In the lap of the Himalayas of Uttarakhand’s Pauri Garhwal district lies the hamlet of Faldakot Malla, about 35 km away from Rishikesh. Home to a little over 100 residents, the nearest motorable road from the village is a 40-minute trek, offering mountain enthusiasts a scenic escape from the commotion and chaos of metropolitan life.
Among the handful of local accommodations available in the region, a two-bedroom homestay here stands out for being among the country’s very few buildings to have predominantly used industrial hemp-based construction materials. At the Himalayan Hemp Eco Stays, by-products of the cannabis plant are featured not only in its floors, walls and roof but also a few items within its interiors.
Set up by architect couple Namrata Kandwal and Gaurav Dixit, the eco-friendly homestay has been built entirely out of ‘hemp bio aggregate lime concrete’ units. Commonly referred to as hempcrete, these blocks are made out of a mixture of hemp plant shives (branches), a lime binder, fly ash and mineral additives. With its natural composition and weather-resistant properties, hempcrete makes for reliable construction material in the state prone to natural calamities such as earthquakes, flash floods and forest fires.
“Up until 2018, we used to work with a prominent architectural firm in Delhi. We moved base here to research and promote hemp-based construction components and technology with our startup Gohemp Agroventures, which we began with three other architects,” Namrata tells The Better India.
“Himalayan Hemp Eco Stays is the first hempcrete homestay in India. The idea was to create a purely sustainable building that could serve as a proof of concept of the environmental benefits of using hempcrete. Gaurav and I have worked hard to make it all possible,” she says, adding that the couple used their savings of Rs 30 lakh to construct the homestay.
Spread over an 800 square feet area, Namrata says Himalayan Hemp Eco Stays operates on a ‘zero-energy’ model with its 3-kilowatt rooftop solar panels and a 4,000-litre underground rainwater harvesting tank, water from which is drawn using a hand pump. Treated water from a wastewater facility at the premises also helps nourish flowers and vegetables in its accompanying garden.
Since its inauguration on November 24 by Shri Trivendra Singh Rawat, former chief minister of Uttarakhand, the homestay has played host to about 10 tourists, shares Namrata. It can accommodate up to four residents at a time, for the cost of Rs 2,400 each per day, she adds.
An Earthquake, Water & Fire Resistant Haven
“We began the construction in January 2020, but the pandemic slowed down the process,” says Namrata. “We trained about a dozen local workers to develop the building components from hempcrete, which is not only a non-load-bearing construction material but also anti-bacterial.”
“Instead of traditional concrete columns, we made use of stones and muds to make the foundational frames. While the toilets were built with hempcrete masonry, the bathrooms were partitioned with a hempcrete monolithic wall. We mostly used hemp-based plaster in the process, but some minimal clay plaster was enhanced with mud and hemp fibre,” she adds.
Notably, an article by Gaurav on elaborating the benefits of hempcrete has been published by the Building Material and Technology Promotion Council, an autonomous body established by the Government of India in 1990 to implement new building material technology on a large scale.
“The material is lightweight, thus reducing the foundation cost of the structure, and making it earthquake resistant. It is an excellent moisture regulator and prevents any dampness and fungal development on wall finishes. Interestingly, hempcrete is also disliked by termites,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, Namrata says the homestay’s low-density hemp-lime roof insulation helps keep the interior warm during the winters and cool during the summer, also regulating its humidity levels. Explaining that the system works as a natural air purifier, she says, “The lime in the outdoor panels continually absorbs carbon dioxide to form calcium carbonate, which also ensures that the foundation of the building gets stronger over time.”
According to Namrata, the composition of these hempcrete blocks is such that it would ensure an adequate time of escape to occupants in case of a fire mishap. “During our trial runs of these hempcrete blocks, we realised that they are also fire-resistant [to a considerable extent]. We exposed them to a butane torch for about 40 minutes, and they didn’t catch fire. The material didn’t emit any smoke either, inhalation of which is usually the cause of death in such accidents,” she notes.
“We’ve also made use of hemp fabrics for the bedsheets, pillow covers and curtains inside the homestay, while its doors and windows have been polished with hemp seed oil,” she adds.
While the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act prohibits the sale and use of cannabis resin and flowers, it permits the use of its seeds, stems, and leaves for industrial purposes. Although hemp is a member of the cannabis Sativa family, it has less than 0.03 per cent of the substance (THC) responsible for inducing intoxication after ingestion.
The fibre obtained from hemp may be used to manufacture a host of commercial items such as textiles, pharmaceuticals, paper, biofuel and personal care products. Meanwhile, a recent amendment to the Food Safety and Standards (Food Products Standards and Food Additives) Regulations officially recognised hemp seeds and their products as a food source.
In 2018, Uttarakhand became the first state in the country to allow the commercial cultivation of industrial hemp. However, according to a study undertaken by the Archaeological Survey of India in 2016, the history of using hemp as a construction complement can be traced back to the 6th century. A historian involved in the study said that hemp was found in the composition material used to build Maharashtra’s Ellora Caves, and helped prevent the degradation of the 1,500-year-old UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Namrata points out that even farmers in Uttarakhand need to obtain a licence from their concerned district magistrate to grow hemp whose production, so far, has been undertaken on a very limited scale.
“Traditionally, farmers use a retting process to procure hemp fibre, but such facilities can only be functional in areas near water sources. Not only does this procedure involve extensive usage of water, but they also have to soak their hemp shive bundles for up to 21 days. If they don’t have access to such facilities, they end up burning the waste [after extracting the seeds],” she says.
To address this wastage, the couple set up a small processing unit about eight months ago, which makes use of a special decorticator machine that doesn’t use any water — a first for the country, she claims.
“Once you put the hemp plant in the machine, its rollers use certain mechanisms that break down its shives and separate the fibre. We processed about 3 tonnes of hemp fibre this way to use in the construction materials for our homestay,” she says.
Meanwhile, the couple’s venture has also been working with the Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs under its Affordable Sustainable Housing Accelerator (ASHA) project.
In 2019, Gohemp Agroventures was one of the five winners of the Global Housing Technology Challenge, beating as many as 70 sustainable innovators across the country to secure a grant of Rs 2.5 lakh. In 2020, it also received the best entrepreneur award at the Asian Hemp Summit in Nepal.
“For the past three years, we have been busy with extensive research and trial runs of eco-friendly building components and other sustainable mechanisms,” says Namrata. “Presently, we offer architectural consistency services, but are working towards developing an in-house manufacturing facility, too.”
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)