Windsor·Diversification

Windsor-Essex company steps into the hemp block business

Two companies in Windsor, Ont., and Airdrie, Alb. are collaborating as they work on a new product: lego-like building blocks out of hemp and lime for use in residential and commercial buildings. It's sending the message that Windsor is capable of more than just auto.

'Windsor-Essex can do so much more than just automotive ... there are opportunities out there'

Hemp blocks are used to construct buildings like this one. (Submitted by Just BioFiber)

Two companies in Windsor, Ont., and Airdrie, Alb. are collaborating as they work on a new product: Lego-like building blocks out of hemp and lime for use in residential and commercial buildings.

They're both sending the message that Windsor-Essex is about more than just auto — and Alberta is capable of more than just oil.

The process begins at Laval International, which is known for making moulds for auto parts. But now, the company is using its skills to mould structures that eventually help form hemp blocks.

We don't necessarily have to live and die by the automotive.- Jonathon Azzopardi , President and CEO of Laval International

The structures are shipped to Alberta to Just BioFiber Structural Solutions, where hemp, lime and calcium are added inside and out to finish them off. The hemp blocks are then used to construct buildings and homes.

"They're like Lego pieces. It's like building a Lego house," said Jonathon Azzopardi, the president and CEO of Laval International.

'It's brand new'

According to Just BioFiber, their hemp blocks are a sustainable, carbon-negative building product.

Jonathon Azzopardi says this project has been a great opportunity to expand beyond the automotive industry. (Katerina Georgieva/CBC)

Azzopardi said Laval has been working with Just BioFiber for two-and-a-half years now, and at this point, they have entered into a long-term contract with them to help them produce hemp blocks for the North American market.

"It's brand new. I can guarantee you, you haven't seen too many hemp homes," he said.

Azzopardi hopes to see the product become mainstream by the savings that it results in. Though the raw material itself isn't cheaper, he explained, savings come from the assembly part of the production, which results in time and cost savings on the rest of the project.

New to the market

The hemp company is just entering the market now. The company has built three homes in British Columbia so far and is hoping to expand that soon. 

Jonathon Azzopardi says the current partnership will keep about 10 employees busy for approximately the next year. (Katerina Georgieva/CBC)

Halmo himself was born and raised in Windsor, so he had a strong pulse for which companies specialized in the kind of tooling they were looking for. That's how Just BioFiber ended up partnering with Laval. 

"The project just went off very seamlessly," he said. 

Paul Halmo, plant manager of Just BioFiber says the partnership with Laval has been going 'seamlessly.' (CBC)

With this partnership, Laval International has a year's worth of production, which will keep 10 employees busy, like production and quality manager Sean Harwood, who says the project has been an exciting new challenge.

"It's always fun to have a new product come in, a new type of process, " Harwood said.

"This one is very intricate. It's a lot of labour, very specific requirements as far as charge patterns, weights and quality standards. So it makes it fun to develop this."

Economic diversification

The partnership has been great for the company's bottom line, Azzopardi explained.

Laval moulds these structures. They get shipped to Alberta, where Just BioFiber fills them and surrounds them with a mixture made of hemp and lime to eventually create Lego-like building hemp blocks. (Katerina Georgieva/CBC)

"But what's more important, is it shows that Windsor-Essex can do so much more than just automotive," he said.

"There are opportunities out there, and they're not necessarily on the surface, but you got to search, and you got to find, and you've got to grow. That's what this shows. It shows that we don't necessarily have to live and die by the automotive. That we can use our expertise and our skills to help all kinds of industries, including the construction and the hemp industry."

And Halmo echoes the same thought, being located in a place that's locked into oil and gas production. 

The final product looks like this: rectangular blocks ready to go to a building site. (Submitted by Just BioFiber)

"We really need to have new products like the one that Just BioFiber has developed in order to get that diversification of products and let people know that, you know what? Windsor isn't all about automotive, there are building products being made there, or they're contributing to building products," he said.

"Along with the Calgary area. I mean, there's a lot to be said with the amount of innovation and technology that's available. And we need to diversify and find new markets for our skills."

About the Author

Katerina Georgieva is a multi-platform journalist with CBC Windsor. She has also worked for CBC in Charlottetown, Toronto and Winnipeg.

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