When Sergiy Kovalenkov reported to work after a career move to Australia back in 2010, he found out that the promised project management position opened specifically for him was no longer available.
“It was fate,” says the 32-year-old Ukrainian entrepreneur, who then by chance — through a rep from Holland’s Dun Agro — got involved in building Australia’s first hemp home, in Tasmania.
An engineer and construction manager, Kovalenkov joined up with the Tasmanian project and immediately got his hands into hemp, water and lime. “I’d heard about hemp but I didn’t really know anything about it,” says Kovalenkov, who earlier this year launched Hempire, a Kiev-based hemp construction firm that has already carried out a total of six projects — renovations, building extensions and full builds.
Hemp dome project
The centerpiece of Hempire’s fledgling startup for now is a unique wooden-frame, dome-shaped hemp dwelling. Designed in partnership with Wooden Dome Homes, a Siberian specialty framer based in Russia’s Altai Republic, a first project is now going up outside Moscow. The two homes being built combine domes of 13m and 8m in diameter, connected by a short passageway. Sufficient height in the larger dome allows for a loft or second floor.
Meanwhile, Kovalenkov says Hempire is in talks with potential commercial builders in Ukraine regarding both dome-shaped and traditional-shaped hemp projects. “We’re preparing for big things to happen in the industry next year,” says Kovalenkov, who notes that a recent easing of the laws governing hemp cultivation in Ukraine has freed up the market and will help supply the growing hemp construction industry.
But he also sees some international projects in Hempire’s future. “We’ve already had some inquiries from abroad, and there’s just a buzz across Europe,” he said.
Growing in the East
Hempire sources processed straw from eastern Ukraine, where Kovalenkov estimates more than 1,000 ha were harvested this year and where most Ukrainian processors are situated. “It will be much more next year, because the growing is just coming alive,” he says. And despite the ongoing strife in eastern Ukraine, Kovalenko notes that he’s had no problems with supply from the region.
And while one new hemp processing facility is going in near Kiev next year, according to Kovalenkov, two more are in the planning stages as the buildout of Ukraine’s hemp infrastructure gears up.
Hemp’s uphill battle
Still, hemp building faces considerable challenges overall, according to Kovalenkov, who admits to an uphill battle when it comes to broader acceptance of hemp as a building material.
“It’s a challenge to convince architects and homeowners to use this material. There’s a lot of skepticism and confusion over hemp’s properties and values comparing to traditional materials,” Kovalenkov says. “There needs to be a lot of communication to harmonize hemp, in a technical sense, with the construction industry. But the most important thing is that hemp creates the healthiest possible environment.
“Health and well-being are far more important than technical values and properties. You need to spread the word,” He says.
Communications critical to quality
A graduate in civil engineering and construction management from Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, Kowalenkov also gained experience on hemp building projects in Switzerland and France before deciding to strike out on his own.
For now, Kovalenkov runs Hempire with one employee who handles communications, and a team of four builders who also train local crews in hemp building techniques as various jobs require. Kovalenkov monitors progress remotely and visits job sites at key stages. “Communication is really critical. It needs to be a constant flow of information and feedback, and the guys out there building need to know they can get answers from you when they need them,” he says, noting: “More than anything, this is about communications supporting quality and quality control.”
Hempire’s drive for quality is also reflected in “Fifth Element”, a unique binder developed by Kovalenkov. This binder consists of only natural components and has no cement or hydraulic lime. “As the end result, with ‘Fifth Element’ we receive a very porous insulation material with low density, and high thermal resistance values,” Kovalenkov said
And his firm has already started to be recognized for its hemp-based insulation material, ”Hempire Mix,” which received a first place prize for “Best Wall System for Ecological Individual Construction Design” during the international architectural contest “Kyiv Eco Home 2015.”
Keeping prices down
Finally, Kovalenkov says pricing also has been a key to Hempire’s early success. “We’re trying to keep prices down as much as possible, just to build up the orders for now,” he says of his strategy, which so far has kept his business plan on track.
Beyond those things, “the product, in some sense, advertises itself. But as the market grows, we always have to look for some competitive advantages, and we have aggressive plans to grow the business internationally,” he says.