All Things Considered

Hemp-insulated homes offer promise of affordable housing and jobs for Lower Sioux Community

A single-story house sits in a lot against a blue sky.
The Lower Sioux Indian Community built the first Hempcrete house in Minnesota in summer 2023.
Courtesy of Danny Desjarlais

On reservations where housing affordability and quality are persistent problems, temperatures at or below zero or always a concern. Earl Pendleton, a former tribal council member with the Lower Sioux Community, is turning to hemp to help solve those problems as well as create economic opportunities for tribal members.

He’s working with the Lower Sioux to create a circular economy that revolves around a product called Hempcrete.

It works like this: The tribe farms hemp and uses the woody inner core of the plant, or hemp hurds, to make affordable, energy-efficient homes insulated with Hempcrete; they sell the fiber and stalk for profit.

Pendleton spoke with All Things Considered host Tom Crann about the process.

The following that has been edited for clarity and length. Listen to the conversation by clicking the audio player above.

What is hempcrete?

Hempcrete is bio composite. It’s an insulation infill that still needs timber frame and timber structure. It’s a catchy name, but it really is people in the industry don’t like to compare it to concrete because it really doesn’t have the same characteristics.

How does hemp keep people warm? How does it work?

Hemp gets the billing here, but really hemp and lime are combined to create this insulation. Lime is mold-proof, pest-resistant and fire-resistant.

It can be used in ceilings, floors and the walls. Hemp hurds are very cellulose in structure so there's a lot of air pockets, which gives it the thermal performance properties.

It’s airtight, but still vapor permeable, so moisture can pass through the fabric of the wall. It creates an effect of cleaning out the indoor environment and maintaining humidity control inside the home.

You’re actually building some Hempcrete homes on tribal land in southern Minnesota. What are you building?

We are currently building in the community. We have three houses that we’re still finishing interiors, but the Hempcrete part of the build is complete. We have three different variations.

I want to talk about your larger vision beyond the project. You see this as an important economic engine to your community and even a job creator?

Right. The sustainability revolution is upon us. And it could be the single biggest business opportunity in the world right now. It has the scale of the Industrial Revolution, coupled with the speed of the digital revolution.

These materials are completely 100 percent recyclable, will never go into a landfill, petrified over time, because lime continues to absorb carbon over the lifetime of the home and can last for hundreds of years.

So we’re sequestering carbon. We’re capturing it when we grow it. And the lime after it’s done continues to capture that carbon. And then we lock it away in the wall.

So yes, we can develop a farming program here at Lower Sioux. We can develop the construction trades here by controlling our own building of our homes. And I think every community is in the same position where there's not enough housing and what we do have is inadequate.

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