The green, green grass of home has just become a whole lot greener. Ireland's first house made of hemp is not only perfectly legal, but it could also provide a model for future house_building.
Set amid the rolling drumlins of rural Co Monaghan, the 450_sq_ft home is more environmentally friendly than conventional cement types, according to its owner. Marcus McCabe says cannabis's cousin should become a staple building material.
"We live in a straw_bale house with a grass sod roof that we built in 1997. We decided to build a house from hemp but ran into difficulties. You can't grow hemp here without a processor's licence _even varieties with a negligible narcotic value _so we had to import enough for the house. It's better than we could have imagined," he says.
McCabe, who runs a business designing reed_bed water treatment systems and who was a Green party candidate in Cavan_Monaghan for the last general election, has been the butt of plenty of quips about his hemp house, but is adamant that the only dopes are those who insist on using fossil fuels to build.
"It takes a huge amount of energy to create a cement house. You have to start by quarrying rock out of the ground. These houses then produce lots of carbon dioxide. In contrast, only natural building materials are used in a hemp house and by using hemp, timber and lime, no carbon dioxide is produced. Instead, it actually reduces the amount of CO2 in the air," he says.
McCabe, the son of the playwright Eugene McCabe, is planning to use his new hemp building as an office for Ecoflo Reedbeds, his sewage treatment business which he runs from the family farm in Burdautien, close to the border.
His hemp house has a plaster finish _what's most remarkable, McCabe says, is that it is so unremarkable. Compared to the straw_bale house next door that McCabe calls home, it really is nondescript. "Hemp is such a versatile building material that you can build just about any house_type with it. Like concrete, it can be turned into bricks and blocks or can just be poured. It doesn't take as long to dry and, when it does, it's solid yet permeable, soaking up excess moisture. We're planning to use the hemp house as an office but it will also double as accommodation during the summer when we run courses in organic gardening and sustainability," he says. So, why aren't we already using it? In 1997, the Department of Justice gave Teagasc's crops research centre in Carlow a licence to grow hemp.
The agricultural development body concluded that hemp could indeed be cultivated successfully. They pointed to its widespread use in the early 1900s, when it was used for making everything from twine, rope and clothes to rigging, nets and sails for ships. And that was that. Since then, no processing licences have been granted.
In contrast, research is well underway in Northern Ireland where the crop unit of the Department of Agriculture and a company called Hemp Ireland, are carrying out a pilot study in Co Down.
In the republic, hemp advocates _an eclectic band of environmentalists, farmers, scientists and, well, hippies _have been kicking their Birkenstocks against a brick wall ever since.
But McCabe, for one, is determined that the cultivation of hemp isn't just a pipe dream. The environmentalist, who leads a largely self_sufficient lifestyle with his wife, Kate, and three children, is so taken with his new building that he now plans to become a hemp dealer himself.
"New technologies are emerging that mean that decortication, or the process of separating hemp fibre from waste material, is much easier and quicker, so now is the time to move. The licensing situation has to be freed up. We've applied to begin production in 2005 and the Department of Agriculture have been very encouraging so far.
"At the moment, it's not a viable alternative to concrete because it has to be imported. Concrete costs about E100 per cubic metre, while hemp costs about twice as much. But if we were growing 15 tons of dried hemp per hectare, we could charge competitive prices. In the space of a few months, building a house from hemp could be as cheap as building from concrete," he says.
To hemp's proponents, it's something of a wonder shrub. It requires no herbicides or pesticides and can grow faster than almost any other plant. In Irish conditions, it would take about four months to grow the one hectare of the plant needed for one house.
Unlike many crops, it enriches rather than damages soil. It is as robust as cotton, as warm as linen and more durable than either. As a building material, it is stronger than wood or concrete. It is also rot_proof, fire_resistant, lightweight and unpalatable to vermin.
So, why the reluctance to experiment with this potentially revolutionary plant? It seems that there's more than a hint of reefer madness about the authorities' attitude to hemp.
Made from cannabis sativa, hemp is a close relation of marijuana, the illegal drug. The difference is that commercially grown hemp contains almost none of the psycho_active property, THC, which creates a "high" when smoked. Studies show that marijuana typically has a THC concentration of between 2% and 5% with stronger strains measuring as high as 22%. In contrast, industrial hemp contains only about 0.3%.
"The hemp we used on the house has almost no narcotic value. You probably wouldn't get a buzz if you smoked the whole building. It's like the difference between drinking a shandy and a bottle of whiskey," McCabe says.
Henry Thompson, the builder that completed McCabe's house, believes that it's only a matter of time before the plant becomes an accepted building material. "The only drawback is obviously the expense but that problem can be solved. It was used in Ireland for hundreds of years before the industrial revolution and our climate and conditions are perfect for large_scale hemp production," he says.
So, what is hemp like to build with? "It was a dream, very user_friendly and adaptable," according to Thompson, who runs the Old Builders Company in Co Offaly. "I started working with hemp two years ago. We specialise in conservation work and found that hemp mixed with water and hydraulic lime was ideal for insulating and damp proofing old stone buildings. It's an extremely breathable material, so any house built from hemp is guaranteed to be healthy," he says.
Still barely legal in Ireland, the international community has mixed views of the plant. In America, you have to apply to the US Drug Enforcement Agency for a licence to cultivate commercial hemp. Many people have tried but not one application has yet been approved. In 2001, the agency banned all food products containing even traces of hemp.
In contrast, hemp was reintroduced to the UK in 1993, to Germany in 1996 and to Australia and Canada in 1998. In Europe, France is the biggest producer, and it is commonly used as a building material in the countryside. The hemp used on McCabe's house originated in France.
In Britain, the residents of two hemp houses built in the Suffolk town of Haverhill by social housing provider Suffolk Housing Society are delighted with their new homes, if a little bored by all the wisecracks. "It's warm and dry and comfortable, and it has a lovely rustic feel to it, even though it's a new house," resident Jessee Mulcock says. She was also surprised to find that her house had better acoustics and sound_proofing than anywhere else she had lived before.
Thompson says: "In the scheme in Suffolk, two identical houses were built side_by_side _one from hemp and one from cement. A thermal picture was taken of both houses at night and the difference was staggering.
"The conventional houses were glowing because they were losing so much heat. The study found that the hemp house was on average two degrees warmer throughout the year. That translates into heat savings of between 10% and 20%.
" Following the success of its first project, the company has started a second hemp house in Co Wicklow. "The first one proved that it was viable, so we're expecting much more interest now," says Thompson. http://www.ecoflow.ie, 047 52049; http://www.oldbuilders.com, 0509 21133 Fergal Phillips
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