Pubdate: Sun, 4 Jan 2004
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Copyright: 2004 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Author: Alison Davies
Bookmark: (Hemp - Outside U.S.)


Alison Davies Meets the Man Who Created an Ecofriendly Property From
Cannabis Hemp

Ralph Carpenter and his wife, Jenny, live in Britain's first home
built from wacky baccy or, as they prefer to call it, cannabis hemp.

They have endured the builders' jokes of 'Isn't it going to go up in
smoke?' and teenage jibes of 'Can we see the wall joints?' but now
they're having the last laugh. Top-o'the-hill, near Sudbury in
Suffolk, is warm, dry, stunningly good-looking and a test-bed for what
Carpenter, an architect with the firm Modece, hopes will be the
'green' housing of the future.

'We lead a double life, as the house is actually split in two: one
half is original, 17th-century, brick-and-timber built, the other is
our 21st-century hemp-and-timber home,' he explains.

Indeed, they could not be more contrasting: from the olde-worlde style
of the brick side, with its wood-burning stove, deep-seated sofas,
rugs and throws, you are thrown into the brightness and light of the
modern wing, which has large, airy spaces in minimalist style, deep
windows, solar panels, colourful floor-to-ceiling curtains, a bed, a
piano and little else.

It was in 1985 that the couple and their two children, Nicholas and
Frances, first moved to what was then a three-up, three-down
silk-weaver's cottage.

'A surveyor would have told us not to go anywhere near this place;
superficially it appeared habitable, but everything just crumbled when
touched. The Victorians had messed it up, cladding the original
17th-century frame with bricks that caused permanent damp and woodworm
over the years,' says Carpenter.

Undaunted, they stripped it down to its wooden frame and rebuilt it
'because in 1985 there were no alternatives'.

But as his interest in green lifestyles grew, so did the family's need
for more space.

The crunch came when the Carpenters inherited a Steinway grand piano.
'It gave us the excuse we needed to expand and build in hemp. The
non-narcotic variety, of course,' he says.

'By coincidence, a year earlier I'd been introduced to a crazy French
lady who bought and treated raw hemp and I'd visited clusters of hemp
houses in Normandy and Brittany, some built in the late 1980s. In
France they're way ahead of us, they've fewer planning rules and
building regulations.'

Carpenter says hemp is an ideal crop 'because it matures in four
months, needs no pesticides, returns nutrients to the soil and has a
high yield'.

Keen to introduce it as an alternative building material in this
country, he got together with The Housing Corporation, St Edmundsbury
borough council and Suffolk Housing Society and set up a project to
construct two two-bedroom semi-detached homes entirely from cannabis

'In the meantime, while getting this housing project off the ground,
Jenny and I have been the real guinea pigs, building our own half-home
from hemp. We're living proof that, yes, it works.'

Planning permission to double the size of their existing house was
given without question ('they agreed it was organic growth'). Building
regulations were more of an issue but were eventually passed thanks to
support from an official who understood that working with cannabis
hemp simply meant a return to traditional building methods.

The greatest hurdle was finding a builder willing and able to work
with a rather unusual material. 'We ended up using two: the first to
put in the brick plinth and lime mortar foundations; the second to see
the project through. He didn't quite know what to think when the 500
bags of cannabis hemp arrived by lorry, though in its raw state it
could pass for chopped straw.'

Mixed with lime and water to a porridge-like consistency, then poured
between ply shuttering frames and left to set, the hemp walls and
floors took two months to put in and another six weeks to dry, to an
appearance akin to Weetabix.

'By that time, thankfully, the jokes about smoking had begun to dry up
too,' recalls Carpenter.

To finish, the walls were given a coat of ochre-coloured limewash on
the exterior, and left natural, limewashed or covered in plasterboard
on the interior. Not a drop of cement has been used.

'Cement uses huge quantities of energy in its production; the
housebuilding industry could, if it chose, survive without it,' says

'Cement starts to disintegrate after 28 days, whereas a hemp and lime
mix strengthens because lime absorbs the carbon dioxide in the
atmosphere as it sets.'

The Carpenters have lived in their hemp home for four years now. The
extension has provided a music room, an extra bedroom and an en-suite
bathroom on the first floor, and a ground-floor workshop, double
garage and storage rooms.

'It's everything we'd hoped: it needs far less heating than the old
house, there's no condensation, it's sound-absorbent and it doesn't
shrink, so you don't have to keep filling in the cracks,' says Carpenter.

'After all, hemp is not new. Until the middle of the 18th century, it
was Britain's largest agricultural crop. We made clothes from it,
writing material, ships' sails even.'

And the modern-day cost of their home? 'About UKP70,000 - UKP800 per sq
m - much the same as using traditional materials.'

The Suffolk housing project was completed in December 2001, and its
two homes are being closely monitored for energy performance.
Carpenter has more hemp projects planned for East Anglia.

A hemp home may have no hallucinatory qualities but these owners are
quietly ecstatic. 
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