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The Growth of Hemp Lime as a Natural Building Method

By Hemp-Lime, Issue 63, Walls One Comment

by Tom Woolley

Ed Note:  More in-depth information on hemp lime will be in Issue #64 due out in July.

Hemp Lime wall immediately after shuttering has been removed

Hemp lime wall immediately after shuttering has been removed

When Rachel Bevan and I did the research that led to the publication of Hemp Lime Construction in 2006-7 (IHS BRE Press ISBN 978-1-84806-033-3) we had a fairly good idea of the location of every building using hempcrete in the UK and Ireland. Seven years or so later it is impossible to keep track of the use of this remarkable composite building material as it has become commonplace in the UK. This is good news because it is evidence of the widespread acceptance of this excellent sustainable way of building. However once such an innovative form of construction becomes so widely used there is also a risk of careless and poorly supervised construction, detailing and specification if it is used by people who  expect it to behave like ‘conventional’ materials.  Fortunately a new book : The Hempcrete Book: Designing and building with hemp lime will soon be available . By Alex Sparrow and Will Stanwix it will be published by Green Books (ISBN: 978 0 85784 120 9 )*** and will set out guidance for best practice in building construction for hemp lime

Hemp Lime construction is a method for creating a natural “concrete” which provides a solid wall system either cast around or within a timber frame structure. The composite uses small pieces of hemp shiv or hurd, which is the chopped up woody core of the plant and then mixed with water and a special lime binder mix. It is incredibly strong almost as soon as it is cast into formwork or sprayed onto permanent shuttering. The formwork can be removed almost straight away or left on for 12 hours before casting the next lift. It then takes a couple of weeks to dry out and longer to gain its full strength. Sceptics often ask, “why use hemp, and why not use wood chips or straw?” people often say (there is an inbuilt prejudice because of its relationship to Marijuana). The best way to convince such people is for a practical demonstration and it is possible to see straight away the strength of the composite. Hemp is much tougher and can cope with moisture better than other cellulose materials.

Prefabricated Hemp Lime Wall

Prefabricated Hemp Lime Wall

The resulting composite provides a solid wall with superb air tightness capabilities and very good insulation. Its density of 300-400 kg/m3 is strong but light and contains air pockets in the tubular hemp plant structure giving a “u”value of about 0.2 for a 300mm thick wall. (Lambda 0.06/mK). In practice the thermal performance of hemp lime, or hempcrete as it is often called, is enhanced by its thermal mass and thus the actual performance of a building is often much better than predicted by the abstract thermal resistance figures. Hemp Lime also has the benefit of being full breathable and hygroscopic so that humidity is controlled. Because of this it has been adopted by major commercial food and wine storage companies* to insulate storage warehouses as the walls provide a stable temperature and indoor climate without the need for heating, cooling or air conditioning. Hemp lime insulating walls have also been used by the British Musuem for storing special artifacts.

Hundreds of social housing schemes and one-off private houses have been built using hemp lime and it has also been used in major public and educational buildings, 5 or 6 storeys high.

Completed apartment building in Letchworth, England built with hempcrete

Completed apartment building in Letchworth, England built with hempcrete

Hemp lime is versatile so it can be used as an infill in multi-storey construction, in floors and roofs, as a renovating or insulating plaster and as an external render for straw bale buildings and other eco forms of construction.

Supply of materials has not been fully sorted out yet. Hemp shiv or hurd is readily available but not always in the right place so it has to be transported from processing factories where the hemp fibre is stripped off the plant. The hemp fibre is a valuable crop with a thousand uses, so the shiv used for building is almost just a by-product. Making or sourcing the lime binder is also tricky. There are a range of proprietary products available such as Tradical, Batichanvre and recently Ciment Prompt [French]. These are not always available from local suppliers of building materials. It is possible to mix up your own binder but it is essential to use the right materials with careful quality control. The binder is largely lime based, mainly hydraulic lime but some hydrated lime and or cement is also added. There have been a few “cowboys” who have been supplying hemp and lime materials that are not fit for purpose and this has led to a few building failures. Their main mistake has been to use cheap hydrated lime, often too much water and hemp fibre as well as shiv. One company even says it is more ecological to use the whole of the hemp plant even though this invariably leads to a soggy mess. We are working hard to establish proper standards. Sadly the internet gives people partial information about how to build with hemp lime and makes them into overnight experts.

