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Hemp insulation, a conversation with Jamie Bartley, CEO of the Unyte Group.

Author: Natalia Vasnier Published: 16th Jan 2024


Interview n°5 of the Interview Series "Meet the changemakers" with Jamie Bartley.


Background and Unyte Hemp

Untye Hemp

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

 

I am the CEO of the Unyte Group. Prior to this role and being involved in contaminated land Remediation  and waste management, I worked in a wide range of sectors. From running Ski resorts in the French Alps to managing restaurants in the hospitality sector and working in construction. 


What led you to start Unyte Group and especially Unyte Hemp? What does Unyte Hemp do?

 

Unyte Group was formed following research I was conducting into industrial hemp. My previous work in construction involved a lot of contaminated land Remediation . This is where I had my first touch point with Industrial Hemp, nine years ago. It was used to clean up heavy metal contamination in Italy, on a site that was contaminated by chromium 6. Industrial Hemp on that site was used to clean up the agricultural land that was impacted by chromium 6. 


As I was doing my research into Phytoremediation, the technical term for cleaning up soil with hemp, I realised that much more could be done with hemp crops. It was a time when microplastics came into public perception and COP26 was on the horizon. It became essential to look at the solutions that could be provided across multiple different verticals and that led to the creation of the Unyte group with Craig Brown. 


We increased our research into hemp by cultivating 240 acres over a period of three years to gather data that would be accurate to the UK market. Since then, we have been seeking investment that will allow us to scale up. 


We undertake a lot of retrofit projects, across the whole of the UK. As a result, it makes sense for us to produce carbon negative construction and insulation materials from hemp that we can then put into those projects. 

 

Manufacturing and customers


How do you manufacture the hemp blocs you use in home insulation? Where is the hemp grown? 


Unyte Hemp

At the moment we are looking to raise £60 million, which is the capital investment required into the infrastructure, which will then allow us to manufacture the blocs and insulation in the UK. 


Our bloc manufacturing partner is based in Belgium, which we currently import into the UK. Their hemp is cultivated in France and Belgium. 


Once we have raised the investment, we are looking to cultivate 35 000 acres around Leicestershire and surrounding counties. That will allow us to manufacture 5 million hempcrete blocs and 10 600 houses worth of non-woven insulation per year.  

 

Who are your target customers? 


Anyone that is involved in retrofitting in residential and commercial properties, and the new build industry. We are looking to reach a large scale and put the products into the market at the similar rates these companies are already purchasing their conventional materials. Therefore, they can have the same bio-based materials at a rather similar price range. 


What would you say to convince someone to use Hemp insulation? 


When it comes to talking about Hemp people often ask us ‘can we smoke it?’. I’ve heard that question a hundred times and the answer is no. 


There are a range of benefits to using Hempcrete blocs in retrofitting and the new build industry. There is an obvious carbon benefit as this is a product as it absorbs the carbon in the atmosphere and does not emit it back out. Hempcrete is carbon negative. 


Moreover, the thermal performance that Hemp offers compared to alternate materials is massive. Leading to the reduction of the energy requirements for the house. Therefore, you reduce the operational energy requirements and the embodied carbon from the building structure. A study highlighted this, by saying that it can reduce energy consumption and save households up to 20% on heating and cooling costs. It also improves air quality and resolves black mould problems, as the Hemp absorbs the moisture in the air.  


The production of Hemp has the benefit of improving food security, when included ine crop rotations. Research proves that winter wheat or spring barley production both increases by 16 – 18% when they follow Hemp in a crop rotation. Hemp production also improves biodiversity because farmers do not need to use pesticides or insecticides. 


No other product, that we have looked at as an alternative, can offer as many benefits as Hemp does for being a suitable performing material for the construction industry. 


Unyte Hemp

What type of structures are these Hempcrete blocs best used for? 


These blocs can be used for internal and external walling material, it is not structural, so you need a frame structure around the blocs to secure them. Internally you can finish it with a clay plaster or lime paint, which is natural and breathable. If you varnish the wall, then you will lose all the benefits of the Hemp. 


