'2023 is the Year’: Q&A With U.S. Hemp Building Association President Henry Gage Jr.
Adobe Stock By Francesco Scatena

'2023 is the Year’: Q&A With U.S. Hemp Building Association President Henry Gage Jr.

Gage describes the USHBA’s latest advancements in the hemp building industry and what the organization has in store for 2023.

September 21, 2022

The U.S. Hemp Building Association (USHBA) is dedicated to advocating for and supporting the hemp building industry.

In early January, the association submitted hemp-lime (hempcrete) insulation for certification in U.S. building codes. If the certification gets approved, “hempcrete would be permitted as a standard material for residential construction,” Jacob Waddell, USHBA then-interim executive director, told Cannabis Business Times in February.

Cannabis Business Times caught up with Henry Gage Jr., USHBA president and certifications director, to discuss where that certification stands, as well as the association's latest advancements in the hemp building industry and what it has in store for 2023.

RELATED: How Sustainability is Driving the Hemp Building Industry in Europe and the U.S.

Andriana Ruscitto: In early January, the USHBA submitted hemp-lime (hempcrete) insulation for certification in U.S. building codes. Where does that process stand?

Henry Gage: The overview is that we were in Rochester, N.Y., back in April, and we presented before the council (International Code Council (ICC)), and it was overwhelmingly approved as a recommendation. This month when the public review period is complete, and they're having their annual meeting to decide what goes in code and what doesn't, the expectation is that we'll receive an announcement any day that it has been approved along with a list of others.

So, it's on track for approval in addition to the international residential building code. Now, what that means is that there's an open appendix AY Hemp-lime, that is going to provide guidance to the industry and start creating new opportunities because there’s a new material to help solve the $1 billion of mold and damp-related [damages] in the United States. They said that at the code council. … Another industry group was talking … [and] one of the people said, “Well, you do realize that there's over a billion dollars of losses associated with damp.” … So, as a part of my response, I said, “To solve problems, we need new materials to create new solutions. Your approval of this signals to the industry that hemp-lime is moving from the cottage industry into the mainstream.”

AR: Aside from that, what are some of the other most significant projects the USHBA has been working on this year?

HG: That was the big one because we're a new organization and going through typical organizational growing pains. That's an expensive project and a complex endeavor. Our main contribution for this year is getting that done. We do have some other educational content that we're working on, and it's going to take time to structure it and organize it. We figure … we’re going to need to increase our budget so that we can hire staff [and] reliably go after the next set of work.

AR: When I spoke with Waddell back in February, the certification process was at the beginning stages. Can you describe some of the tasks the association has done between now and then to advance the chances of getting hemp-lime (hempcrete) insulation certified in U.S. building codes?

RELATED: Advancing the Hemp Building Industry: Q&A With the U.S. Hemp Building Association

HG: What's interesting is that a majority of the work went into the writing that occurred starting over a year ago. … Coming into the beginning of this year, I was involved with helping pull together the team as a certification director and then harmonize the message prepared to present [in front of the ICC].

When we [traveled out there to present] the key for us was there were 10 people that were presenting from all over the world. We had invited [people] to come into town to help us present. As part of that, we basically ended up rehearsing our lines for weeks. [We had] about a meeting or so a week for one or two hours at a time rehearsing what we were going to say, thinking it through and splitting it into pieces so we weren't overlapping. That was good because when we approached the microphones, they saw 10 people and the guy looked right at us and said, “Please, none of you better repeat because we're not having any repeats here” because he saw the number of people and he didn't want to hear the same message 10 times. Now when we finished, he said “That was well done” because every person had something different to say that was equally important. Now that [was] the majority of the work: nailing the presentation where each of us had two minutes and then being prepared to respond to anyone who had opposition. There [was] another microphone set up for the public or people with opposition. We didn't have much opposition.

AR: What major advancements have been made regarding hemp as a building material or are there any projects your members are working on that stick out?

HG: Our members are on the cutting edge across the country and if not the world. We have people who come to the United States and bring some technology from Europe. For example, one of the people I've spent a bit of time with is Cameron McIntosh, representing Americhanvre LLC, and he is one of the proponents [on the proposal].

What Cameron did, is he found another technique that came out of Europe, which is called spray applied. Spray applied is a method where you basically use this [pressure] lance and it propels the hemp-lime mixture onto the target. And then you come back, screen it and smooth it, and decide how you [want to] finish it. So it's kind of one of the latest techniques. Of course, there are others that are doing methods like panelization, and that's where you create panels.

Matt Marino (owner of Homeland Hempcrete) is one of our members. He's working on a project where they're doing a comparative test. In a comparative test scenario, it's basically taking two structures that are almost identical and the primary difference would be the insulation method. So that's being set now to collect data. Others have been perfecting a block approach, and that's where you mix the material and you cure it in a warehouse. That way, you don't have to have a wait time on-site. You cure it, and then you have blocks. Now keep in mind, the approach we took to get [hemp-lime] into the code was that we approached it as non-structural installation only.

