Building, Europe, Interview

‘Intimate alchemy’ inspired French brickmaker’s vision

Pierre-Jean Colombier
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Trained as an engineer in biological processes for the food industry, Pierre-Jean Colombier turned to the hemp building industry at age 47, inspired by the local hemp movement in the Rhône Alps region of France. In 2012 he founded ChanvRA, a producer of hemp blocks, hemp insulation and hemp fiber which is active in the region’s localized hemp economy. He is also a member of Initiative Chanvre, an international effort to develop and promote low-cost business models and tools applicable to the industrial hemp industries. 

HempToday: How did you get started with hemp?
Pierre-Jean Colombier: Around 2007-2010 I fell in love with products from hemp and especially hempcrete. I became totally convinced of the performance properties of hemp products and just couldn’t bring myself to do anything other than continue in this sector. I learned quickly that processing and producing required too much investment but getting into building materials was possible for me.

Why hempcrete? What attracted you to this material?
PJC: It’s almost magical! First, for its breathability, and second for the way it generates a water-phase change on a day-night schedule. There’s an intimate alchemy that lets heat to be stored or flow while at the same time controlling humidity. Best of all, this is done passively — in other words, without consuming any energy. The production of hemp blocks just seemed so obvious to me. It was a fairly easy thing to produce, and access to the market was quite simple. We found it to be a great solution for our customers.

HT: What are the characteristics of the hemp blocks and bricks you produce?
PJC: They are relatively light blocks, easy to handle. The density of these blocks is about 300 kg/m2, producing a thermal resistance (lambda) measured at 0.0655. Many binders may be used to glue the blocks together with either pure lime or even formulated hydraulic lime. To ensure the cohesion of my block I mix the shives and water and pozzolan lime. We make blocs that are the same dimensions as traditional French building blocks, 30x60cm, in thicknesses of 5cm, 10cm, 15cm and 20cm — standards based on production of the historic French hemp brickmaker Chanvribloc. This is certainly not to copy them but simply to create uniformity in the market so that designers and builders will feel similarities.

HT: Is there a special formula, or particular trade secret about your approach to the blocks?
PJC: Refining! I come from the food industry, and I can tell you like any gastronome from France or elsewhere, a very good wine, a delicious cheese is nothing without quality refining. It’s the same with our products. I’m very focused on that part of it. Beyond that, it’s important to allow enough time to slowly cure the blocks so they keep their natural properties. Our blocks are living matter. The proof? They breathe.

HT: Do you find the supply of raw hemp adequate?
PJC: I’m pretty satisfied with what I find on the market, I gladly could use a little more coarse hemp to decrease the density of my block, but it creates problems at the edges. I do not pay too much attention to the color of shivs, but batches with an excessive presence of small fibres bother me. The regularity of supply, and regularity of quality are primarily what I ask of my suppliers.

HT: Talk about ChanvRA and its market.
PJC: First of all, this is much more than a niche, and the industry is competitive. The small size of most hemp companies does not allow them to play in the market for large-scale builds. But what we see is a growing number of local players creating local markets, so the industry is becoming widely distributed. These local economic hemp networks result in lower costs for hemp building. Locally, ChanvRA distributes blocks to auto manufacturers and artisan builders. But we also are present in specialty shops that sell eco materials regionally and nationally.

HT: But how, specifically, does ChanvRA interface with its markets?
PJC: On the B2B side, to optimize the production of our materials, our professional partner network combines skills at all stages of production — cultivation, harvesting and processing. So we have technical control over the whole chain of production of our products. On the customer side, we provide advice on “bio-sourced” materials to our customers, whether individuals or professionals. Again, this is mainly in the localized region of Rhône Alps. Our customers are façade specialists, construction firms, bricklayers, plasterers and self-builders.

HT: What is the main market challenge you face?
PJC: We have to convince architects and designers to consider hemp early on, in the design phase of a construction project, because of hemp’s unique multi-purpose potential. Hemp construction is slightly different in that the construction itself provides moisture control, insulation and other healthy properties — a building’s design is therefore different than a traditional build. It’s simpler, in fact. But there’s a lot of ignorance — or lack of attention being paid to hemp in this respect. Stressing the ease of implementation is the key to the adoption of our products by manufacturers — the key to success.

HT: How do you see the near future playing out in the hemp construction business?
PJC: I see great opportunities for the development of local, distributed business and economic networks around hemp building. Such local “units” place supply close to demand and the entire local value chain.

HT: What’s on the near horizon for ChanvRA?
PJC: In the immediate weeks and months ahead, I have to construct a building where we’ll relocate the business, restart production and expand our commercial networks. It took me four years to reach a high level of technical mastery. Now we’re continuing to validate the technical properties — insulation, fire-proofing, humidity control, etc. — of our products.

What’s your hemp dream?
PJC: I sincerely hope that hemp will grow into a common building material and that hemp construction will become more easily insurable. These are keys to hemp impacting the broader building industry so it can help in CO2 storage, local economic development, more healthy living and work environments and environmentally friendly agriculture.

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