray insulation. “We really need to open the eyes of the consumers – and the farmers, for that matter,” she added.

Gina Engel of Earth Merchant poses in a hemp field. Photo courtesy Gina Engel

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Originally published January 16, 2022 on Hemp Building Mag