Social Housing Scheme in Northern Ireland built with hempcrete (Photo Oaklee Housing Association)

Social Housing Scheme in Northern Ireland built with hempcrete (Photo Oaklee Housing Association)

In some ways hempcrete is easy to use and is even tolerant of misuse, within limits, but this means that there are many dangers and possible pitfalls. On the other hand, once you become aware of its advantages it is hard to find another way of building walls, (and possibly floors and roofs), that can meet so many of today’s demands of sustainable, healthy and energy efficient construction so successfully. As pressure builds to meet ever more strenuous energy efficiency targets, many weird and wonderful building techniques and materials have appeared in the market.  While some mainstream architects and clients have embraced hemp lime quite quickly the construction industry is still largely wedded to synthetic petrochemical based methods of construction that contain many risks both to the health of building occupants and the planet. Valuable and non-renewable fossil fuel resources produce significant CO2 emissions even though ironically they are being used to reduce such emissions! Recent research shows that many so-called low or zero energy buildings consume more energy in producing the materials and construction (embodied energy) than is saved in the lifetime of the building. These synthetic quick fix approaches to building also present serious fire hazards, emit toxic chemicals. Leading to poor indoor air quality and pollute the planet when disposed of in landfill. Despite this the devotees of “Passiv Hause” in the UK tend to use synthetic materials, though there are a handful of Passiv Haus projects in Ireland that have been built with hemp.

Hempcrete is not only a low embodied energy material, it locks up CO2 in the building fabric. While land is required to grow it, hemp is also a valuable food crop and is used as an intercrop between wheat and other cereals. Those who are fixated on the ‘techy’ quick fix synthetic solutions, disparage hempcrete as being too slow to construct and dry out and not giving good enough thermal performance.  However even the most deeply prejudiced, once they actually experience hempcrete, are soon won over. Despite the obstacles to using hempcrete, its rise has been rapid as it almost sells itself as a solution to producing environmentally friendly buildings. Hemp lime is widely used in France and recent workshops in Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Poland etc. have led to projects in many of these countries.

Hempcrete wall following removal of shuttering showing timber frame

Hempcrete wall following removal of shuttering showing timber frame

In many ways hempcrete is a touchstone to the adoption of a sustainable and environmentally responsible approach to building and renovation because it provides a key to solving so many problems that other materials and buildings systems cannot cope with. As hemp can be grown in so many parts of the world, providing it is not too arid, it can be a solution to insulating buildings in poorer developing regions as well as the gas guzzling western countries. Hemp provides food, oil, clothing, paper and many other products as well as building insulation and weather protection. Hempcrete in conjunction with timber, as long as it is used carefully, should last much longer than many of the petrochemical based greenwash materials being used today.

Designing and building with hempcrete is a real demonstration of a total commitment to ‘saving the planet” and protecting the health and wellbeing of building occupants. It’s an easy commitment to make because hempcrete is affordable, great fun to build with and ticks all the boxes that envirocrats can come up with.

*Companies like The Wine Warehouse, Marks and Spencers etc.

Tom Woolley was Professor of Architecture at Queens University Belfast from 1991 to 2007 and now works for Rachel Bevan Architects. He created the first strawbale building, in Crossgar County Down 1997, to receive full planning and building regulations approval in the UK  and has gone on to be one of the pioneers of hemp lime construction. He has written a chapter about hemp construction of the new edition of The Art of Natural Building (Chelsea Green) to be published later this year. He will be running a workshop on hemp lime construction at the Endeavour Centre** in Ontario November 1 and 2, 2014 and lecturing at Ryerson University in Toronto on October 30th 2014.

Tom is part of a group of architects and builders that are establishing a hemp lime association in the UK.  He is also on the European board of Natureplus, a certification system for ecological materials.

An example of a hemp lime building that can be rented as a holiday cottage can be found at  There are links to some technical details and a video showing the construction process.

 ** Contact Chris Magwood for details

***The Hempcrete Book: Designing and building with hemp lime
by William Stanwix and Alex Sparrow 
ISBN: 9780857842244 Full colour Hardback 272 Pages Publication October 2014 
Pre-order The Hempcrete Book through and all good high-street and online retailers 
To qualify for 20% off the cover price, join the pre-publication mailing list at


Tadelakt Lime Finishes

By Issue 63, Plaster, Water No Comments

By Ryan Chivers

Tadelakt SinkWith the modern development of natural building technologies, there has been a resurgence and rediscovery of ancient and traditional methods of plasterwork.  For over 10,000 years, in nearly every culture, humans have used lime as an applied material that serves as both function and decoration.  From the frescoes of the Italian Renaissance to the sculpted bas relief masks of the ancient Mayans, the chemistry, durability and elegant beauty of lime has, until modern times, been a staple of art and architecture the world over.  In the twentieth century, builders have all but forgotten how to work with earth and lime based mortars, and plasters. Thanks to the efforts of passionate builders, craftspeople, architects and designers, and many within the natural building community, these old ways are being revived and put into practice once again.  Collectively we are relearning how to successfully formulate and apply traditional plasters, using locally sourced materials and modern tools.

