Local Trenton, GA Citizens Bank and Trust banker Jon Cole (L) shakes hands with HempBLOCK International representative Johan Tijssen (R) during a visit to the local bank office. Photo courtesy of Keith Bien

By Elizabeth “Boo” Lunt

A new hemp house being built in Georgia shows that with the right bank, even a new material like hempcrete can qualify for a construction loan.

Future homeowner Keith Bien had been researching hemp building for a long time. When he settled on an interlocking building system from HempBLOCK International, he and his wife took a thick binder of plans over to their longtime banker, Jon Cole. They found to their delight he was nearly as excited as they were about their natural building project.

“The efficiency of hemp blows my mind!” said Cole of Citizens Bank and Trust in Trenton, GA, who advocated to the bank board that the Biens get a construction loan for the project. He explained that he got bank bigwigs on board quickly when he took in the comprehensive information and planning the Biens brought to their application.

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Homeowner and hempcrete builder Keith Bien (R) poses with a hempcrete block he’ll be using to build his new dream home in Wildwood, GA. Banker Jon Cole (L) of Citizens Bank and Trust in Trenton, GA, was excited about the project. Photo courtesy of Keith Bien

Cole recalled that the notebook – which included drawings, a schedule of costs and a timeline – helped a lot to persuade him and then the bank board. He also emphasized that they are a local community bank that serves only their area and that the Biens’ reputation at the bank helped seal the deal.

He said that his job is to make sure – before clients start building – that they have enough money to finish their project and that they are not running behind schedule. 

All the standard construction loan processes are in place, Cole explained. He keeps track of the stages of the project, the costs and whether they are on schedule. The difference, he said, is that with such a new process they need to make adjustments as they go, tweaking standard construction loan formulas that reflect stick-built houses.

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For his part, Bien said he did a lot of research before settling on a hemp house for their hillside property in Wildwood, GA.

Bien said he read a lot about hempcrete and fell in love with it. And when he found the blocks, he was taken with their convenience and efficiency. 

“You have to remember that the blocks are replacing your stud wall, your sheathing, your drywall, your insulation – the only thing left is to finish with a render!” he said.

He figured with the very wet weather they have in the Southeast, cast in place material would take too long to dry – up to eight weeks in his region – and felt that having to build the frame and then pack the hempcrete seemed like doing the work twice.

So when he learned about hempcrete Biosys blocks from HempBLOCK International, he got excited.

“Having the blocks cured and dried already before they arrive helps a lot,” he said.

Acting as the general contractor, Bien has been coordinating engineering and design work as well as clearing and readying the land for the foundation, which is now installed. It required a lot of digging and they were sad to lose trees, but it’s exciting to see the project take shape, he said.

HempBLOCK International, founded in Australia by Johan Tijssen, produces hempcrete building blocks that fit together and have steel bars inside. They are imported by a subsidiary, HempBLOCK USA. Tijssen is currently working to set up production facilities in the United States. 

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A HempBLOCK International block is displayed in the lobby of Citizens Bank and Trust in Trenton, GA. Photo by Keith Bien

The blocks come in one size: 2 feet tall x 1 foot deep x 1 foot high, and they interlock dry, explained Tijssen, which he says is an advantage because builders need no mortar or glue. The blocks, once placed, are held together by compression and friction. Three types of blocks allow for various accommodations while building: a standard solid block, a hollow one called a “column block,” and then one with a lintel or header. 

“They cut very easily, with even a handsaw. So you can shape them as needed,” Bien said.

Keith and Katie Bien worked with engineers and architects at HempBLOCK International to help convert and redesign a floor plan that they liked. The result will be a 2,500 square foot, 3-bedroom, two-story house which will require about 700 blocks. A lime render will seal the exterior, which Bien explained will give it a vapor-permeable but weatherproof coating, “much like they have been doing for hundreds of years in Europe and England.” 

Tijssen and Bien will offer a set of HempBLOCK USA certification workshops at the Georgia site in August, where participants will spend two days in a combination of learning the HempBLOCK USA manual with field experience and training, and learn to be HempBLOCK Master Builders. 

Banker Cole said he’s pleased that Bien keeps him up to date with regular reports as well as running a live camera for others to watch progress on the project. He continues to be enthusiastic about the material and plans to visit the site during the training days.

 “When we finally got the blocks delivered I brought one in to Jon’s office and set it on his desk. And then he asked to keep it!” Bien recalled with a laugh.

“I think it’s really neat! I have it in the lobby,” Cole said. He enjoys the opportunity to talk with other bank visitors about the project, though he notes that he has not had any other applications for hemp building projects — yet.

Bien said the project got off to a slow start with a very wet spring which held things up. Now that the foundation is nearly complete, he expects they will soon get into the block laying on track for August workshops at the site. As far as completion of the home, he expects it will be early next year.

“We are hoping to enter the top hempcrete build of the year contest,” he said.

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Homeowner-builders Katie and Keith Bien pose with a HempBLOCk International interlocking hemp block. Photo courtesy of Keith Bien

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Originally published July 14, 2023 on Hemp Building Mag

https://www.hempbuildmag.com/home/construction-loan-hempcrete-ga