House made of hemp
On a four hectare lifestyle block a few minutes north of New Plymouth, New Zealand's first hemp house is being built.
Amongst wandering sheep, chooks and bee hives, the house is being constructed out of timber and hempcrete - a mixture of hemp, lime and water.
The 190 square-metre building's owners, Lance and Miranda Palmer, say their hemp home will breathe and will be fire and pest resistant.
The hempcrete comes from company Hemp Technologies, which was founded by Taranaki-born man Greg Flavall in the US state of North Carolina.
Larger than life in character and build, Flavall speaks with a booming voice that sounds part North-America, (he went to high school in Canada and lived in California for 25 years), part Taranaki.
His bio on Hemp Technologies' website says he's also a qualified chef and enjoys playing the bagpipes.
In about 2008 Flavall, who had worked as a builder, came across hempcrete, which he says has been successfully used in construction in Europe for about 30 years.
He took it back to the US and from there, he took it all over the world.
In 2010 Hemp Technologies' hempcrete was used to build the first Hemp House in the US, in Asheville, North Carolina.
At the beginning of this month, the company announced it had merged with Creative Edge Nutrition, a public nutritional supplement business, which is affiliated with CEN Biotech, a business established in 2013 to supply pharmaceutical-grade medical cannabis in Canada.
Flavall says Hemp Technologies is now run out of the tax-free state of Nevada.
The business has branches in New Zealand, the US, Canada and Romania and Flavall says it employs about 300 staff, from admin and distribution to chemical scientists.
Today the company has projects in the US, Mexico, South America, Canada, Australia and right here in New Zealand.
Flavall says he has 24 building projects on the go here at the moment.
He's flat-out busy and runs his business from his smartphone.
He has four Hemp houses in the pipeline in New Plymouth. Two have been pre-sold.
Back at the Palmers' lifestyle block in Brixton, hempcrete walls are forming and hemp insulation is being poured into timber framing.
Miranda says she and her husband Lance had always wanted to build something a bit different.
"We've always been interested in natural building methods."
After looking into earth and straw-bail building, which they decided were too risky, they found Flavall.
A few months back, Lance, who was the part-owner of Fowler Homes Taranaki before he sold the business a year ago, built a nine square-metre chook house to test out the hempcrete.
On a sunny 21 degrees Celsius autumn day, the temperature inside the flashy poultry-pad is cool.
"The whole thing will breathe," Lance says back at the house, which is still mostly wooden framing with a roof.
"Seeing as this is the first one in New Zealand, it's lucky Lance has his building background," Miranda says.
Lance has done much of the construction himself, but has had help in specialised areas, like roofing. They've also used the Workaway programme to find travellers who will work in exchange for food and accommodation.
The house will have large, north facing windows overlooking a small, tree-lined lake, its banks planted with pineapple, bananas and yams.
On its southern side is a solid wall of hemp, 30cm thick.
To construct a wall that width, which is 12m long and 2.4m high, it took three people about 18 hours, Lance says, and the cost of building a hemp house is comparable to brick.
Hempcrete is made much like concrete, and Flavall says the only ingredient not from New Zealand is the hemp itself, which is grown in the Netherlands.
The dried hemp, which resembles chopped up hay, comes in plastic wrapped bails and is mixed with lime and water before it is poured in layers, using formwork.
"It looks like good Scottish porridge," Lance says.
Once the walls have dried, they are overlaid with a lime render to keep them protected from the weather. He says they will continue to harden with age.
Miranda says she and Lance don't have a due date for the completion of their home.
"Maybe before Christmas, maybe not."
The pair seem happy and relaxed. They're currently living out a of large and rather comfortable-looking silver shed, which she assures me has almost every available modern-convenience.
When I arrive at the property, after driving down a long dusty driveway, I am greeted by a barking beagle. Lance and Miranda happily let me wander around, while they talk to a visitor from Auckland who is keen to build his own hempcrete house.
Flavall is there, too, and his passion for his product is obvious.
"Prohibition has pushed hemp back," he says, citing American newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, the Du Pont family and Reefer Madness - a 1936 film that revolves around the melodramatic events that occur when high school students are lured into smoking marijuana by drug dealers.
On February 7, President Barack Obama signed a multibillion-dollar farm bill, which meant a significant shift in the types of farmers who would benefit from taxpayer dollars, a positive for industrial hemp growers in the US, where production is officially banned.
The bill will allow the establishment of pilot growing programmes in 10 US states.
While industrial hemp is the same species as marijuana, it has no psychoactive properties.
"You'd have to smoke a joint as big as a telephone pole to even get a headache from what we grow," Flavall said last month.
It is legal to grow industrial hemp in New Zealand, and Flavall has crops growing in Tikorangi and Urenui.
Hemp Technologies and Venture Taranaki are working on crop trials with Massey University, and in February, Lincoln University's Agribusiness and Economics Research Unit penned a Venture Taranaki funded report that identified hemp as a crop that would enable diversification in a region dominated by dairy farming.
The report, which was presented by senior research officer Dr Glen Greer, said hemp had been used for many centuries as a building material and was "light, hypo-allergenic and had the highest insulation and noise-reducing properties of any cellulosic product."
It would appear that Flavall agrees.
"It's perfect. You can't huff, puff and blow a hemp house down."
Taranaki Daily News