The rich and mysterious culture of Morocco offers one example of an ancient lime plaster art, nearly lost, which is now enjoying a rebirth – Tedelakt

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Earth Plastering Guidelines for Finishes – TLS #43

By Bales, Building Science, Plaster, Technical, Walls One Comment

This article appeared in TLS #43.

by Gernot Minke – University of Kassel, Germany

Note: This article is excerpted from Earth Construction Handbook (by Gernot Minke, WIT Press, Southhampton, Boston, 2000) which contains further information about weather protection, physical and mechanical properties of clayey soils, treatments and additives and modern earth construction techniques worldwide.

blocks1) General. Earth plasters mainly consist of sand and silt with only as much clay as is necessary (usually between 5% to 12%) for developing their adhesive and binding forces. It is difficult to state what the proportions of an ideal earth plaster should be, because not only does the proportion of clay, silt and sand influence the properties, but also the grain size distribution of the sand fraction itself, the water content, the type of clay, the method of preparation and the additives. In order to test the appropriateness of earth plasters, samples with varied compositions should be tested. Earth plasters stick very well not only on earth surfaces, but also on brick, concrete and stone surfaces, if the surface is rough enough.

2) Preparation of substrate. As earth plaster does not chemically react with the substrate, the surface has to be sufficiently rough in order to develop a good physical bond. A good method of getting a strong bond is to wet it sufficiently until the surface is soft, and than scratch diagonally patterned grooves with a small rake or a nail trowel. In order to ensure that the plaster adheres better, it is also possible to use latching in the form of galvanised wire mesh, plastic mesh, reed mats, and such on the substrate before plastering.

3) Composition of earth plaster.

3.1 General. In order to get earth plaster free of shrinkage cracks, the following points must be kept in mind:

  • The earth should have enough coarse sand.
  • Animal or human hair, coconut or sisal fibres, cut straw or hay should be added (however, too much of these additives reduce the ability of the plaster to adhere to the substrate).
  • For interior plastering, sawdust, cellulose fibres, chaff of cereal grains or similar particles can also be used as additives.
  • In order to develop enough binding force, the adhesive forces of the clay minerals should be sufficiently activated by adequate water and movement.
  • When the plaster sticks to a sliding metal trowel held vertically, yet is easily flicked away, the correct consistency has been achieved.

In order to test the characteristics of an earth plaster, a simple adhesion test can be carried out. The plaster to be tested is applied 2cm(3/4-inch) thick to the flat surface of an upright burnt brick. The plaster has to stick to the brick until it is totally dry, which might take two to four days.

If it falls off in one piece by itself, as seen in the left sample of fig. 3-1, it contains too much clay and should be thinned with coarse sand. If it falls off in portions after the sample is hammered on the floor like the second sample in fig. 3-1, then it has insufficient binding force and should be enriched with clay. If the plaster sticks to the brick but shows shrinkage cracks, like the third sample in fig. 3-1, it is too clayey and should be slightly thinned with coarse sand. However, it can be used without thinning as the first layer of a two-layer plaster. If the surface shows no cracks and the plaster does not come off when hammered, as in the fourth sample in fig. 3-1, then the sample might be adequate. In this case, it is advisable to make a larger test about 1x2m(40×80-inches) high on the actual wall. If shrinkage cracks now occur, this mixture needs either to be thinned with coarse sand or mixed with fibres.

3.2 Exposed exterior earth plasters. Exposed exterior plasters have to be seasonably weather resistant or must be given perfect weatherproof coating. It is important in cold climates that the plasters together with their coating have a low vapour diffusion resistance, so that water condensed in the wall can be easily transported to the exterior. The exterior plaster must be more elastic than its ground in order to meet thermic and hygric influences without cracking. In general, for cold climates, an external earth plaster is not recommended unless sufficient roof overhang, plinth protection and good surface coating can be assured.

