When Pamela Bosch discovered her 1960s Bellingham home was rotting and would need major renovation, she began to research sustainable and out-of-the-box building methods. This grandmother and self-proclaimed renegade activist wanted to do something big—shake up building industry norms and create a model for sustainability that future generations could follow.
In 2014, her research led to a building material called hempcrete. Hempcrete is a mixture of lime (the mineral composite), water and the chopped-up inner stalks of the hemp plant, known as the “hurd.” Hempcrete is an all natural, environmentally friendly, reinforced concrete that’s both insulating and structural. In addition it is also rot, pest, mold and mildew-resistant. For these reasons, many forward-thinking people see hempcrete as the perfect building material for residential wall construction.
Beyond the functionality of hempcrete, Pamela was drawn to the hemp plant itself, with its social, environmental and economic connotations. Hemp—a non-psychoactive form of cannabis—is widely known for its astonishing industrial and medical applications. Its fibers are incredibly strong and durable, making it perfect for rope and fabric. It can be processed into fuel, plastics, cosmetics and medicines. Scientists are even experimenting with using hemp fibers to conduct electricity.
And it’s a sustainable crop to grow. Hemp requires little to no pesticides, considerably less water than, say, cotton, and is a wonderful soil remediator (it removes toxins from polluted soil).
Pam was hooked. She immediately set to work learning as much as possible about hempcrete, and began to make connections in the international community of hemp farmers, activists and people with experience building with hempcrete.
In 2015, Pamela organized a hempcrete workshop, where she and a dozen participants built a small guesthouse on her property using bales of hemp hurd sourced from Canada. This prototype served as a public demonstration and as a test for her. If she could build this guest house and call it a success, she could feel confident about rebuilding her larger home using the same methods. It was a resounding success. The community was intrigued and even National Geographic featured her project with a video on their website.
Now, with some momentum and inspiration, Pamela began the next phase. She contacted Ross Grier, of Bellingham Bay Builders, a workers’ cooperative well-known for taking on challenging, unique projects and championing green building techniques. Together, they came up with a design and plan that eventually led to a special building permit from the City of Bellingham. “Everything about this project either meets or exceeds code,” Ross says.
They also brought on building contractor and hempcrete expert, Matthew (Matty) Mead from Idaho, who had recently completed a hempcrete building project called Idaho Base Camp and gave a TedEX talk titled Building a Better World. Matty obtained a Washington contractor’s license, moved into the guesthouse and quickly became instrumental, managing the construction using his expertise with a method new to even Bellingham Bay Builders.
“What Matty’s doing is very unique,” says Pamela. “He has the vision and can relate to the architect, to the builder, to hempcrete, to design and finish.”
With the green light from the city, the next challenge was to locate the required 40 tons of processed hemp. Even though many states have legalized hemp production, the crop is still considered a Schedule-1 narcotic under federal law. So, transporting large quantities over state lines is virtually impossible, not to mention there is no infrastructure in place to process the hurd domestically. So even though Pamela wanted to source her hemp hurd domestically, she was forced to look elsewhere. She chose a producer in the Netherlands, whom she had met during a research expedition to Europe, where building with hempcrete is already an established practice.
In early 2017, with Pamela’s 40-ton shipment of hemp hurd ordered, she, Ross and Matty laid out a tight schedule. Half of the house would have to come down, since the south and west walls were completely rotten. They would begin demolition in late spring, start framing early summer and by the time the shipping container was due to arrive in July, they would be ready to begin “packing hemp,” as Pamela calls it. This is the process of mixing the hurd, lime and water into a slurry, and then packing it into the inner spaces of the walls, which are built like giant forms.
The timing would be crucial. Pamela’s fear was that even the slightest delay or bureaucratic roadblock would cause the project to stretch past summer and into the fall, when rain and humidity could become a real problem. Hempcrete requires warm, dry weather for a proper cure. Without this, the structural integrity of the walls—and therefore, the entire project—could be compromised.
After a nerve-wracking two-week delay of her shipment leaving the port of Amsterdam, Pamela received a letter from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) which stated the agency had taken another look at her case and decided they would not allow the hemp to enter the United States.
Pamela immediately contacted the DEA, who instructed her to call US Customs and Border Protection, who then directed her in a frustrating circle back to the DEA. In April, she called Geoff Whaling, chairman of the board of the National Hemp Association and President of the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council. Jeff, who coincidentally had a meeting scheduled with the DEA in Washington D.C. the following day, agreed to help. Within a week, she had her approval letter.
The shipping container arrived in the Port of Seattle in August, 2017, and was trucked up to Bellingham, where a large work party unloaded the hundreds of bales of hemp hurd from the container into a storage facility.
Meanwhile, framing was well under way, but not quite ready for packing hemp. Ultimately, Pamela and her team were not able to begin packing hemp before the weather turned. The project (at least, the hempcrete aspect of the project) is on hold until spring 2018, when the weather will be more cooperative. This may turn out to be a blessing. The added downtime will give Pamela and her crew time to reflect on the project and how to take the message beyond Bellingham. It also gives our culture—and laws—some time to catch up to the notion of industrial hemp as a viable crop.
Pamela is relentlessly positive about her project and the people she has brought together to see it through. “The essential people we really needed for this to work have shown up when we needed them,” she says. “If you’re doing something no one has ever done before, it’s nice to have a cooperative arrangement. Matty is the millenial who is going to carry hemcrete forward. We have an unusual confluence of qualities coming together. For me this is legacy—something to leave the world when I’m gone. For Matty, it’s the future.”