GreenBuilt Insulates Homes From Harm…With Hemp
By Jamie Larson
Hemp — genetically distinct from its sister plant, marijuana — has long been used for paper, textiles and organic body care. But now GreenBuilt, a Columbia County company, is using hemp plants to create an eco-friendly and startlingly efficient building material called Hempcrete. The versatile material, unfortunately, has endured a century of bad press because marijuana has some controversial chemical characteristics that, among other things, render journalists incapable of writing about hemp without littering their articles with played-out pot puns and weedy wordplay. (For proof check out GreenBuilt’s previous press coverage.)
So we will contain ourselves as we introduce you to GreenBuilt’s founder and CEO James Savage, a serious man who left a successful career on Wall Street to work full time promoting Hempcrete’s virtues. Chiefly, Hempcrete is a highly effective and renewable insulation and building material that is nontoxic, and mold and climate resistant. Made from mixing the heart of hemp stalks with lime, Hempcrete yields a high amount of material relative to the acreage used to farm it.
Savage left finance behind after witnessing the unhealthy living conditions endured by the survivors of Hurricane Katrina.
“I was successful on Wall Street for 20 years,” says Savage, now a resident of Stuyvesant, New York. “It was the way I made my living but it didn’t feed my soul. After Katrina happened I was stunned with the way people had to live. Then, after the earthquake in Haiti, I looked to see what I could do. I saw hemp as a way to build healthy and sustainable housing.”
First, Savage partnered with an African organization in Mali to build both hemp homes and an agricultural industry around the product. This important work ended abruptly due to disruption caused by a government coup. But Savage returned home with vital knowledge of the materials and processes, which, while new to Americans, has been used for some time across Europe with impressive results. European studies have stated Hempcrete remains efficient beyond 100 years.
“It’s as good as fiberglass but also vapor permeable, so water doesn’t build up,” Savage says of Hempcrete, which needs a breathable envelope like masonry, wood, plaster or hemp stucco walls rather than vinyl or drywall (and the reason it makes sense for the renovation of our region’s older homes). “It just goes right into the walls and you finish with plaster.”
Hempcrete, Savage says, is also great for those concerned about being carbon neutral. As the material ages, he says, the lime creates carbon, which hardens the material over time and keeps it from settling and creating drafty gaps the way conventional insulation can. Yet another benefit stated by GreenBuilt is that the material manages air quality and humidity.
GreenBuilt is also currently raising funds through a Kickstarter to build a Tiny+ modular hemp home as a model for all the product can do. The site is also another pretty comprehensive resource for those looking for more information.
Savage says the largest growth market for Hempcrete is as primary construction material for passive, eco-friendly new construction but believes insulation, renovation and retrofits will be the busiest sector in the Northeast. Currently, the installation process is labor intensive and seven to eight percent more expensive than conventional materials, but Savage says he hopes that within the next year GreenBuilt will be able to open a factory (preferably in Hudson) to create Hempcrete panels that will cut down both installation time and price. Regardless, Savage says, Hempcrete pays for itself over time in energy efficiency costs.
Savage takes all the marijuana jokes he hears on a regular basis in stride because his square background and earnest businesslike approach is changing perceptions and also because public opinion on both strains of cannabis has become more favorable in recent years.
“I’m not a cannabis person. I approach this as a sustainable material,” he says. “I’ve spoken at events where someone will say, ‘Cannabis is god.’ No, it’s not. It’s a useful plant.”
The most persistent joke he hears is, “Well, at least if your house burns down you can stand outside and breath it in.” Savage’s dry response is that Hempcrete is actually extremely fire resistant, so your home would be less likely to burn down at all.
With the veil of misconception lowering, Savage believes more people will be open to his producet’s benefits. He placed it in a number of drafty walls of his own home, built in the 1850s. Shortly after major renovations, a plumbing disaster sent water streaming through walls and ceilings. While he had to replace an entire ceiling built with conventional materials, he says mold inspectors were stunned to find that the hemp walls were dry and healthy, having “healed themselves,” and needed only cosmetic plaster touchups.
Savage is bullish on GreenBuilt’s potential in the region and says there is access to enough raw material for jobs of any size. And if there’s any left over materials on the job site, you can throw it on the garden as mulch.