Nick, who lives in Baswick, near Brandesburton started growing hemp in 2002 as an alternative crop and a combination of the severe East Yorkshire floods in 2007 and changing family circumstances led to his visionary building project.
Explaining how it began, Nick said: “We were looking for a break crop and had tried borage and lupins, among other things, then we tried hemp, and it just fitted, growing it bi-annually with wheat.”
After obtaining the necessary licences from the police; as hemp is part of the cannabis family, Nick began growing his unusual crop. When the farm was hit by the 2007 floods, Nick stopped growing potatoes and instead grew more hemp, increasing from 25 acres to 300 acres.
To make the switch pay, he built a piece of machinery which could cut and chop hemp into five shorter sections for harvesting. The hemp was then sent off to a firm in Essex where it was processed.
But in 2009 the family reached a turning point when all the hemp crop they had stored in a shed set on fire.
Nick said: “It was a difficult time. We had to decide to take the insurance money and do something else, or carry on with the hemp and do it on a greater scale.”
He decided to purchase a processing unit which enables him to process hemp on site.
“The machine takes the hemp straw and separates the fibre on the outside from the ‘shiv’ or woody core. The fibres mainly go towards making loft insulation and mattresses, and the woody core is used for animal bedding and briquettes for wood-burning stoves.”
But it was the use of hemp as a building material that Nick was keen to investigate.
“We knew that hemp can be mixed with a lime mortar to build properties which are really well insulated and breathable.”
When Nick’s parents wanted to convert a barn into a single storey home, Nick had the perfect opportunity to use hemp as a building product.
“Neither me nor Mike Turner, the local builder who worked with me, had built with it before, so we learnt as much as we could about the product before we started and we were really pleased with how it turned out.”
The project saw Nick, his wife Helen and three sons inherit the family farmhouse.
“Originally it’d been two cottages and over the years it had been patched up and added to and so needed improvement. We called in an architect and the most viable option seemed to be to pull it down and re-build an eco-hemp house.”
The house was demolished in 2013 and the five bedroom new build was finished in April this year.
“This was a much larger project and it was a learning curve, getting the mix of hemp and lime binder right.”
The house has an air filtration and heat recovery system, and a biomass boiler which heats the water and the underfloor heating.
“Because the hemp walls keep the humidity constant, it’s a better environment to live in; we also don’t need a plastic membrane in the walls. Hemp’s an excellent insulator and the walls keep the house cool in summer and warm in winter, so we don’t need any fires, log burners or even radiators.”
Nick has even built his own walk-in fridge out of hemp and installed air conditioning to keep it cool. Warm air from the fridge outflows into the utility room and is re-used to dry clothes.
Architect Dave Ettridge said: “This house is true high-quality, low-carbon living. The hemp acts as a carbon sink as it locks the carbon up for the life of the dwelling. This is hugely different to brick and block that are very carbon intensive.”