Building a Sustainable House… FROM HEMP!

Article By: Dionne Payn
Photos By: Siobhan Hodgson

Hemp building is not a new idea. One of the oldest known hemp houses was built in Japan over 300 years ago. Today, hemp building is becoming more popular with projects happening all over Europe, America, Canada and Australia.

Most recently, hempreneur Tony Budden of, built the first hemp house in South Africa. Dionne Payn caught up with Tony to find out more.

Tony Budden
Housing in South Africa is a very big issue right now. The South African Government needs to build 5 million houses as soon as possible, and building with hemp is a great way to provide affordable housing.

We made the decision to build our home from hemp about five years ago, and it took about 4 years to find the right property and get the plans approved.

As well as being our home, we also wanted to prove that hemp building could work in South Africa so we decided to build a contemporary, up-market property. We knew this would give the project greater exposure in magazines and would spark more interest from potential investors and decision makers in Government.

The house was built as a modular system; it was built in the factory and then shipped to the site. Building with hemp and using a modular building system are both firsts in South Africa.

We needed about 3 hectares of hemp for the property, but seeing as hemp is still in research phase in South Africa, we had to source it elsewhere. We imported hemp from France, which wasn’t a low cost option, but we knew it would be calibrated for use in the building industry.

The hemp industry in South Africa is still very new, and while we would prefer to use local hemp, we didn’t want to take any risks with such a high stakes project.

The building process itself was quite straightforward. We used two different techniques, hemp chipboard on top of a double layer of hemp insulation and hempcrete, which seemed to complement each other well.

We tried to use hemp for as many of the fittings and features of the house as we could; the carpets, cupboards, lampshades and curtains are all made of hemp.

It took about 6 months to build the house as there was lots of training needed for our team of builders who had never worked with hemp before. We had to redo some of the walls as they had air gaps in them. Yes, there was a lot of trial and error in those six months.

This was probably the most challenging aspect of the building process: getting the builders’ heads around something that was so different to what they had been trained in. They are used to using brick and cement, and now they had to deal with an organic living building, natural products, VOC-free paints and so on.

But they are so proud of the final product; they are always keen to see how things are going.

What was interesting was that there was another construction project using traditional brick and cement that started at the same time as we did. We’ve been in our house for three months and the other project is still going.

We also included double glazing which is not widely used in South Africa, and again had to be imported from overseas. Double glazing was an important factor for us because we wanted to make sure we would save energy and have good heat and sound insulation as it does get very windy where we are.

I found out that even though hemp is a good insulator, you still need to have an initial source of heat. We use a mixture of ceramic tiles and gas heaters which we put on for about 30 minutes a day, and we find that’s enough to make sure the house stays nice and warm.

To furnish our new house, we bought Triple A appliances and used LED lighting so we’ve noticed we are using about ½ of the energy we used in our old brick and cement house.

And now we are in our home. I like it; it’s a comfortable house. You would have to experience for yourself what it’s like being inside an organic building; it’s a living, breathing organism, and it feels really good.

In the future when hemp is more widely grown, it is entirely possible that the cost of building with hemp would be a lot less compared to conventional buildings.

When you look at the costs of building a brick and cement house in terms of energy use, poor recyclability of materials and the amount of carbon created in the production of the raw materials, the cost to society and to us as individuals is certainly a lot more compared to building with sustainable techniques such as hemp, stawbale or rammed earth.

If you are thinking about building a hemp house, my advice is to go for it. But, be prepared to be a lot more involved than if you were building a regular house.

You need to train the builders in this technique, understand the material, and be prepared to work with professionals, unless you are lucky enough to find a specific hemp builder.

If you do the research and understand the material you are working with, you will end up with a beautiful home.

Tony Budden is a partner with Duncan Parker in Hemporium, a South African hemp company, whose long term goal is to promote the cultivation and use of industrial hemp as a sustainable crop in South Africa. For technical details about the building process and more pictures of the finished house, visit the blog at

Dionne Payn is the founder and Editor of Hemp Industry Insider, a free online magazine dedicated to showcasing the best hemp products and service providers.

Visit to download your free copy of the magazine.

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