I think another key that's important in terms of climate change in doing our part is we have a vision as a community. And I'm so glad to hear from folks on the cannabis side of the aisle. We really want to work closely together in ways that are appropriate. ... It should be treated like a regular agricultural crop. So, Erika Stark (National Hemp Association executive director) and her team put together the [Industrial] Hemp Exemption [for grain and fiber].

Editor’s note: The Industrial Hemp Exemption fights against THC testing protocols. “Producers who choose to grow hemp for grain and/or fiber purposes are at very low, if any risk at all, of harvesting an illegal crop. Therefore, federal law should not mandate testing and instead enforce reasonable programs that require harvest designation and visual inspection of hemp fields, both of which are far less burdensome to the American farmer," the exemption states.

AR: In the beginning of our interview, you also mentioned the USHBA is working on creating mills and is hosting a festival soon. What does that entail?

HG: We started a movement called Liberate Hemp, which leads to the festival that we're doing: [Liberate Hemp Festival]. … We're doing a burlesque show with our friend [and] professional dancer, … Honey Harlow, … in Woodstock, [N.Y., Oct. 8].

So that day at 4 p.m. at … Station [Bar & Curio] in Woodstock, … we’ll have tables [set up and] people from the community are gathering there to talk about what they're doing and discuss ways to collaborate. That day around 7 p.m., I'm going to make an announcement that's going to be pretty important.

Now, the mill idea itself, is that we the people can figure out how to finance a mill. My goal as president of USHBA is to figure it out—because I've worked as an analyst—document it and then spread it to every state. So we're talking border-[to]-border, coast-to-coast and all the territories so that every community can get a mill.

What a mill does is when the plant grows, the stock is pretty hard and … you have to crack it open and then peel the fiber away from the woody core, separate the two in a clean way, make sure it's efficiently dry, then prepare it for transportation to its next destination. What a mill does is it has a piece of equipment, … it's basically a decorticating equipment, which has different technologies for splitting open the stock and separating materials and cleaning the materials. … At the end stage, what you get is long strand, strong fibers. … So the idea is a mill plus a makerspace. ... What you get with that is first process it, so you lower the CO2 footprint, but with some of the evolution of technology, there are processes where you can then turn it into plastics or bioplastics. So we're talking about a full service process where you drop off what you have, … process it, get the raw material separated and then [it goes] on to the next destination. Let's say fiber. Fiber will go through its process. So if you have a person who's interested in making bolts of fabric and they hear about it, instead of ordering from China, the idea is they order from America. So [changing that] supply cycle reduces the CO2 footprint because you're not shipping that stuff across the ocean, etc.

AR: What does the USHBA have in store for 2023? What’s the organization most excited about?

HG: I'm excited about improving the infrastructure so members can better communicate with each other and support each other. For example, what we are looking to do is make sure we have multiple representatives in each state. So we're looking to strengthen the regional leadership model, and then we're looking to deliver services at a regional level so they can be successful locally as they sponsor events. It's more efficient to have local expertise develop.

The other component's going to be education. Education in a way that will apply some technology that we are writing up right now. So let's say, for example, if you consider New York or let's say Boston, Mass., or … San Antonio, Texas. … Each of those are very different from a building code standpoint [and] … each of those are in different climate zones. Now that means people in each of those areas need a slightly different detailed education. Our goal is to create that infrastructure, that while we're delivering building code, we have access to supplementary training so that if you're from Florida, you might have notes in there that you can hear from local people to know how to fine-tune your build which might be different than for someone from another region.

The other big thing is we're going to start the process of applying again to the International Code Council, but this time for commercial code. So we're looking to start that process, but to start the process, we really are focused on ramping up our engagement with universities, the government and the industry to get it funded in a mutually beneficial way. So we are looking for corporate sponsors because they can create products and make money.

AR: What's the difference between the commercial code and the code that you are already working on getting approval for?

HG: There’s a significant difference because what we focused on are typical residential timber built structures primarily, and since it's nonstructural, it does not mean timber, but it's in code as a single story. … The code that we'll focus on is the minimally viable requirements so we can get the first version approved for commercial [use]. In a commercial case, they are typically multistory buildings. You have other requirements depending on where it's used, like a kitchen environment would be different than a residential living space or a factory.

AR: What are your predictions for the hemp building industry in 2023?

HG: I think 2023 is the year. … So by 2023, it's possible that the farm bill will be influenced by [Hemp Exemption], which will result in making it easier for farmers. The big message is that … Liberate Hemp sends a signal to go ahead and build those processing mills. I'm planning to start a financing process here in New York to get a mill built so I can write down all the details and share it with the other states. We're going to likely focus on private investors because they move like 10 times faster than state organizations.

AR: Is there anything that I missed or you think would be beneficial to add?

HG: The main message for the near term, like less than a one-month window, is pointing people toward that Hemp Exemption, finding it, signing it from a national level and then joining the USHBA so that we can work together to strengthen the industry.

Editor’s note: This interview has been slightly edited for style, length and clarity.