Once a week, nearly all of us roll our garbage cans out to the curb for pickup. A simple, mundane ritual that marks the passing of time, and if the refuse could speak, it would be able to tell the world just what we had been up to for the last seven days.
Then the garbage truck arrives and allows us to wash our hands of all our waste quickly and conveniently.
But where does it all go?
Most garbage goes to a landfill, where the lion’s share will nearly never biodegrade. While our personal contributions to the heap might be small, our cumulative impact is tremendous and, sadly, if not surprisingly, highly deleterious to the environment.
For Wood River Valley local Mattie Mead, ever-growing landfills became a problem that captivated and motivated him, guiding the course for his latest entrepreneurial endeavor: Hempitecture, which creates eco-friendly building materials from the natural fibers of the hemp plant.
Mead’s formal studies at Hobart and William Smith colleges focused on environmental science, architecture and entrepreneurship. All three of these disciplines converged in Hempitecture. His passion for building and the environment led him to discover that the waste from the building industry makes up roughly one-quarter of all the waste in landfills today.
Beyond the staggering amount of waste generation, the building industry also emits 40% of the world’s greenhouse gases, more than even the fossil fuel-guzzling transportation sector. Mead’s search for solutions to the glut of refuse created in the building process led him to industrial hemp, a plant widely believed to be the strongest natural fiber on Earth.
Once a mainstay American crop in the 18th and 19th centuries, hemp was effectively banned in the U.S. by the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. By conflating industrial hemp cultivation with marijuana production, the government negatively stigmatized the hemp plant while simultaneously halting ongoing innovations in its use. Though technically sharing familial ties with the plants that produce marijuana, the species of hemp used industrially contains mere trace amounts of the psychoactive compound THC and boasts a wide range of uses, including food, beauty products, textiles and even fuel.
The recent passage of the Farm Bill in 2018 lifted the ban on industrial hemp cultivation. It paved the way for entrepreneurs like Mead to continue innovating its processing and application, lending hemp’s strength and sustainability to various industries.
Hempitecture began to take shape in 2013, just outside New York City, where Mead started to develop the first hemp-based building product he called Hempcrete. As the name suggests, Hempcrete offers builders, engineers and architects an alternative to standard concrete, highlighting the mindboggling strength of hemp fibers.
With initial tests proving successful, the time came to find Hempcrete’s first real-world building project. The opportunity to build an entire building out of Hempcrete arrived in 2015 when Matt Gershater, Hailey resident and owner of Mountain Adventure Tours, called Mead looking for someone to create a truly sustainable building at his BaseCamp property near Copper Basin.
Beyond providing the perfect chance to put Hempcrete to the test, the project also introduced Mead to the magic of Idaho’s wilderness, forever altering the future of both he and his enterprise. After completing what became the Borah Basin Building, Mead and Hempitecture moved their operations to the Wood River Valley, intent on continuing to grow hemp product awareness and revolutionize the building industry.
Hempcrete initially solidified the company’s success out of the gates. Mead and the Hempitecture team trained more than 60 builders in its use. In 2018, Mead partnered with Tommy Gibbons as a cofounder and Hempitecture’s first chief innovation officer. Gibbons was instrumental in developing the company’s next great product: HempWool, a green alternative to familiar pink fiberglass insulation.
Long-serving as the building industry’s preferred choice of insulation material, the cotton candy-like substance offers excellent insulative properties. Still, it is also highly harmful to the skin and respiratory system and will live indefinitely in landfills. HempWool provides builders and homeowners with the same insulation without any drawbacks. Created from woven hemp fibers, HempWool is completely safe to touch and handle.
In the future, when it is replaced, HempWool’s natural plant fibers readily biodegrade as one would expect. This combination of performance and sustainability has quickly made HempWool Mead and Gibbons’ flagship product.
Though many companies frivolously ascribe words like ‘natural,’ ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘sustainable’ to their products, hoping to ‘greenwash’ them and appeal to consumers’ collective desire to do less harm to the world, Hempitecture’s commitment to the environment runs deep. It is the guiding light in everything they do.
So, when the time came to scale up production, Mead and Gibbons considered every environmental impact of their decisions. Bringing the manufacturing process closer to home offered a way to immediately reduce Hempitecture’s carbon footprint while providing jobs and an economic boost to southern Idaho.
In February of 2023, Hempitecture opened its first local manufacturing facility just over an hour south of Sun Valley, in Jerome, and is now sourcing all its raw materials from within 600 miles, a massive improvement over its initial process of importing materials from overseas. The new facility also runs entirely on renewable energy, thanks to subsidies provided through Idaho Power’s Green Power Program.
Along with the new production facility, Hempitecture has grown its team to 10 full-time roles, including the addition of Jonnie Pedersen as communications director, who highlights the support Hempitecture has received from Idaho institutions as critical to its success.
“As an ag-tech business in a very agriculturally driven economy, Hempitecture has benefited from support across the state, including the Idaho Department of Commerce, agricultural trade organizations, and rural communities as well,” Pedersen notes. “We’re also currently working with the University of Idaho to develop a fire-retardant line of products, which really goes to show the level of cooperation and collaboration that we’ve enjoyed as an Idaho-based operation.”
Changing an industry that has been doing things the same way for an extremely long time has come with its challenges. However, the team at Hempitecture never misses the opportunity to evangelize the benefits of hemp-based materials.
“There’s definitely been some reluctance in the building industry to adopt new products,” Pedersen says. “However, once a builder tries our products, they can quickly appreciate the unique advantages hemp can deliver.”
As the world continues to contend with climate change, Hempitecture’s success and future potential offer a bright spot and a reason for optimism. Driven by innovation in their mission, Mead, Gibbons, Pedersen and the rest of the Hempitecture team haven’t lost sight of their goal to positively impact the environment through everything they do. Their work serves as an inspiration and a reminder that extraordinary change can be driven by small groups of extraordinarily committed individuals.