Green building with industrial hemp

June 19, 2013

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

An article by Richard Boudreau in the Journal of Illinois History indicated some buildings at the Chicago 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition were constructed using a material made of hemp fiber and plaster and were painted white. These buildings were said to have inspired the creation of the Emerald City in the Land of Oz and the phase the “alabaster cities” in the song “America the Beautiful.”

Advocates of legalizing growing industrial hemp are touting the green benefits of its use. It can reduce reliance on fossil fuels, combat climate change, be used to build clean, green, energy-efficient buildings, protect woodlands by providing fiber for paper, be made into clothing that could displace oil-based fibers, used in cosmetics and provide healthy food choices.

It is portrayed as an ideal crop, as it shades out weeds, replenishes topsoil, does not require pesticides and needs little nitrogen fertilizer. Thirty countries permit growing industrial hemp.

Former classmate Ralph Bronner acknowledged the family firm, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, imports 20 tons of hemp oil a year from Canada for use in their organic core products. In Canada, growing industrial hemp is controlled by government licensing of producers and testing the hemp to ensure its THC content is below hallucinogenic levels.

Advocates of industrial hemp claim the impressive list of possible uses of hemp contributed to the campaign by a powerful coalition of oil, timber and steel interests to pass legislation in 1937 that essentially destroyed the industry in the United States. The film Reefer Madness aroused public fear of hemp and generated the perception that industrial hemp had hallucinogenic properties similar to marijuana.

For a short period during World War II, the federal government encouraged farmers to grow it as essential to the war effort. Factories to process the plant existed in Polo and Elburn and other areas of northern Illinois. Since then, repeated attempts by Illinois farmers to seek legal approval from state legislatures to grow the crop have failed.

Law enforcement officials fear legalizing it would provide opportunities to increase growing the drug-containing variety here.

Three green homes using imported hemp fibers mixed with cement have been built in North Carolina. One provides shelter for a girl with extreme allergies. Homes built with hemp fibers are being built in Europe; some are 20 years old.

The product, known as hempcrete, is claimed to be nontoxic, carbon negative and mold, mildew, pest and flame resistant. It can be used for walls, flooring, insulation and plaster. Hemp oil can be used to protect wooden decks.

A research firm, Hemp Architecture, is exploring ways to use hemp stalks directly to eliminate mixing it with concrete and the need for a traditional wood frame. In theory, a home could be built from the hemp grown on 1 acre.

Perhaps the biggest benefit to come from industrial hemp is that it can be widely grown and could provide another locally grown and processed product to provide jobs and strengthen the local economy.

For those interested in following the issue from the advocate’s perspective, go to the website thehia.org.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the June 19-25, 2013, issue

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