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Hemp-Based Materials: Challenging the Norms of Construction

Our guest is Jonnie Pedersen, Growth Operations Specialist at Hempitecture, a company using industrial hemp to create sustainable building materials. We’re talking about the challenges and opportunities of building a sustainable business, the role of hemp in a circular economy, and how sustainable construction can transform our world.

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Interview with Jonnie Pedersen, Growth Operations Specialist at Hempitecture

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Dunja Jovanovic: Hi Jonnie, welcome to the Green New Perspective podcast. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me and our audience today.

Jonnie Pederseni: I'm delighted to be here and grateful for the invitation. I represent Hempitecture, a public benefit corporation with a mission to replace toxic, carbon-intensive, and synthetic materials used in construction with plant-based resources.

We design, manufacture, and distribute bio-based thermal insulation products such as hemp wool insulation, which are leading the way in sustainable building materials. Our focus on people and the planet has several benefits, including reducing embodied carbon, improving health in homes, and increasing sustainability across various industries.

DJ: Can you start by telling us about the current state of the building industry and what you believe to be its main problems?

JP: Over the past few years, the building industry in the United States has experienced both a thriving real estate market and a pause in the building due to supply chain demands and other factors. However, at Hempitecture, we believe it is crucial to address the issues facing the industry, particularly in this climate decade, where there is a strong push to make all new buildings net zero by 2030 and the entire life cycle net zero by 2050.

This requires reducing the impact of the built environment on global emissions, and it also means accounting for the embodied carbon of materials and construction processes associated with buildings.

For those unfamiliar with the term, net zero energy refers to homes that do not use fossil fuels or other extractive resources to generate power, electricity, etc., while embodied carbon looks at the entire life cycle of the building, including where the materials used in construction are sourced from.

It seems that progress in the built environment is falling behind in terms of energy demand, emissions, and mission. As we continue to increase demand for HVAC systems, appliances, and construction, these products still rely heavily on fossil fuels. Achieving net-zero energy efficiency requires companies and customers to take the first step toward decarbonizing these spaces.

This can be achieved through energy optimization, reducing costs and emissions while improving productivity and environmental quality in the workplace. Globally, energy efficiency can account for more than 40% of the necessary energy-related emission cuts to reach climate goals by 2040.

DJ: As a producer of insulation made from natural fibers, can you explain the advantages of this type of insulation? Additionally, what are traditional insulation's potential negative impacts on human health and the environment?

JP: Insulation can significantly impact the environment, building occupants, and energy efficiency goals. It can be made from either natural or synthetic fibers and come in various forms.

However, some insulation types contain harmful chemicals, such as flame retardants, formaldehyde, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can pose health risks to both installers and building occupants. Improper installation or material deterioration can release these compounds into the air, making it vital to consider the lifespan and formulation of the materials used.

While a well-insulated building can lead to less use of heating and cooling devices, resulting in reduced CO2 emissions and a cleaner environment, it's essential to note that not all insulation products are eco-friendly.

Some highly efficient products can compensate for their negative environmental impact, but this depends on the embodied carbon of the materials and where they come from, as well as the importance placed on health concerns.

DJ: Can you explain how Hempitecture produces insulation from natural fibers, and how is it different from traditional methods of insulation products and production that we discussed earlier?

JP: Hempitecture leverages the versatility of industrial hemp, a historically profitable crop in America, to create insulation. We partner with decortication firms that work directly with farmers to cultivate and harvest industrial hemp fibers, which typically takes about 90 days.

These fibers are then processed through decortication, and their robustness and durability allow them to be laid out in the field for retting. This natural process replaces the harsh chemical treatments that traditional insulation production requires. After cleaning, carding, and needling the fibers together, they form hemp wool insulation, which is non-toxic, biodegradable, and has excellent thermal performance.

The decortication facility breaks down the harvested industrial hemp into fibers that can be used for hempcrete, non-woven technology, clothing, animal bedding, and other purposes. Our insulation is comprised of approximately 90% hemp, which we mix with a polyester binder using Airlaid non-woven technology.

The fibers are spun together and laid flat into bat form, which can be cut to size. In contrast to conventional insulation materials such as spray foam or fiberglass, industrial hemp is a regenerative crop that requires less water than other crops, making it a carbon-negative material that sequesters carbon inside its fibers. We estimate that each acre of industrial hemp fibers can sequester more than 9 tons of CO2. At our manufacturing plant, we use 75% renewable energy sources.

After the hemp is dried and softened through retting, it is sent to the decortication facility where it is broken down into fibers. These fibers can be used for multiple purposes, including hempcrete, clothing, and animal bedding. We utilize them for our non-woven technology. Our industrial hemp comes from local agricultural areas within a 600-mile radius of our newly opened manufacturing facility. 

DJ: Congratulations on the factory opening — it’s a big step forward.

JP: We are thrilled about this exciting development and are excited to continue expanding. Thank you for your support as we move onward and upward.

DJ: How does using hemp for insulation help replenish farmland and support sustainable agriculture practices?

JP: Hemp is a regenerative crop that can be grown in areas that don't require a lot of water. It's estimated that industrial hemp fibers can sequester carbon and it's estimated to be over 9 tons of CO2 per acre grown. This means that using hemp insulation is carbon-negative, as all of the carbon lives inside of that fiber. A

dditionally, we source our industrial hemp from local agricultural areas within 600 miles of our manufacturing facility. Supporting local farmers and sustainable agriculture practices helps to replenish farmland and support local communities.

DJ: I was talking to some friends and colleagues about this interview, and they were asking me if hemp insulation has a smell. What do you say to people who have misconceptions about industrial hemp?

JP: Oh yeah, there are a lot of misconceptions about hemp as a whole. We get a lot of people that ask if they can smoke it, or if the smell is too strong. Industrial hemp, which we use for insulation, has little to no cannabinoids and doesn't have the same properties as recreational hemp. It smells more like hay or grass, and the smell doesn't linger in the house.

DJ: How do you ensure the sustainability and quality of your products?

JP: We work closely with key research partnerships, such as the University of Idaho's College of Natural Resources and the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Lab. We're currently working on adding a VOC-free, natural fire retardant agent to our product line, and we test our materials with third-party labs. We're committed to ensuring that our products are not only the best option for people but also validated through rigorous testing.

DJ: Are you working with architects, builders, and contractors to promote the use of hemp in insulation?

JP: Yes, we do. It can be a slow process to introduce new materials, but we're committed to working with people who are interested in using sustainable and healthy materials in their building projects. We also work with homeowners who are interested in using hemp insulation in their homes.

DJ: How do you see the future of hemp insulation? Do you think it will attract more customers? You have been operating for ten years now, so could you make a comparison?

JP: It's been an interesting journey for us at Hempitecture. We started with Hempcrete, which is a labor-intensive material to work with, but it absorbs carbon during its drying process in the wall. However, it is a non-structural, non-load-bearing material. We realized that it wasn't a sustainable vision for the company, so we pivoted to Hemp Wool, which is a more scalable and accessible option.

It's easy to work with, safe to handle and doesn't require specialized teams or equipment. Our goal is to make it more accessible and affordable to the public, and we've opened up a manufacturing line in Idaho. We recently won half a million through Grow New York, and we'll be expanding into the northeast.

DJ: That's great to hear! What are your hopes for sustainability in general, not just within the Hemp-Architecture space?

JP: I believe that we should make healthier choices that involve using carbon-negative, carbon-neutral materials that are circular and reusable. I hope these choices become the norm in stores and supermarkets and the government supports these strides toward a sustainable future.

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