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In With the Old: Hemp House, the First Project of a Young Studio in the Catskills


In With the Old: Hemp House, the First Project of a Young Studio in the Catskills

August 18, 2023

The first house Brittany and Jordan Weller saved was in Houston.

The couple—she a teacher from Houston, he from Vancouver, and working in the film industry—fell in love with an early 1900s folk-Victorian when they moved to the city from NYC. “It was a small two-bedroom single-story pier-and-beam house we loved dearly, so much so that we undertook the time-intensive task of having it designated a historic landmark to prevent it from ever being demolished,” Jordan writes to us. “Houston, like many big cities throughout North America, is notorious for irreparably cutting ties with the past by tearing down historic homes and buildings in the name of new development, often cookie-cutter structures made with mass-produced, chemically laden materials that need repair shortly after completion due to the fact that they are built with speed and profit as priorities instead of quality and mindfulness.”

Thanks to their efforts, the couple’s own house stayed standing, but the relentless demolition and quick-builds cropping up around them were antithetical to the environment they wanted to live in—and raise kids in. “We felt a longing for nature for us and our two sons (Noah, now four years old, and Theo, now two years old),” Jordan writes. The couple set their sights on the Catskills, initially looking to built their own straw-bale house. Instead, their search brought them something unexpected: an abandoned 1930s cabin in the Schoharie Valley, now called Hemp House—and their own design studio, Earth to People.

“The experience of seeing home after home being razed to the ground in Houston left a searing impression. Earth to People was really born with the Hemp House, meant to function as the antithesis of the ‘out with the old; mentality we witnessed—a studio that looks to the past in order to find a better way forward and questions the standards in current building practices.”

And the process of salvaging the wood-clad cabin with slow, eco practices was not extravagant cost-wise. “Despite the rising cost of construction and materials, Hemp House was done on a relatively modest budget, favoring reuse, locally sourced supplies and materials (Eastern White pine, Eastern Cedar, fieldstone from our property), and mindful upgrades where needed,” Jordan reports.

Let’s have a look around the second house they couple has saved—with plans to stay.

Photography courtesy of Capture:Catskills.

the couple perched temporarily in albany county while they searched for the rig 17
Above: The couple perched temporarily in Albany County while they searched for the right place to land—”something that spoke to us; a place to set down roots and create a reflective getaway that invites you to relax, unwind, and recharge within the canopy of nature,” Jordan writes. Eventually, they found a spot with promise: a wooden cabin dating to 1932.

The house that would become ours showed up for sale, and while the photos didn’t do it justice, there was a plethora of intriguing details that sparked interest: genuine pine tongue-and-groove wood walls, exposed beams, oak and pine floors, and an original fieldstone fireplace, sharing certain affinities with JB Blunk’s house,” Jordan writes. Then there was the surrounding landscape. “Nestled within the mountain range in between five state forests and perched gently beside Catskill Creek, there was an immense sense of the untouched, the rawness of nature waiting to be both explored and reflected.”

the house had been abandoned for several years and had dilapidated wood siding  18
Above: The house had been abandoned for several years and had dilapidated wood siding and a sagging wood porch. Rather than reaching for chemical-laden materials that off-gas, Jordan and Brittany prioritized local materials and age-old practices. The exterior of the house is done not in shou sugi ban but in yakimatsu (“burned pine”). Jordan explains the difference: “Shou sugi ban typically means  ‘charred cedar board’. We opted for pine as it grew on the East Coast, whereas cedar is typically from the West Coast or brought in from Asia, making pine the more sustainable/mindful choice for us based on our geographic location.” The technique, Jordan says, provides fire and weather resistance and protects the home from decay and insects.

Jordan charred the wood himself over a span of weeks in a field near the house, “first creating a prism with three boards placed upright to form a smokestack, then using tinder to ignite the wood before dousing it with water. As there wasn’t any running water in the house during this time, I utilized the creek on our property to fill metal buckets. The process was slow, almost meditative—the opposite of some of the modern manufacturing techniques where wood is charred using automated machines and propane.” The couple’s two sons then helped with the last step: applying a natural tung oil finish.

inside, the house was in rough shape. &#8\2\20;the vast majority of the uti 19
Above: Inside, the house was in rough shape. “The vast majority of the utilities didn’t work, and there was a lot of furniture left over from the previous owner, including a large wooden writing desk filled with topographic maps of the local terrain,” Jordan writes. “We would later discover the previous owner graduated from West Point with honors and became a cartographer, mountaineer, and environmental engineer with the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation.” Jordan and Brittany were able to work with the cabin’s existing bones and materials, even salvaging the rusted metal roof and gifting it to a neighbor for use on an outbuilding.
one major change is invisible but gives the house its name: the addition of zer 20
Above: One major change is invisible but gives the house its name: the addition of zero-carbon plant-based hemp insulation. “Hemp as a form of insulation is still relatively novel in the U.S., raising eyebrows from contractors and neighbors alike,” Jordan writes. “As such, I sourced it from Quebec, just beyond the New York border, where Nature Fibres, the first company in North America to specialize in the industrial production of hemp insulation, is based.”

“Beyond having a zero carbon footprint, the benefits are myriad, including the ability to regulate humidity and naturally protect against rodents and xylophagous insects (moths, termites, and ants). It’s also easy to install. When it comes to healthy and humane insulation, there’s no compromise with hemp. It’s one of the few forms of insulating a house that truly values all walks of life.” (N.B.: We did a deep dive on the many benefits of hemp in our newest book; see The Low-Impact Home for more on the subject.)

inside the house, the couple hewed to a material palette &#8\2\20;meant to  21
Above: Inside the house, the couple hewed to a material palette “meant to mirror the surrounding landscape,” the couple writes on their site, including “local Eastern pine, an Eastern white cedar shingle roof, and field stone sourced from the property itself.”

