Despite its wide application and potential to generate income in a country badly in need of jobs, hemp is still illegal in South Africa. But Tony Budden, a tireless advocate of growing this amazing, renewable material, is trying to change all of that. Tony and Duncan Parker set out to build a house out of hemp as an example of just how exceptional this plant really is. Overcoming various legal and practical obstacles, Tony worked with Michael Orchard of New Earth Architecture and Wolf & Wolf Architecture to realize one of South Africa's most sustainable homes - and it's made of hemp! We talked to him about his long time passion for hemp, its various benefits, and what it took to build a home out of a material that is considered a narcotic.
INHABITAT: Tony, our recent story about your Hemp House in South Africa spurred a lot of interesting discussion. Can you briefly tell us how you initially became interested in hemp as a building material?
Tony Budden: After being involved with Hemporium for many years, and learning more about this amazing resource, we followed the growth of the hemp construction industry in Europe. It is one thing to accept wearing cannabis, or even eating it, but living in it was really the next level and the seed was planted, so to speak.
INHABITAT: At what point did you decide to take this interest to the next level?
Tony Budden: In our meetings with officials in Government here, we saw how their eyes lit up when we pulled out the hemp brick and hemp insulation samples we had in our sample box, and how this spoke to such a real need in South Africa, that of sustainable houses, as our government is obliged by law to provide those who cannot afford it with a house.
The thought of being able to grow houses was definitely an attractive one, and we decided to walk the talk and build a prototype so that they could experience it on a deeper level, as well as for all the positive PR it is receiving.
Of course, after wearing hemp, washing with hemp and eating hemp for so many years, living in hemp was where I wanted to be too.
INHABITAT: Who designed the Hemp House?
Tony Budden: We worked with 2 architects, Michael Orchard of New Earth Architecture and Wolf of Wolf & Wolf Architecture, who combined forces to design a contemporary and functional house. Erwin Van Der Weerd from Perfect Places then adapted the design to fit into his modular building system and built the house.
INHABITAT: What kind of obstacles did you have to overcome with the materials?
Tony Budden: Sourcing them was an issue since they are not available locally. Hemp is still in the research phase here, so we needed to look to Europe. We found a supplier in France who could arrange the hemp, binder and hemp insulation in one container, and then we had to have the particle board made in China.
Also learning to use the materials and to train artisans who had only ever built with brick and mortar was a challenge, so there was a bit of trial and error, but it is not rocket science.
INHABITAT: You’ve had an interesting journey with the South African government. Can you describe in a nutshell some of the challenges you have faced?
Tony Budden: The SA government has been fairly unstable since there have been a lot of changes at both ministerial and departmental levels: we invested a lot of effort creating allies in the necessary departments only to find them move elsewhere as things were getting going, and then we would have to start again with the replacement.
Also, getting them to stick their neck out and support the project publicly is always hard, as they are so conscious of the marijuana issue and fear that supporting hemp could somehow be used against them.
Having the Department of Health control the permits for research is also a drawback as they naturally assume that you are growing a drug and the permit is still a “Permit to do research on a Narcotic Drug”. This is our priority to change.
INHABITAT: But you have also had some success in illuminating the benefits of hemp. Can you say how?
Tony Budden: We have made it our mission to change the mindsets regarding hemp by a “show and tell” campaign, or as our tagline says “Innovate Educate Cultivate.” To this end, we have created a brand that produces everything from clothing to body-care products to construction materials.
We have been very active in the media (one of the shows uploaded on youtube has been syndicated far and wide and is receiving more hits all the time: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BxkDUBj3riY), and attended trade fairs all around the country. Now that the house is built, bringing people here to experience for themselves, as well as those that read about it, is opening up a whole new level of awareness.
INHABITAT: Had the legislative environment in South Africa been more hemp-friendly, how might that have reduced this project’s cost and carbon footprint?
Tony Budden: Obviously the transport from France and China have added to the footprint, which would be otherwise unnecessary, but also the costs would have been much lower as hemp is fairly expensive in Europe. South Africa has a better climate, more space, and more available labour in which to grow a hemp industry. There is also the loss of potential jobs here in SA that this and other projects like it would create, and we really need to create jobs here.
INHABITAT: What are the top five reasons architects should consider hemp as a construction material?
– Superior insulation
– Creating healthy homes
– Renewable resource/sustainability
– “Better than Zero Carbon” construction method
– Versatile material
INHABITAT: And then, under what circumstances might hemp not be the best choice?
Tony Budden:Hmmmm, that’s not easy for me to answer as hemp has now been tested in most climates and conditions, from homes to huge warehouses, everywhere from Europe to Australia to America, Japan and now South Africa. I would have to say cost is a factor, but this is also coming down rapidly as the industry sees economy of scale, especially if you calculate in the energy savings of a hemp house over its lifespan.
INHABITAT: What’s your next step, now that the Hemp House is complete? Do you hope to build similar houses in the future?
Tony Budden: For sure, there are already a few in the pipeline. We are working on the legislation issues in order to grow and produce the hemp products locally, but in the meanwhile also working making the imported products more available here. We will also be using the house to generate as much interest as possible, to help accelerate the whole process.