Courtesy Just BioFiber Structural Solutions

An Airdrie-based company is building homes out of compressed hemp chip blocks, a sustainable building material that holds huge potential for reducing carbon footprint and emissions.

The idea first came to Just BioFiber Structural Solutions founder Mac Radford a few years back when he was asked to help build a “hemp house” in Nelson, B.C. It turned out to be a very time-consuming and labour-intensive process, but the building material – shredded industrial hemp stalks – had obvious potential.

So, with more than 40 years of experience in commercial construction, Radford went to work developing a modular block product, which fit together similar to plastic toy building blocks, but with numerous structural, functional and environmental advantages.

“I told him if he got a patent, I’d help him run the business,” said Radford’s brother, Terry. “And here we are.”

“They’re semi-permeable, so they help with airflow exchange. And they are extremely fire resistant because of high CO2 content and the patented production formula. There’s no mould, no mildew and it’s termite resistant.” – Terry Radford, Just BioFiber Structural Solutions

The company currently produces a couple thousand blocks a month out of its 24,000-square-foot facility in the East Lake industrial park in Airdrie, with plans to automate and increase production to 30,000-50,000 blocks per month.

Currently, it takes about three days for a block to go from hemp chips to finished block, with the average home requiring around 2,000 of the 22-inch-long, 10-inch-wide and 8-inch-tall blocks. Each order comes with everything needed for construction, including blocks, the interlocking composite pegs and a detailed construction manual.

The main market right now is commercial, says Terry Radford, although they’ve built a few custom homes in the B.C. interior and on the West Coast.

It’s not as cheap as wood-frame construction, he adds, but it’s less expensive than concrete and “has the potential to make concrete cinder blocks obsolete.”

The material is certainly more environmentally friendly, as hemp is one of the fastest-growing, and therefore most sustainable, plants on earth – especially the THC–free industrial variety that is grown on farms in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. It’s also one of the best materials on the planet when it comes to carbon dioxide absorption, absorbing about 1.6 times its own weight in CO2, says Terry Radford.

Although the blocks don’t work for foundations, since the hemp chips will eventually decompose in the moist dirt, the product offers several advantages.

“They’re semi-permeable, so they help with airflow exchange,” said Terry Radford. “And they are extremely fire resistant because of high CO2 content and the patented production formula. There’s no mould, no mildew and it’s termite resistant.”

Thicker walls also allow for deeper window wells and additional sound insulation

“Some customers have even had insurance savings thanks to the two-hour fire rating of the walls,” said Terry Radford.