Likewise on the external features, you will need a lime render or cladding system to allow the breathability performance to be achieved. Even after being installed, the hempcrete walls continues to take the carbon out of the atmosphere, so having a natural breathable finish is essential.


What type of studies have been done about the benefits of hemp in home insulation?


The Unyte Group has a partnership with IsoHemp, which has done vast studies about the benefits of using Hemp insulation. They conducted a very detailed life cycle assessment (LCA) of the product against other more commonly used products in the industry at the moment. 


He adds that ‘We are also involved in a project called the centre for high carbon capture cropping systems funded by DEFRA and Innovate UK. It looks at carbon and biodiversity, we work on the section on fibre crops by looking at hemp and flax. The aim is to find ways to increase carbon sequestration properties and utilise biomass produced from crops in downstream sustainable materials.’

Hemp insulation can reduce energy consumption and save households up to 20% on heating and cooling costs. It also improves air quality and resolves black mould problems, as the Hemp absorbs the moisture in the air.  

Hemp and the challenges


It has been made clear that there is a lack of skilled labour in the supply chain, what initiatives have you developed to fill the skill gap? 


Unyte Academy was set up to ramp up the number of trained qualified installers for multiple different types of insulation including our Hemp products. To work in any of the government funded retrofitting schemes you need the NVQs for the different measures you will be installing. 


We set Unyte Academy up and managed to get grant funding from the government. This will allow us to train people in local areas and housing associations to then set-up large scale retrofit in those areas. The goal is to train people locally, upskill them and employ them. By building that workforce now, once the hemp products are available at scale, people will know how to use them. 


What are the main challenges you face at the moment?  


The biggest challenge is the level of capital investment needed into the infrastructure to make it viable for the market. Our interest is scale and impact, that is why we target the big emitting sectors that need a high volume of materials to change. 


Another barrier concerns legislation. There are some pieces of legislation that would help if they changed, around licensing and the link of Hemp to the Misuse of Drugs Act. 



The Hemp market


Who has been leading the push for home insulation with green products in the UK?

 

It has been led by the industry rather than legislation. There is room for lots of manufacturers in the space and we welcome them. From discussions with Hemp manufactures and architects, there is a push and increasing interest in using Hemp. However, this push does not come from the mainstream sectors, as the UK government is winding back on green legislation rather than ramping up. 


What are the future goals of Unyte Hemp, would you be looking to expand in the European market? 


Looking away from Europe, we are looking at projects in Africa. At the moment, we have quite a few early-stage projects focused on using Hempcrete in the new build environment, rather than on retrofitting. By getting involved in these projects will allow us to have more impact on communities in Africa which are rapidly developing.


We have a project in the world’s second-largest unconventional hydrocarbon field, in Argentina. There are massive works going on in the region, with drilling leading to a decimation  of the soils. In other words, they are trashing the land. This has led to the contamination of the groundwater and the agricultural land nearby. We are involved in the project with the government about going in there to put a Remediation  solution with hemp to clean up the soils that have been impacted. While using biochar to clean up the water. 


We work collaboratively and are always open joint venture projects. We always look at where we can have the most impact on projects. In the future we will continue to roll out further product development and develop our own products. I feel it is a quicker and better route for us to have viable products at scale in the market if we collaborate and licence other people’s technologies. 



Concluding questions


Are you an optimist or a pessimist when it comes to climate change? 


I am an optimist, there are enough interested and engaged people looking into net zero and climate change. The science and data are there, but you need major political changes globally in certain countries to accelerate change. If we can educate and enable as many people as possible to enable them to make change is key. 

It is essential to get hemp utilised in multiple different industries globally and this comes through education. 


What advice would you have for younger generations wanting to have a positive impact on the climate? 


Educate yourselves as much as possible about the benefits of industrial hemp. If we utilise it to replace petrochemicals it can have a huge impact. 

Be the generation that is the solution not the problem. There are many opportunities to do this. Don’t give up, you only lose when you stop fighting. 


Offer. If anyone wants to learn more about Hemp, to learn more about the product or launching businesses around this industry feel free to reach out to Jamie via email or on LinkedIn.



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Jamie Bartley interviewed by Natalia Vasnier for The Conference Corner. Featured images provided by Jamie Bartley.


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