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Would you build a home out of hemp? Students from The University of Melbourne and Graduate Union Members are trying to change your mind.

Is Hemp a good alternative in terms of stability and sustainability? The answer is a resounding yes. Darren Christie, CEO of carbon conscious building products and R&D firm Developing Sustainable Directions says that like any other material today, it is impossible to predict the stability of any given structure. “As far as sustainability and the environmental impacts that this [hemp] has, it is less than what we’re using today. It’s all about sustainability. Hemp materials are carbon neutral which means that it pulls carbon back into the soil,” said Darren.

Hemp plants are currently legally grown in various parts of Australia, and Victoria was the first state to pass legislation permitting growers, under licence to grow industrial hemp.

“We grow this in Swan Hill, South Australia, Geelong,” said Darren. In fact, Northcote has one of the first hemp homes, and according to Darren, there are a few more around Victoria.

In the Graduate House dining room, Darren had laid out a range of items from body butter, clothes, oils and lip balms which all have one thing in common: they are, of course, made from hemp. Also laid out were the various compositional states of hemp — from the natural plant, to one of its final manufactured states as a solid slab.

“Take a look at the wall properties: it’s fire resistant, it’s strong (but not load-bearing yet, so it can’t be used on external walls), it is also termite resistant and importantly, carbon neutral,” enthused Victoria Petrevska, the Project Manager.

“With this many purposes and such a positive environmental impact, you really want this to be grown and used, instead of cutting down forests,” she said.

Everyone involved with the project agrees that it is imperative that we must to get over the negativity surrounding hemp and get farmers involved to have enough production to then take it to larger manufacturers, where hemp can replace other unsustainable materials. Such a perception-shift however would be rather difficult. Hemp comes with its own negative connotations; however, there are a few misconceptions. Firstly, hemp is the cousin plant of the marijuana plant, but the ingredient in marijuana which is responsible for the mind-altering effects (tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC) is of a significantly lower concentration in industrial hemp than it is in marijuana.

“When I first heard it I immediately thought of marijuana, but once you start to see the many different purposes of hemp, those negative perceptions do tend to disappear,” said Victoria.

“We need time and marketing and put it in the system as quick as we can and people will see that hemp is a planet saver,” announced Darren.

It takes 16 weeks to grow hemp to its usable state, whereas a tree, for example, will take 35–40 years. According to Darren it is also a much cheaper commodity as in hemp there is nine times the volume in hemp than there is in a tonne of timber.

But yet with all of these benefits, why are commercial developers so apprehensive to adopt hemp in their systems?

“Their mindsets haven’t changed yet … there are a lot of advocates for us trying to make changes in the system, but we have got to change people’s mindsets,” urged Darren.

A game-changing marketing campaign takes persistence and effort and the first iteration may not necessarily yield desired results, especially for something with such an ultimately marred reputation.

“We need a good marketing campaign to get over the negativity, and to get farmers involved to have enough production to then take it to the larger manufacturers and to people where hemp can replace other unsustainable materials,” agreed Victoria.

“If anything’s going to be sustainable, it is something that has 42 uses,” enthused Dr David Wilson, MD at Master Research Australasia and a Graduate Union Member.

“Darren is a builder interested in eco-sustainability. Everything you see here is totally sustainable and eco-friendly: it takes carbon out of the atmosphere, stores it, locks it up, it saves trees … it’s magic,” continued David.

With a material that is purportedly incredibly eco-friendly and sustainable, what are the future aims for this project?

“What we’d like to do is put together the supply chain: we’ve got the farmers growing the stuff, factories manufacturing and processing it, and then it goes into uses and buildings, clothing etc. So it’s a regional changer, we can start with the farmers growing this stuff and putting it through there so we can use it to stimulate regional economies,” said David.

For Victoria, the research conducted here is to help light a spark to facilitate engagement with commercial and industrial bodies. Momentum is slow, but it is progressive. For instance, this project was initiated by Charles Kovess, Marketing Director of Textile and Composite Industries (TCI) — the company that invented the machine that harvests the hemp tree. Needing assistance with such a project, David put it up as a research project in civil engineering. The students that are involved today are all making samples and testing its mechanical properties.

While the current controversies and apprehensions surrounding hemp are stunting the growth of a seemingly worthwhile initiative and planet saver, we at Graduate House are glad to see that there are some out there looking at alternatives for the good of our environmental future!