“A book I had been reading during our time in Houston was Hassan Fathy’s Architecture For The Poor,” Jordan writes. “An Egyptian architect that deserves to be studied by anyone involved in rural improvement, Fathy worked to create an indigenous environment at a minimal cost and, by doing so, to improve the economy and the standard of living in rural areas. With this in mind, we also grew increasingly aware of the harmful toxins found in building materials and became ever more passionate about harnessing nature as an ally so as to consume less energy, create less waste, nurture health, and enrich the senses.”

the fieldstone fieldstone fireplace and wood cladding are highlighted, not hidd 22
Above: The fieldstone fieldstone fireplace and wood cladding are highlighted, not hidden. On landing in the Catskills, Jordan adds, “I became intensely interested in the Indigenous communities that had called the Schoharie region home for millennia—namely the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois)—and soon discovered their ancient philosophies tied to nature and stewardship, including The Seventh Generation Principle: the belief that the decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future and beyond.”
the wood clad living area. the lighting throughout is by various artisans on et 23
Above: The wood-clad living area. The lighting throughout is by various artisans on Etsy, Jordan reports, “including SmileLampWorks, a small design team out of California that specializes in handmade lights.”
into the kitchen. 24
Above: Into the kitchen.
in an effort to avoid fossil fuels at all costs, the duo opted for energy effic 25
Above: In an effort to avoid fossil fuels at all costs, the duo opted for energy efficient electric appliances: a Smeg fridge, Forté dishwasher, and Forno range.
carpenters based out of wading river, long island, built the custom cabinetry. 26
Above: Carpenters based out of Wading River, Long Island, built the custom cabinetry.
the farmhouse sink was existing in the house and restored on site. not  d are t 27
Above: The farmhouse sink was existing in the house and restored on site. Not pictured are the electric cast-iron radiators, “selected intentionally to match the look and feel appropriate to the era of the house,” Jordan says. The couple sourced them from Hudson Reed.
even the plumbing was fitted mindfully. &#8\2\20;we didn&#8\2\17;t want 28
Above: Even the plumbing was fitted mindfully. “We didn’t want to hide the veins,” the duo writes on their site, “meaning we wanted the water lines that draw up water from the well beside the creek to be a feature of the house, so we chose exposed copper piping throughout, meant to patina and live in the space.” The sink is a previously owned Kohler Greenwich 18″ White Wall Mounted Bathroom Sink.
the couple sourced the cast iron bath tub from the historic albany foundat 29
Above: The couple sourced the cast-iron bath tub from the Historic Albany Foundation, a non-profit architectural salvage warehouse. Says Jordan: “It’s an invaluable resource for historic property owners and green-minded individuals to source hard-to-find, period-appropriate parts, and items to reuse, recycle, and re-purpose.”
the verdict, post renovation? &#8\2\20;beyond the earthy aromas that fill t 30
Above: The verdict, post-renovation? “Beyond the earthy aromas that fill the spaces and are enjoyed and remarked on by visitors (charred wood, hemp insulation, plant-based stains and resins), the biggest effect of the renovation was the peace of mind that comes from finally being in a house where you’re not concerned about building materials that off-gas harmful toxins,” Jordan writes. “It felt like we had gone back in time, to a simpler era of construction, when straw-filled walls and wood sheathing provided sound reduction and warmth instead of foam and sheetrock, embracing the house in an innate warmth not found in human-made, synthetic materials.”
and the move to start their own studio with what they&#8\2\17;d learned? &a 31
Above: And the move to start their own studio with what they’d learned? “There was a desire to take the utmost responsibility for our small corner of creation, to bring our home into alignment with our deepest beliefs: transforming the spaces we inhabit into living examples of the world we wish to see. Earth to People is, in essence, an attempt to answer nature’s call to wake up, read the writing on the wall, and treat the planet purposefully better.”

For more, head to Earth to People.

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Frequently asked questions

What is the Hemp House?

The Hemp House is a sustainable, eco-friendly home constructed using hempcrete, a mixture of hemp hurds and lime binder.

Where is the Hemp House located?

The Hemp House is located in the Catskills region, New York, USA.

Who designed the Hemp House?

The Hemp House was designed by Earth to People Studio, an architectural firm specializing in sustainable design.

What are the main features of the Hemp House?

Some of the main features of the Hemp House include its energy efficiency, superior insulation, and ability to regulate humidity levels.

What is hempcrete made of?

Hempcrete is made from the inner woody core of the hemp plant, called hurds, mixed with a lime-based binder.

Is hempcrete a sustainable material?

Yes, hempcrete is considered a sustainable material because hemp plants absorb carbon dioxide during growth and the lime binder used in production is non-toxic.

Does the Hemp House require additional insulation?

No, hempcrete provides excellent insulation properties on its own, eliminating the need for additional insulation.

What are the advantages of living in a hemp house?

Living in a hemp house has several advantages, such as improved indoor air quality, reduced energy consumption, and a smaller carbon footprint.

Can hemp houses be built anywhere?

Hemp houses can be built in most locations, as hemp can grow in a variety of climates and soil types.

Is the Hemp House resistant to pests?

Yes, hempcrete is naturally resistant to pests, mold, and even fire, making it a durable and safe building material.

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