This story was produced in partnership with Planet Detroit.
Seasoned housepainter Kim Croes had a big problem — increasingly, the fumes from the paint she used in her work were making her sick.
She often experienced headaches, nosebleeds, and coughing during and after a job. Croes, who lives in Detroit and works all over the region, knew that most conventional paints contain harmful chemicals and frequent exposure to paint fumes is a real cause for health concerns.
So a few years ago, she began researching healthier options for paint, wall surfaces and insulation. That’s when she stumbled on hempcrete — a mix of hemp hurd, lime and water.
While it can’t replace traditional concrete in load-bearing applications, hempcrete can be used for insulation, walls and flooring. Unlike pink fiberglass insulation foam, hempcrete can be handled without gloves or a respirator mask. It’s biodegradable and non-toxic.
When she first heard about hempcrete, Croes was skeptical. But she came to believe in it so much that she started her company, FiberFort, in 2021 with a mission of offering healthier building options like hempcrete, other hemp products, and non-toxic mineral-based and limewash paints for her clients. In 2022, developers of Michigan’s first hemp-based house in Chelsea chose FiberFort to install spray hempcrete insulation.
“The whole intention of starting this company is to make a healthier environment for people and myself,” said Croes, who has begun a hempcrete-based bathroom retrofit in her older Detroit home. “Homeowners and builders should consider using eco-friendly materials.”
A nascent but growing movement of builders like Croes across Michigan is starting to experiment with the material. Backers say it is safer and more sustainable than foam and fiberglass insulation. Skeptics point out its high costs and a lack of access to the product. But proponents hope these challenges will be overcome as the hemp industry grows and matures.
Hope for a better health
In 2020, Jessie DeDecker of Hastings, Michigan, received a devastating diagnosis: mast cell activation syndrome, sometimes called multiple chemical sensitivities disorder. Those with the condition experience repeated episodes of allergic symptoms like migraine headaches, whole-body inflammation, muscle weakness, low blood pressure, breathing challenges, and stomach ailments.
“It makes me extremely sensitive to the point of being allergic to a whole bunch of chemicals,” DeDecker said.
The apartment she lived in, over 150 years old, contained mold and triggered her illness, forcing the 29-year-old to move back in with her parents. The ordeal prompted DeDecker and her family to search for a solution to her housing dilemma.
Jessie’s mom, Laurie DeDecker, told Planet Detroit that it all started with an internet search for alternative building materials. She came across an article about hempcrete, learned that it was mold-resistant, and thought, “What the heck is this?”
“We knew we would have to build something because there was literally nothing in our area that would be safe for her,” Laurie DeDecker said.
“In Barry County, where I live, it’s old houses or brand new construction,” Jessie DeDecker told Planet Detroit, noting that she is allergic to paint, vinyl flooring, adhesives, and other materials used in new buildings. “Most low-income housing is built from very inexpensive thin materials. You get a lot of off-gassing and it’s not durable,” she said.
DeDecker soon connected with Blain Becktold, one of the founding members of the nonprofit organization iHemp Michigan, and Cody Ley, founder of Hemp 4 Humanity and a regional representative of the U.S. Hemp Building Association. Now they are on a journey to build a safe home for Jessie, with plans to break ground in 2024.
“Our goal is to build her house as our first proof of concept and then look for funding and support to build future homes for others like Jessie,” Laurie DeDecker said.
Building a modern hemp industry
Ken and Pat Kucab of Beverly Hills, Michigan, used the material in a home project in Trout Lake. They sought natural, biodegradable insulation and wanted to avoid the hard-to-handle fiberglass batt insulation.
“Hempcrete provided the same R-factor as regular fiberglass insulation, and it was a good DIY contribution to the project,” Ken Kucab said. The R-factor is a measure of insulation performance.
For Kucab, the benefits of using hemp include avoiding exposure to chemicals and the material’s biodegradability. “We were able to install it ourselves. It was relatively easy but more time-consuming than fiberglass or spray-on foam insulation,” he said. “The hemp plant and its usefulness in building, insulating, clothing and a myriad of other products should be one of the sources to assist in cleaning up the environment and reduce our need for oil and the plastics that come with it.”
But he acknowledged the material has its limitations, including availability and cost. “Product distribution was limited when we purchased the hemp batts, so our cost for the hemp was higher,” he said.
In a future project, Kucab plans to use hemp blocks or hempcrete walls to provide added comfort.
“We bought it when it was not cost justifiable, but the price is moving closer to a similarly performing fiberglass batt,” he said. “Hempcrete walls replacing fiberglass insulated walls would be a huge move to provide better interior environments and great insulation.”
One possible factor contributing to the market’s slow growth is the 80-year federal ban on hemp cultivation. It’s only been legal to grow hemp since 2018, when the Farm Bill authorized its production and removed hemp and hemp seeds from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s schedule of controlled substances. It will take some time to build up the industrial hemp supply chain in Michigan since there are no processing facilities in the state.
Becktold, who worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 27 years, would like to see the same incentives for farmers growing hemp as are offered for other crops. Most federal funding for hemp has gone to research, market development, and animal feed.
One bright spot: in 2024, the International Residential Code, which establishes minimum regulations for one- and two-family dwellings and townhouses, will include hempcrete and hemp lime.
Advocates point out that places like Detroit could benefit from hempcrete, where unhealthy housing is an environmental justice issue contributing to the city’s high asthma prevalence.
“This could be proof of concept for chemically sensitive housing but also start showing the wider community of builders and government, especially community projects for low-income housing, that this is a really good choice,” Jessie DeDecker said. “The more people who know about this, the more it will help beyond me. There are so many people of all demographics and all walks of life that could really really benefit.”