It all began with a concept from a group of West Australian families who wanted to live in a beautiful urban precinct designed to give rise to a community and provide a visual connection with their neighbours.
The dream became reality for residents of Denmark’s ‘hempire’ after moving into their eco-development in September.
The village features 12 dwellings built using a unique product called hempcrete, on a block of land located just a stone’s throw from the centre of town.
Cutting-edge solar technology powers the site which has a design life of more than 100 years and an energy rating of 9.2 stars.
Project manager Paul Llewellyn first had the idea for the community five years ago and was now enjoying life as a resident.
It all started with a vision
The group wanted to combine the resources of different families and build the highest quality homes with an environmental design for their project, in the south coast town 400 kilometres south of Perth.
“This is co-housing or collaborative housing,” Mr Llewellyn said.
“We had the opportunity to design and build from the bottom up so there were a lot of boxes we could tick.
“We also wanted to build with an alternative building material — we didn’t want to use mud brick or rammed earth or some of these insulated structural panels.
“We wanted to look for a totally natural, high-performance material.”
That material turned out to be a product called hempcrete.
The benefits of hemp
Hempcrete is a combination of hemp aggregate, water and a lime-based binder.
According to Mr Llewellyn, the material was very insulating, resistant to fire and even sequestered carbon dioxide for the life of the building.
“We are pretty sure this is the biggest hempcrete construction project in Australia,” he said.
“I’m told from our international connections that it might be the biggest hemp construction built in the southern hemisphere at the moment.
“It’s a material that’s been used for centuries to build homes in Japan and they have rediscovered the construction methods in Europe and in France, where they never banned the growing of industrial hemp.
“Those walls are highly insulating, they protect the timber because of the lime, they don’t get eaten by white ants, they don’t burn and it’s an acoustic material.”
Mr Llewellyn said the material was also very resistant to heat.
“You can put a blowtorch to this material and it doesn’t transfer heat and it doesn’t burn,” Mr Llewellyn said.
“The houses are very well sealed, so you don’t get intrusion of embers into the structure.
“If anyone was going to build a house out of hempcrete on a bush block, I think they would feel very safe in their homes and that’s what we think should be a benchmark in Australia.”
While the hempcrete was a major performance feature of the development, the buildings featured other leading technologies to form a highly sustainable residence.
The entire village block is passive solar in design, using the sun’s energy for heating and cooling.
The windows are uPVC double glazed, making them energy efficient, sound insulating and heat resistant.
“We bank our rainwater and it comes back reticulated to the houses,” Mr Llewellyn said.
“We measure the flow of the water and all data is logged in the central plant room.
“We also have a single Solar PV system with battery storage which is one of the most advanced technical solar systems in WA at the moment.”
Mr Llewellyn said a grey water recycling system would soon be established.
“There is a whole lot of technology here that has been used to push the boundaries of sustainability,” he said.
“It’s not just the thermal performance and the built fabric [of the houses] that is the most important asset.
“What we also have is a beautifully-designed neighbourhood.”
Community and family
From within the kitchen of Mr Llewellyn’s house, he and partner Pam have a good view of the entire neighbourhood. They can see people stopping to chat and children playing.
The oldest neighbour is in her 80s and the youngest is just seven months old.
“Community arises out of really good spatial organisation,” Mr Llewellyn said.
“As soon as we moved in, we immediately had a community.
“There are even three generations of one family living in here and they’ve chosen that.”
Mr Llewellyn described the community as ‘neighbourhood watch on steroids’.
“But the houses are private — they have private courtyards and an alternative exit, so you don’t have to run into anyone all the time.”
Hemp houses are popping up all over the south west of Western Australia, and many builders are taking inspiration from the DecoHousing project in Denmark.
“There is a hempcrete house in construction on the other side of town, there’s one in Torbay and we have been supporting that family,” he said.
“There is also a project happening west of Denmark right now and we’ve been supporting them.
“We’ve demonstrated on a commercial scale that you can do this.”
That was the main challenge for Mr Llewellyn — not to build an individual house in the back woods but build a large project in the centre of town, right in front of everybody.
“Ideally, we should grow our own hemp and set up our own processing facilities,” he said.
“You could set up a fully-integrated hemp industry in WA.
“We can do it — we have the lime, we have the perfect climate for growing hemp and the skill base.
“Now, I’m proud to say, we’ve got the biggest demonstration project showing its possible.”
The project is still not complete. The community is busy transforming what was a flat building site into a lush Garden of Eden.
“We are taking our time,” Mr Llewellyn said.
“It took five years to build from concept, and it’s going to take a few years to landscape this place and turn in back into a productive garden.”