Colorado builder envisions hemp in commercial buildings

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John Patterson is a hemp builder and lecturer based in northern Colorado, and the founder of Tiny Hemp Houses. A carpenter and furniture designer by trade, he also has worked on commercial and residential building projects, and has researched sustainable living methods since the 1970s. John has specialized training in residential building, envelope and fenestration installation, and in 1997 designed and built his own off-the-grid home complete with its own solar-based electricity plant.

HempToday: When did you first become aware of hemp as a building material?
John Patterson: In 2012 I was invited to attend the City of Fort Collins Green Building Code courses. I was happy to know that green building had come so far as to actually have been written into the code. But what I noticed was that the green building industry was only really concerned with energy efficiency, and the blower door test was the only significant measure of how efficient a building was. We keep adding new systems to the old outdated building systems of the 50’s. So I sought to find a better way and that’s when I found Steve Allin’s Hemp Building Course in Prescott, Wisconsin. I signed up and flew out for his three-day course.

HT: With all of the current buzz around hemp these days, are you experiencing growing interest in the hemp-building/educational/training services you offer?
JP: Yes. Education works and more and more people are searching online for information on hemp building. So a lot of people are already familiar with it.

HT: Talk about the interest among self-builders as compared to the more commercial “green” home builders? What are the keys to spreading hemp and its superior qualities among more commercial builders?
JP: One of the things I love about hemp as a building material is that it is not limited to only alternative residential construction like other natural materials such as straw bale. Have you ever seen a commercial or federal straw bale structure? But with hemp we have many opportunities to build commercial and public facilities.

The United States Department of Agriculture has a bio-preferred program which encourages federal building to use more plant-based materials in design and construction. Education is the key. When people find out about the benefits, especially those in the commercial industry, and they have a way to make it work and fit into the rigid schedule of commercial construction, then they will be interested.

HT: With industrial hemp still only legal in trial or pilot projects in some states, what are the current best sources for the basic materials (hemp and lime) required?
JP: The hydrated lime I can source right here in Colorado and is available in most areas of the U.S. The hemp typically is coming from Holland. And that makes it a pain and extra expense to import.

HT: Are you able to get your hands on some of the 2,000 acres of hemp now being grown legally in Colorado?
JP: We are working on that now and setting up processing so that we can use it.

HT: Among the hemp fields and facilities in Colorado, how many of them are producing strains suitable for construction as it seems the biggest emphasis is on CBD?  
JP: Hopefully we will have some fields grown for the use of the stalk. Finding a strain that provides good seed for oil and a good stalk for building material is what we hope to develop. We are still in the beginning stages of acclimatizing hemp to our area.

HT: We’re interested to know how the supply chain works. Do you buy and store the raw materials to have them on hand when an order comes in? Or do you source the materials as needed? Again, with relatively small amounts of hemp available locally, this would seem to be a challenge.
JP: Yes, that is the biggest challenge right now. We source them as needed until we can grow to the next level of either using local hemp or importing more.

HT: How do you see Colorado’s water supply challenges affecting the economics of hemp cultivation in the state?
JP: It is my understanding that hemp uses less water than anything currently being grown in Colorado. And it uses much less water in the later stages, which is typically when we dry out.

HT: How do you talk to potential customers about the pros and cons of hemp vs. traditional construction and particularly the cost factors involved in those discussions?   
JP: I tell them that the wall system replaces the combination of drywall, insulation, exterior boarding, house wrap, siding, caulk and paint all in one thermal wall system; that it’s great at keeping a more comfortable constant temperature, is fire resistant, breathable, mold-, pest- and mildew-resistant, and over time extremely affordable. Even with its high import cost this system is comparable to any other way to build an energy efficient custom home. The cost of a custom home is more affected by the toilets and countertops that you might choose.

HT: What were the lessons learned from the Berthoud project?
JP: The project was set up as a learning and training module. The goal is to build affordable housing that is faster, cheaper, easier to build, and healthier for the occupants. We learned a lot about the time it takes to mix and transport the hemp to the walls and ceiling, and how to lessen the time it takes to mix and deliver the hemp. We also learned a lot about having a large group on a construction project. Keeping everyone busy and learning at the same time is advantageous and leads to some really productive work days.

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