As the global community looks for more sustainable ways to build housing, manufacture alternatives to plastic, and produce fuel alternatives, possibilities emerge from new and interesting places. For years, the housing industry has looked for reliable subsitutions to wood and brick, citing cost and material availability. However, the answer lies in an invention created in France in the 1980s.
According to the Rapid Transition Alliance, a group of individuals focused on bettering the world for future generations, “Hempcrete was first developed in France in the 1980s as a method of adding thermal performance to medieval timber frame buildings, whilst allowing the historic building fabric to continue working in the way it was intended to”.
This revolutionary invention changed the world of architecture. As populations grow and the demand for traditional building materials overstresses supply chains, a need for sustainable and economically responsible alternatives arises. Hempcrete has been offered by many as reasonable solution to many problems, including the need for building materials and finding an alternative that eliminates the need to demolish forests for their wood.
Forty years after the invention of hempcrete, researchers are exploring it as a serious alternative to other building materials. On June 17 2022, Texas A&M announced their reception of $3.74M to head up research into the project. Dr. Petros Sideris, assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, was selected to lead the project. His major role within the project will be to act as principal investigator in the development of residential and potential commercial construction designs.
Hempcrete is made by using hemp fibers as a base to create a lightweight building material that is also carbon negative, providing a more positive environmental impact. Preliminary research has also shown hempcrete to be more resilient to hazards such as flooding and fires than structures made with wooden frames.
The announcement made by Texas A&M cited Dr. Sideris as saying, “Resilience to natural hazards is intertwined with environmental sustainability because building damage and subsequent repairs due to extreme events such as hurricanes result in major environmental impacts,” The goal of the Texas A&M project will be to create building designs that can be 3D printed using hempcrete while at the same time complying with modern design codes. The hoped-for outcome will be a science-backed, tried and true example of how hempcrete can be implemented to help ease such issues as environmental and housing crises across the globe.
However, this project is not the first of its kind. Some individuals have already taken the leap and created commercial and private buildings. According to a mid-2021 article published by Dezeen, Lemoal Lemoal, a studio in Paris, used hempcrete blocks to create the Pierre Chevet Sports Center. The 380 square meter (or 4090.29 square feet) center contains features such as an exercise hall and changing rooms.
Similarly, Barrault Pressacco, an architecture firm in France used a combination of wood in hempcrete in 2021 to create 15 units of social housing that featured two shops on the ground levels. The project was initiated to show that more economically friendly alternatives to housing materials were available. The France-based architecture firm also considered it a salute to the architectural past. In an interview with Dezeen, architect Thibaut Barrault stated, “Hempcrete was first considered as a tool to investigate a particular Parisian tradition: the thick facade and the bow window…In this way, it links theoretical canons and environmental issues.”
Architects and environmentalists in Mexico, Israel, England, and other parts of the world have also built various private and commercial buildings using hemp fiber materials in their projects. It was projects like these that allow Dr. Sideris and his team a basis on which to work off of. The difference between this US-based project and others that came before it resides in the need for sustainable housing that meets all safety requirements and legal codes within the US architectural industry for mainstream building projects.
Funding for this project comes from HESTIA, a US-based program focused on the support of technology that cancels out embodied emissions and assists in the building of more economically responsible structures. As part of the Advance Research Projects Agency-Energy (or ARPA-E for short), HESTIA supports the research of projects like the one conducted by researchers at Texas A&M. According to the HESTIA profile on ARPA-E’s website, “HESTIA projects will facilitate the use of carbon negative materials in building construction by optimizing materials chemistries and matrices, manufacturing, and building designs in a cost-effective manner.”
There are no outlined time constraints for Dr. Sideris’ project at the time of this writing, but more details are expected in the future as the project develops. However, this project offers the potential for groundbreaking results. Not only would it verify hempcrete’s legitimacy as a building material, meeting all modern codes and standards, but also offer a solution to the need for affordable housing in many parts of the United States.
As a final thought, it is worth noting that as the hemp fiber market grows with projects like the one at Texas A&M, the greater the need for biomass. Hemp grown for fiber is a slowly growing niche within the hemp industry, but the demand for biomass has outweighed the supply available. As the demand for hemp fiber continues to grow, the availability of biomass will have to grow with it.
Hempcrete was created as a way to reinforce existing building structures that had aged, however, a revitalization of this niche sector of the industry has created a demand to know if it will withstand the rules of modern construction standards. Texas A&M is tackling these demands with help from HESTIA, a program focused on revitalizing our world in more economically friendly ways. The project will determine if hempcrete can be used to produce 3D printed structures for both private and commercial usage.
Though private architecture firms across the globe have already built structures using hempcrete, Texas A&M’s research will help provide valuable insight into the longevity, structural soundness, and other vital information needed to help make hempcrete a part of the solution for the future.