By Eric Peterson | Nov 24, 2021
Ketchum / Jerome, Idaho
Hempcrete and hemp-based insulation
While studying architecture at Hobart College in 2012, Mead researched sustainable building materials. "My senior year, I did a thesis study on what people were doing with earthen building materials," he says. "I became aware of what they were doing in Belgium, France, and the Netherlands with hemp-based building materials," he says. "For me, it was really kind of a lightbulb moment: 'Wow, what an opportunity here for the United States.'"
Mead says the idea was initially meant with scorn because hemp remained illegal at the time. "People thought it was totally outrageous and absurd that you're considering building houses with a Schedule 1 substance," he says. "Of course, five years later it was legalized through the federal Farm Bill."
Mead graduated, then built a prototype hempcrete building in Custer County, Idaho. The project was completed in 2016. "That's actually what brought me to Idaho originally," says Mead. "That building really was a springboard for imagining the future of Hempitecture."
Several more construction projects followed. "Early on, Hempitecture was a traveling construction company that specialized in this very niche building methodology, hempcrete," says Mead. "It can replace the need for drywall. It is your insulation, it is your vapor barrier,' says Mead. "It is more expensive than conventional building, primarily due to the fact that it is cast in place, which means mixing and batching onsite. It's very labor-intensive."
For that reason, Hempitecture trained more than 60 contractors across the U.S. via its consulting practice. "We did that to expand the knowledge base for hempcrete," says Mead. "We realized pretty early on that we can't build every hempcrete building that needs to exist out there."
Co-founder Tom Gibbons joined Mead and re-incorporated Hempitecture as a B Corporation in 2018. The company changed course a year later and became a supplier. It now distributes hempcrete building blocks imported from Europe, but that's not the emphasis.
"That's when we pivoted to a focus on HempWool insulation," says Mead. "HempWool is a one-to-one substitution for conventional insulation, whereas hempcrete is more akin to a system. We sell the parts to that system, including the hemp hurd -- the inner wooden core of a hemp stalk -- and specialized limestone binder, as well as the equipment needed to mix those things together. "
Hempitecture sources hemp fiber and hurd from Montana and binder from Idaho. "We're localizing and regionalizing the supply chains for these products," says Mead.
The company has imported HempWool to date, but is working to launch a manufacturing arm in Jerome in 2022. "We saw the need to manufacture it here and utilize a U.S.-based supply chain and U.S.-based manufacturing to produce the same if not better product that we are currently importing," says Mead. "We intend to bring the price down and strive for price parity with products on the market, such as mineral wool. It will take time to do that -- it's not going to happen overnight."
Regardless, Mead says HempWool has plenty of selling points: It is carbon-negative, non-toxic, and non-abrasive, and has the same installation process as legacy materials.
"Every square foot of your home's walls, ceilings and floors are insulated. Why use a material that you wouldn't even touch with your bare hand to spend your life in? HempWool is a material that really brings together these elements of efficiency and high performance while also being sustainable."
Market adoption has accelerated as Hempitecture has seen annual growth around 250 percent since pivoting from building to supplying materials. The company is launching manufacturing in Jerome to complement the Ketchum HQ and warehouses in Salt Lake City and Knoxville, Tennessee.
"If we're only building one or two hempcrete homes a year or supplying four or five hempcrete homes a year, that really does fall short of this bigger vision we had laid out for the company," says Mead. "We plan on using buildings as a carbon dioxide sequestration device and turning our homes and habitats into healthy spaces and places that utilize plant-based resources that ultimately benefit rural economies."
He adds, "Left, right, no matter where you stand, it's a win/win issue."
Challenges: "Right now, one of the biggest challenges is getting our facility up and running," says Mead. "Wrapping our arms around a new element of our business, which is manufacturing, and perfecting that." The company will hire about five employees to start in Jerome.
Building awareness is another challenge, he adds. "To date, we've had really no marketing spend, so all of the sales and traction are organic. So the next challenge we intend to take on is really growing our outreach and being more proactive in that way."
Opportunities: "Insulation is a $10 billion industry here in the United States, and we intend to be a major part of that industry," says Mead, estimating that Europe is seven to 10 years ahead of the U.S. when it comes to bio-based building materials.
"We see HempWool as a material that -- with some further research and development -- could be superior in just about every way," says Mead. "We're actively working on developing intellectual property surrounding HempWool through a partnership with Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
To that end, he adds, Gibbons is currently a fellow in Oak Ridge's Innovation Crossroads program "generating a product road map that can encompass more products outside of just HempWool."
Needs: Mead says the company needs to complete a crowdfunding campaign on WeFunder. "We have a target goal of $5 million in fundraising," he notes. "Outside of fundraising, we need to see more processors come online. We do have a strong supply chain partner out of Montana, but we welcome and encourage other folks, so long as they have a plan and a process in place to explore the fiber."