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Building with Hemp Raises Climate Awareness

Hemp Artist Gives Classic Fairy Tale a New Ending

Climate artist Kyla Hill depicts problems of contemporary building methods like carbon emissions, long-term pollution in waterways and oceans, and the degradation of air quality in buildings.  ©Kyla Hill
Climate artist Kyla Hill depicts problems of contemporary building methods like carbon emissions, long-term pollution in waterways and oceans, and the degradation of air quality in buildings. ©Kyla Hill

Hemp textile artist Kyla L. Hill is one of a new breed of artists bringing climate change issues to the forefront of public awareness. She doesn’t content herself with mere depiction of the problem, however. Instead, she incorporates planet-friendly materials into her work, and often engages the audience in building the three-dimensional pieces that illustrate a more responsible future.


“I am a hemp textile artist,” Kyla explained in a recent interview with The Earth & I. “I mix, mold, and form hempcrete to create structures that the viewer can experience—see, touch, and interact with.”


In her self-directed carbon literacy studies, Kyla, who lives in the Washington, D.C., area, realized that contemporary construction and building methods account for some 40% of carbon emissions. These methods can also cause long-term pollution in waterways and oceans (through microplastics) and degrade the air quality in the buildings, due to unhealthy toxic emissions or the proliferation of mold.


Research led Kyla to discover an alternative material called “hempcrete,” which utilizes the fibrous hemp “hurd” or “shive,” the woody core of the hemp plant. When shredded into small pieces and combined with limestone and water, it creates a low-density, non-toxic building material that can be formed into bricks or used with a wooden skeleton to form walls or other structures.


Production of “Three Little Pigs” at the Albert Amusement Hall, Leichhardt, Australia.  ©Public Domain
Production of “Three Little Pigs” at the Albert Amusement Hall, Leichhardt, Australia. ©Public Domain

A New Fairy Tale Ending


The story of the Three Little Pigs has roots in various European folktales about three pigs who each build a house to protect themselves from the big bad wolf. The first two pigs build houses out of straw and sticks, which the wolf easily blows down, but the third pig builds a house out of bricks and the wolf is unable to destroy it.


“One of my latest installations is called The 4th Pig,” Kyla said. “In it, I reimagined the fairy tale of the Three Little Pigs with a house of plastic straws, polluting the ocean, and then a house of lumber, causing deforestation. The traditional story ends with the house of brick—but [the production of] brick is responsible for greenhouse gas emissions and the use of fiberglass and drywall for insulation.”


“In my work, I introduce a fourth alternative—a life-size mini-home constructed of hempcrete, hemp wood, and recycled wood. The audience can enter it, reach out and touch and smell and experience everything.”


Youngster admires hempcrete tiles at the Unbound exhibition in Columbia, Maryland.  ©Kyla Hill
Youngster admires hempcrete tiles at the Unbound exhibition in Columbia, Maryland. ©Kyla Hill

Kyla explained that she presented the first three building methods using large-sized shadow boxes with the problematic elements pictured inside the house-shaped window cut-outs. Then, the fourth installation is a walk-in tiny house built with hempcrete and recycled wood. Visitors—especially children—can enter the actual structure and touch the material to get a visceral sense of it.


“Children who have this experience, they are the future, they will be able to dictate what materials we use in the future industries,” Kyla said.


“I really want them to interact with the hempcrete because a lot of people have never heard or realize you can build or create art with something like this,” she added. “I want them to be able to dive into the process; I walk them through it, so in this installation, the audience was able to create one of the walls for the mini-hemp home.”


The 4th Pig was selected for the 2022 UnBound exhibition of the Howard Hughes Corporation and Howard Community’s event at the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture center in central Maryland and was featured in a video showcase about the artists in the exhibit.


Kyla Hill's alternative walk-in hemp house at the Unbound exhibition. All exhibited items in the interior are made from hemp.   ©Kyla Hill
Kyla Hill's alternative walk-in hemp house at the Unbound exhibition. All exhibited items in the interior are made from hemp. ©Kyla Hill

Kyla, whose commitment to hemp is so deep that she has occasionally called herself “Hempress,” sees hemp as a valuable plant that can provide sustainability for a number of purposes beyond art. She personally incorporates hemp into her clothing choices and medicinal uses as well.


“Hemp is grown with less water than cotton and returns elements to the soil rather than draining elements from the soil,” she said. “It requires no pesticides. When you compare it to cotton, it lasts longer, doesn’t break down, and can be washed and worn with more longevity, getting softer. It’s not low quality, it’s high quality, and more sustainable than other fibers.”


“When you compare hemp to cotton, it lasts longer, doesn’t break down, and can be washed and worn with more longevity, getting softer, and is more sustainable than other fibers.”

As for housing and other buildings, Kyla noted that hempcrete “is a good insulator—the R value is much higher than regular concrete.” An article on the website concretehomes.com bears this out: “When it comes to energy efficiency, hempcrete is a great option. It has an R-value [thermal resistance] of between 2.4 and 4.8 per inch. By comparison, regular concrete only has an R-value of 0.07 to 0.52 per inch.”


Although hempcrete is not dense enough to be used for building foundations, it has other advantages.


The typical construction system incorporates a number of layers—including house wrap, board, siding, drywall, insulation. “This isn’t energy efficient. Hempcrete construction replaces all that with just wood framing and hempcrete, which replaces all the other layers,” Kyla said.


Hempcrete also has excellent air and moisture control features. Its fibrous material holds up well to settling, earthquakes, and other forces that cause cracking and collapse in typical structures, and hempcrete is naturally fire-resistant, another plus for “people and planet.”


“Artists can have a significant role in effecting climate change action.”

Artists can have a significant role in effecting climate change action, Kyla said.


As a committed climate change artist, she intentionally sources the materials she uses in her work—repurposing used wood to make her frames and finding local sources for the hempcrete ingredients—to ensure that the carbon footprint is small and contained.

Hemp artist Kyla Hill explains her climate art to young people at the Unbound exhibition in Columbia, Maryland.  ©Kyla Hill
Hemp artist Kyla Hill explains her climate art to young people at the Unbound exhibition in Columbia, Maryland. ©Kyla Hill

“As an artist, I try to lead by example,” Kyla said. “My clothing, shoes, kitchenware, and even my skateboard—are all made from hemp. I try to embody the lifestyle, and that is carried out in my medium of art.”


One of Kyla’s goals is to create a permanent installation in the Washington D.C. area that would give the visitor “a complete hemp experience, to be surrounded by hempcrete and plant life.”


“This is the happy ending,” Kyla added, referring to The 4th Pig story.


“When we build a structure that is made of not only hempcrete but also hemp wood, we are addressing the microplastic, the lumber and the modern-day building materials, and suggesting that instead, we can use hemp. This is where we see a significant change that is better for health, wellness, and the environment.”

 

For more information on Kyla Hill’s art and environmental activism, you can watch a video about her process at https://vimeo.com/768241791.


*Kate Tsubata is a freelance writer, editor, filmmaker in Landover Hills, Maryland.


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