How many acres of hemp does it take to build a home?

Lower Sioux Indian Community finishing first hempcrete house in Minnesota

The structure of a single-story house in a lot with blue sky.
The Lower Sioux Indian Community built the first hempcrete house in Minnesota in summer 2023.
Courtesy of Danny Desjarlais

The Lower Sioux Indian Community in southwestern Minnesota is quite literally growing houses. They are the first in the state to build what is being called a Hemp House. It’s an environmentally-friendly home, built using the material “hempcrete.”

The alternative is just beginning to blossom, with potential to provide affordable and quality homes for the Lower Sioux community.

MPR News Host Cathy Wurzer talked with Lower Sioux Indian Community Council Vice President Earl Pendleton and Hemp Construction Project Manager Danny Dejarlais about the effort.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

INTERVIEWER: The Lower Sioux Indian Community in Southwestern Minnesota is quite literally growing their own houses. They are the first in the state to build what's being called a hemp house. It's an environmentally-friendly home built using the material, hempcrete. It's an alternative that's just beginning to blossom and could open doors to affordable and quality homes for the Lower Sioux community.

Joining us right now to explain this project is Earl Pendleton, the Lower Sioux Indian Community Council's vice president, and Danny Desjarlais, the hemp construction project manager. Danny and Earl, thanks for joining us.

DANNY DESJARLAIS: Thank you for having us. Pleasure to be here.

INTERVIEWER: Thank you. Say, Danny, I'm thinking people, many people, probably have not heard of hempcrete before. Can you explain it?

DANNY DESJARLAIS: Yeah. Yeah. It's actually thousands of year old technology. So we're not reinventing the wheel or anything, but it's a technology that's newer in the United States. And yeah, we're just starting to build with it too. So it's kind of new to us also.

INTERVIEWER: What's in it?

DANNY DESJARLAIS: So it's just the inside of the stem of the hemp plant mixed with some lime and some water, and that's it.

INTERVIEWER: That's it. OK. So it's almost like you're creating limestone in a way, I suppose.


INTERVIEWER: Yeah. Earl, I know you've had your eye on hempcrete and all the possibilities it has had for quite some time. So what are you seeing as the benefits of this?

EARL PENDLETON: Yeah. It's been a while. I lose track of really when this all started. But I'm guessing around 15 years ago. And when I first seen it, it might have been on the internet. It was new then, but it was mold-proof, fire-proof, pest-proof, the walls breathe, controls humidity, cleans toxins out of the indoor air. These are all these amazing claims that I've been slowly investigating over the years trying to figure out where the fly is in the ointment, I guess. But I've never really found it.

So I mean, these claims while kind of outlandish, they are proven to be true. Back then it was, I think, we need better housing. And in the internet, on TV, radio, newspaper, you see some climate change stories back then, but now it's really in the forefront. So now it's like this perfect storm where we can get a better performing product, better insulator for your home, healthier home, and at the same time, we can do something that's needed for the planet.

I think carbon is pretty well known that it warms the atmosphere and it's the driver of global warming. So if we got a material that sequesters carbon during the growth and once we put it in the wall, the lime wants to be a limestone, as you said earlier, and so it'll always be absorbing carbon throughout the lifetime of the home trying to be a rock again. So it really does petrify over time and it can last hundreds of years.

So I think the benefits are all over the place. It's become now with the climate issues we're facing, I think we have to try. I think we're finding out that the price can really be comparable to conventional construction, so that's kind of our last leg here is to really kind of drill down those costs.

INTERVIEWER: Say, I'm curious what this looks like. Does it look OK? And does it last?

EARL PENDLETON: And that's why-- I think people have said-- I myself I was like, what does this look like? Some kind of hut from Gilligan's Island, or a hobbit house I've heard it called. But it really can look just like stucco on the outside. Even the outside trim can be vinyl siding, anything you like, it just needs to have an air barrier so the house can continue to breathe.

And it's long lasting, it'll petrify over time, it's bulletproof. I've seen internet videos where people are shooting 22s all the way up to shotguns and it can't penetrate the 12-inch wall. So I think what we have here is a monolithic wall system that from inside and out, it's hemp. There's no wall cavity. There's nowhere for mold to grow unseen. There's no pests, mice issues. It's unpalatable. Nothing can eat it. It doesn't burn. So I think lime is-- hemp is the buzzword in this equation, but lime has its benefits too.

INTERVIEWER: Let me ask you about the hemp part of this, Danny. Take us from the start. Now, you all, are you growing your own hemp to be turned into to hempcrete?

