Building hemp homes in Alaska could save millions in heating cost

***A few months back, we had shared the story of John Patterson, who is paving the way of building environmentally-friendly hemp homes from Colorado. Today, we got the opportunity to chat with another pioneer in the hemp building industry, Jack Bennett. Through NUNAworks, Jack is developing hemp homes in Alaska.***

An average household in Alaska spends more than $500 per month in heating cost during the winter months.

Alaska during winter months
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Fairbanks, Alaska’s temperature averages below 0°F during the winter months, with the record low hitting -66°F

With most houses still being heated with diesel, it costs $7-$10 per gallon to heat a home. Jack Bennett and his startup NUNAWorks is looking to fix this unsustainable and inefficient practice through hemp. For Jack, building homes out of hemp in Alaska offers more than just sustainability benefits. It has an immediate impact of helping the livelihoods of rural Alaskan residents.

Houses built out of hempcrete offers much higher insulation that traditional homes, which would help reduce the energy costs by 50–70% annually for families.

To understand NUNAWork’s mission and background, we started our discussion with how it all got started.

Let’s start from the beginning. What was your background before getting involved in hemp?

Jack Bennett: I was working with the non-profit Community Works West in the Bay Area helping to raise awareness about the impact violence and mass incarceration have on communities. We worked specifically on how these situations impact children and create the same cycle of violence. The Community Works program, Project WHAT!, was able to raise $2 million for funding to help support these kids.

That’s a pretty amazing initiative. So how did you get from the Bay Area up to Alaska?

JB: I’m originally from Fairbanks, Alaska. Military service brought my folks up here in the early 70s. I grew up in a Korean Noodle Restaurant in Fairbanks. I then left for San Francisco for several years studying at Cisco Networking Academy, practicing self-care techniques and working in social justice. I then decided to come back up to Alaska with my partner and was looking for new inspiration when I ran into hemp and hemp homes. My goal has always been to bring sustainable restorative practices to construction in our communities.

What got you interested in hemp?

JB: I found out about hemp through the national publication of the North Carolina Hemp Home. The architect wanted to build an allergy free home based on the synthetic sensitivities his baby daughter had. She couldn’t be around typical synthetic home materials as it caused severe health problems. For me, this made complete sense! As an advocate of organic foods, clean water, and natural healing remedies, it made sense that we should build using all natural material. This is good for both the people and planet.

Tell me a bit about your vision with hemp and hempcrete?

JB: I am living in the vision. Since last fall, my crew has experimented with hemp insulation material before we started building with it. We read every book on hempcrete and consulted with hemp builders from all over the world. We learned from case studies of failures with hemp walls. Through all this, we have created a Portland Cement replacement with our lime based Hemp-Bond Mix that is locally sourced.

Portland Cement creates 40 billion tons of carbon waste. Our Hemp Bond Mix has zero carbon footprint that is stronger than cement, impervious to water, has a longer life cycle, self-leveling, and does not have to be cooked. Our aim is to continue to develop these indigenous technologies tailored for rural Alaska to give it away to a community that has funding to start a pilot home in the village.

There’s a real need for this in Alaska as we are impacted by high cost of energy. It costs an average of $7-$10 a gallon to heat a home with diesel. This impacts average household income by around 50%. With our lime-based hemp insulation material, families could save up to 70% of their heating bills.

What is the policy for hemp in Alaska? Are there any pilots or research going on?

JB: There’s an Alaskan Senate Bill for the commercialization of Alaskan hemp. They actually took out the “research” clause, and are aiming to get to full commercialization. Last year, the senator that led that bill was awarded one of his bills (but not this one). According to his aide, it looks likely that this bill will pass in 2017.

Will hemp be popular in Alaska?

JB: From my discussion with folks here, the older generation are aware of it, but not so much with the younger generation. Most people are not aware of hemp having all these industry applications.

I actually just attended a city hall in Homer this past week, where the governor was having a Q&A. I actually got a chance to stand and present my case about hemp. I also brought some samples with me that I passed around to show what hemp shiv looks like. The crowd was amazed at the potential of this plant.

Jack Bennett with Alaska Governor Bill Walker
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Jack Bennett with Alaska Governor Bill Walker

What did the governor have to say about it?

JB: The governor didn’t have as much to say at the time, but it seemed like he was genuinely interested. But the mayor did ask if I could come back and do a presentation to the city council at a future date.

Is hemp suitable to grow in Alaska?

JB: From what I’ve learned, hemp was grown in Alaska in 1963. A state agronomist had a partnership with University of Wisconsin to test out hemp in the delta region of Alaska during the summer months. They were testing to see if hemp would grow during the long days in Alaska. It worked, so it’s been proven that hemp can grow in this state.

I’d like to dig a bit more deeper into the details about the hemp home. So how does a hemp home actually work? Does it look and feel the same as other homes?

JB: When you ask someone who’s been in a hemp home, they’ll tell you that they notice the difference right away. It smells better and you just feel better.

Hemp is a replacement for drywall, OSB plywood, fiberglass insulation, polyurethane foam replacement. I found that 55% of the world’s energy consumption is construction-waste related. Hemp homes have zero construction waste. So by building hemp homes, we’re doing our part to reduce your carbon footprint.

Did you know that France is building 2 million houses out of hemp this year? Hemp usage in construction is projected to increase by 80% by 2020.

Wow, I had no idea. That’s amazing. So in the long run, how do you think this will benefit Alaska?

JB: This is about sustainability and the local economy. This solution will allow us to build energy efficient, allergy free, affordable homes. If we’re able to grow our own hemp, the hemp farming will also help cut high freight costs and bring countless industries to Alaska.

Currently, what are your biggest challenges and obstacles?

JB: The freight cost of bringing hemp to Alaska. Since hemp farming is still in prohibition here, I have to import it until a bill passes.

What stage is NUNAWorks in? What’s the goal of 2016?

JB: We are working to build a model of the hemp home to show people what hempcrete can do. We were actually developing this sustainable home before I even found out about hemp. After doing more research, we decided to add hempcrete into our vision. So now the first floor will be made out of rammed earth and the second floor will be made out of hempcrete. We’re envisioning a home that will be completely sustainable, even the energy source (solar and water).

Construction of hemp home in Alaska
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The timeline of this model home is before the end of 2016. We don’t have that much time, but we’re hoping to get the structural and exterior work done before the winter comes. This will allow us to work on the interior during the cold months.

How can our readers help?

JB: The primary goal is to raise awareness of hemp. Here’s some ways you can start adopting more hemp:

  1. Start to slowly convert to wearing hemp clothes.
  2. Experiment with hemp seeds by trying it on your salad dressings, yogurt, smoothies.
  3. Start your own micro green business working with local chefs or packaging micro greens for store fronts.
  4. Start your own hemp building project in your community such as a hemp shed.

If you’re going to build with the hemp, start practicing with your shiv and binder. Every climate is different of how much ratio you have to use. It’s not just something you can watch on YouTube. Also, consider making the investment to engage in a hempcrete workshop.

Thanks so much for your time today Jack. Best of luck and I’m excited to hear more about your model home as it finishes up.

Ministry of Hemp is America's leading hemp advocate.

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