Since plastered wall edges are very easily damaged, they should either be rounded or lipped with a rigid element. In extreme climates when the elasticity of large expanses of flat plaster is insufficient to cope with the influences of weather, vertical and horizontal grooves filled with elastic sealants are recommended.

table3.3 Interior earth plasters. Interior plasters are less problematic. Usually they create no problem if they have fine shrinkage cracks because they can be covered with a coat of paint. Dry earth plaster surfaces can be easily smoothed by wetting and being worked upon with a brush or felt trowel.

If the surface of the walls demands a plaster thicker than 15mm(5/ 8-inch), it should be applied in two layers, with the ground layer containing more clay and coarse aggregates than the second layer. If the ground layer gets shrinkage cracks, it is not problematic, but could actually help by providing a better bond to the final layer of plaster.

Adding rye flour improves the surface against dry and moist abrasion. The author has proved by testing that this resistance can also be built up by adding casein glue made of one part hydraulic lime and four to six parts fat-free quark, borax, urea, sodium gluconate and shredded newspaper (which provides cellulose fibre and glue). The mixes in the accompanying chart worked well.

Lime reacts with the casein within the fat-free quark forming a chemical waterproofing agent. A similar reaction is obtained with lime and borax (which is contained in the shredded newspaper). Sodium gluconate acts as a plasticizer so that less water needs to be mixed for preparation (thereby reducing the shrinkage). Urea raises the compressive and the tensile bending strength, especially with silty soils.

Waste paper shreds lead to better workability and reduce shrinkage. The mixes B, C and E showed best workability. When using mixes A and E, it is preferable to first mix the casein glue and the shredded newspaper together with the water, and then, after an hour, add earth and sand.

With all mixes, it was found that the final smoothing of the surface, which was done by a felt trowel, was best done after several hours or even a day.

4) Guidelines for plastering earth walls. As pure earth plaster does not react chemically with the substrate, it might be necessary to treat the substrate suitably so that sufficient bonding occurs. The following guidelines should be kept in mind:

1. The surface to be plastered has to be dry, so no more shrinkage occurs.

2. All loose material should be scraped off the surface.

3. The surface should be sufficiently rough and, if necessary, moistened and grooved or the mortar joint chamfered, as described in section 2.

4. Before plastering, the substrate should be sufficiently moistened so that the surface softens and swells and the plaster permeates the soft layer.

5. The plaster should be thrown with heavy impact (slapped on) so that it permeates the outer layers of the ground and also achieves a higher binding force due to the impact.

6. If the plaster has to be more than 10-15mm(3/8-5/8-inch) thick, it should be applied in two or even three layers in order to avoid shrinkage cracks.

7. To reduce shrinkage cracks while drying, the mortar should have sufficient amount of coarse sand, as well as fibres or hair.

8. To improve the surface hardness, cow dung, lime, casein or other additives should be added to the top layer.

9. In order to provide surface hardness and resistance against wet abrasion, the surface should be finished with a coat of paint[Editor’s Note: breathable paint].

10. While using plasters, the change of physical properties caused by additives and coatings should be kept in mind especially with respect to vapour diffusion resistance.

decorative5) Sprayed plaster. A sprayable lightweight earth plaster with high thermal insulation containing shredded newspaper was successfully developed by the author in 1984. This plaster can be applied in a single layer up to 30mm(1-1/4-inch) thick using an ordinary mortar pump. In order to get a shorter curing period, some high-hydraulic lime and gypsum was added to the mixture.

balls6) Thrown plaster. Fig 6-1 shows how a traditional African technique, which consists of throwing earth balls on a wall, has been adapted. Here, this technique is used on a wood-wool board for a winter garden wall. In order to increase the adhesion, bamboo dowels were hammered halfway into the board.

7) Wet formed plaster. As loam plaster retains its plastic state for a long time and is not corrosive to the hands like lime or cement plasters, it is an ideal material for moulding with the hands. Fig. 7-1 shows an example of an exterior loam wall stabilised by a lime-casein finish.

Professor Dr.-Ing. Gernot Minke is a professor at Kassel University and a consultant structural engineer since 1967. He has a keen interest in earthen structures and low-cost, low-impact housing. He numerous publications include the Earth Construction Handbook (WIT Press, Southhampton, Boston, 2000). Contact: <[email protected]>

This article was submitted by Friedemann Mahlke, a student of Dr. Minke and a straw-bale builder and researcher. Contact <[email protected]>