DANNY DESJARLAIS: Yeah. Yeah. We're growing our own hemp. We have been for the past few years. We just started building with it last year.

INTERVIEWER: Wow. OK. It's going pretty well, obviously.

DANNY DESJARLAIS: Yeah. Yeah. We've been growing, Earl, I don't know how many years. What is this now? Our fifth year?

EARL PENDLETON: Before the 2018 Farm Bill. So we've been growing it since 2017 or '18. Yeah, '17 was our first season. So yeah, we've been going through the trial and error of it. The only way you become an expert is if you fail in every way possible, so we're trying to get there. It's an easy thing to grow without chemicals, without pesticides and herbicides.

So the farming aspect is rather easy, I guess, if you compare it to other crops. But yeah, we've been growing it three years. The processing just kind of came together in the last couple of years. So we wanted to do it with our own herd that we processed in order to really get a true cost comparison to conventional construction.

INTERVIEWER: So Danny, you guys started to build with this. So did you go from what-- the footings and empty basement to what? The whole house?

DANNY DESJARLAIS: Yeah. For this project, we did. When we started building with it last fall, it was just a demonstration shed. And then this spring, we were supposed to start another project of a hempcrete house and we've been waiting for that one to get started. And so this one just the house that we actually built kind of just sprung up out of nowhere.

And there was an existing basement in the community, and we just built on top of that basement that had been there for 14 or 15 years. And yeah, it took us 14 days from the day we got on site until the house was complete.

INTERVIEWER: Wow. No sheetrock, no other plastics.

DANNY DESJARLAIS: No, we don't use any sheetrock. We did wrap it with a special membrane on the outside so that we can use any type of siding we want.

INTERVIEWER: Wow. So do you foresee, Earl, this being used to build more houses in the community?

EARL PENDLETON: Definitely. I think this is just the beginning. What we're doing now is we're kind of a method that's labor intensive, time intensive, but we are going to move into a hemp campus here next year. That's under construction starting this month. $6 million facility that will-- 20,000 square-foot that will house our processing equipment. And a place where we can experiment with making blocks and prefabricated wall panels that we can develop into a modular design, where I think would kind be where the industry goes next.

It's right now just kind of in a one-off mode where people with money, wealthy people can afford to build these houses, but we want to really build it at a community scale because I think the benefits can really extend to low-income families who don't need to rely on expensive air handling equipment that breaks down, and even when it is functioning in good working order, we still have an issue.

I think the EPA said our indoor environment is three to five times more polluted than the outdoor air. So we got this issue going on with off gassing. The chemicals that are in the finishes on everything inside of our house, they get trapped inside our house and we can't get them out properly. The walls will do that for us. It'll always be cleansing the indoor air, locking those toxins away inside the fabric of the wall forever and continuously keeping a healthy environment.

And the people who live in these houses that I've talked to over the years, they really say there's a huge difference that you can tell and they can tell even with their families who don't get sick when everybody else does. When it's going around in the schools, their kids don't get it. They feel more energetic, more productive.

So I think there's an element to this that's really hard to measure, but we know for sure that the mold, pests, and fire resistance is something everybody needs. And to cut fuel and cooling bills, heating and cooling bills by up to 75% in Minnesota is an extremely huge advantage to hempcrete. So I think it's definitely something that will have to be done. I mean, the climate change is moving towards we have to do things different--

INTERVIEWER: And it sounds--

EARL PENDLETON: And the building industry has kind of set themselves up for just an impractical way to build.

INTERVIEWER: It sounds as though it's also very interesting business proposition for the Lower Sioux Community, which you're working on.

EARL PENDLETON: It could be, and it's an employment opportunity. So we have a lot of people in the community who are interested in construction and we have a lot of casino jobs. But we need to have an outlet for the people who like to work outside, who like to work with their hands in the trades. So it's really developed into an egg component to the community that we've never had. It's construction jobs, but there's also an opportunity outside of the community. But we can build 140 houses for short right now, 140.

So we could build for a long time here without ever have to worry about who's going to buy one outside of the community. I think there will be showcases here within the community that will be appealing to the outside communities.

INTERVIEWER: Well, we'll have to go ahead and do a follow-up interview with you here down the road to see how you're doing. Earl and Danny, thank you so much for your time. Best of luck.


EARL PENDLETON: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

INTERVIEWER: Thank you. Earl Pendleton is the Lower Sioux Indian Community Council vice president, Danny Desjarlais is the hemp construction project manager.

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