From hempcrete to hemp wool and even hemp-based fiberglass, it has been demonstrated time and again that hemp-based building materials are a sustainable alternative to more commonly used building supplies.
In this Q&A, we ask Hempitecture CEO Mattie Mead about the burgeoning hemp industry and what it could mean for the future of construction and, ultimately, the health of our planet. This interview covers the founding of Hempitecture, the company’s status as a Public Benefit Corporation, the differences between hemp-based building materials and more traditional products, efforts to train contractors in the use of hempcrete, and more!
Find the full interview below:
Ganjapreneur: How did you meet co-founder Tommy Gibbons and what was the initial spark that led to the idea for Hempitecture?
Mattie Mead: Tommy Gibbons and I went to high school together, over 15 years ago. We shared some overlap in school: classes together, sports teams, and even the student council. After high school, we took very different paths. Tommy went to Princeton University and I went to Hobart College, a small liberal arts college in Geneva, NY. While he was studying public policy, I was studying architecture and environmental sciences.
After we graduated college, Tommy went on to the institutional finance world, working at companies like Goldman Sachs. After finding that work less than fulfilling, he gravitated towards the San Francisco startup scene. He last worked for an educational technology startup before joining Hempitecture.
I launched Hempitecture, or at least the Hempitecture concept, as a student. It was part of my thesis study on sustainable building methods. In 2012, I gave my first pitch to a crowded room of 250 people. I didn’t know where these pitch contests would take me, but it turned out that putting myself out there and bringing the Hempitecture concept to the stage brought some modest press, some articles were written and shared.
One article traveled far and wide on social media, about a college student pitching homes of hemp.
This article reached a nonprofit organization in Idaho who contacted me directly not long after I graduated. They asked if I would build a hempcrete building in Idaho. This project brought me to ID for my first time, and Idaho is now my home. This project turned into other projects.
As the Hempitecture concept began to grow, I knew I needed other people with different skill sets than I had to help Hempitecture grow. Tommy and I reconnected in 2017 when he was working in SF. Tommy became interested in what Hempitecture was presenting, and as we began to talk more about it, it seemed more and more that Tommy would bring these essential skillsets to the business. In 2018, we became business partners and re-incorporated hempitecture as a public benefit corporation.
Was the company always a Public Benefit Corporation? Has this classification impacted any aspects of the business?
It wasn’t until Tommy and I came together as business partners that we decided to bring Hempitecture from an LLC to a PBC, or a Public Benefit Corporation.
This was a huge moment for the business and our future trajectory.
This decision was made because we wanted to embody the mission of Hempitecture at the heart of everything we did and do. That’s the great thing about a PBC, it means you lead with a mission and state your benefit to the public.
For Hempitecture, that means that we benefit both people and planet through the creation of more sustainable building materials. Our materials benefit both people and planet through capturing CO2, displacing unhealthy mainstream materials, and contributing to healthier, higher-performing homes and habitats.
How long did you research and develop the products before bringing them to market?
Hempitecture has been a consistent evolution. The concept that was once presented on stage as an undergraduate student is very different from where we are today.
Building a business is an iterative process. It’s not always “here’s the concept, this is the business.”
In our case, it started with a concept: building materials derived from sustainable, carbon-capturing feedstocks.
The form that the business, as well as our products have taken, have transformed dramatically over the years. We started with a focus on Hempcrete. We have built over a dozen hempcrete homes, while advising, consulting, and supplying over a dozen more. Today, hempcrete makes up 20% of our business, we’re now focused on sustainable nonwovens, such as HempWool insulation. We’re currently building a nonwoven manufacturing facility to produce this insulation on a large scale for the first time in the US.
What technology do you use to create these products, and what are the benefits of installing Hempcrete and/or Hempwool?
For hempcrete, we have worked with Limestrong to formulate a specific lime binder that works to bind decorticated hemp hurd.
For HempWool, we have acquired novel European technology to produce hemp-based nonwoven insulation. Our nonwoven facility in located in Twin Falls, ID.
Our materials are healthy, non toxic, and lend to better-built environments.
Where does Hempitecture source plant material?
We have a number of partners. One of our primary partners is IND Hemp, who we have a supply chain partnership with.
What are the biggest challenges working with hemp-based building materials?
Hemp-based materials present a few challenges compared to conventional materials. Conventional materials are commonly accepted by building codes and officials. Our materials are newer to the market, and therefore have a more difficult time being adopted. We are currently working on a number of codes and criteria for acceptance of HempWool into commercial and residential building projects in North America.
Organizations like the USHBA are doing a great job at bringing hempcrete up to code standards, through groups like the International Code Council. Hempitecture in 2019 was the first company to conduct an ASTM e84 test on hempcrete, conclusively proving it is a 100% fireproof material
How do hemp building materials compare to traditional building materials in terms of structural integrity and longevity?
They are comparable or superior.
Do contractors need to learn new skills to begin working with these products?
Contractor skills are the #1 thing holding back hempcrete adoption in the US. Hempcrete involves carpentry skills, masonry skills, and knowledge of how the material integrates with, interacts with, and impacts the structural elements of the build. For this reason, cast in place hempcrete is niche. Hempitecture has trained over 100 builders to learn hempcrete, in an effort to reduce this bottleneck.
HempWool on the other hand, is simple to install. It’s a natural fiber batt, similar to fiberglass, but without the itch or abrasiveness. It can be adopted by any contractor or insulation contractor.
Does Hempitecture provide customer support with building projects and the application of hemp building materials?
We offer consulting services to help clients with their installations of both HempWool and Hempcrete
How is changing from commonly used building materials to Hempwool and Hempcrete the more sustainable option for the planet at large?
Using plant-based resources in lieu of carbon-intensive resources such as plastics, earth minerals, or synthetics, mean that materials can have a lower carbon footprint. We must reconcile embodied carbon with operational carbon. What that means is we have to begin priortitizing materials that have low embodied carbon, that help our buildings save energy.
Have you worked with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) or any other building code or public agency to reach more people who can use these products?
Our HempWool product is the only USDA biobased insulation product in North America. This qualifies it for LEED points.
What kind of reception do you get from construction, architecture, and other applicable firms when introduced to hemp building options?
Overall, the reaction is positive, but there are always detractors.
I think the architecture community is more inclined towards sustainable alternatives, whereas the construction communities are slightly more resistant, as it means less predictable costs, uncertain labor costs, etc.
The future for natural materials, however, is bright. We only have one direction we can go, and it’s towards sustainability, not away from it.
Thank you, Mattie, for answering these questions and sharing your expertise! Visit Hempitecture.com to learn more.