Virginia Beach Home Made with Hemp Pays Homage to a Lost Friend

Hempcrete House
Photos by David Uhrin

We all know of architectural wonders built in the name of romantic love. Think Agra’s Taj Mahal and Versailles’ Petit Trianon. But tucked at the end of a quiet street in Virginia Beach’s North End is one built in the name of brotherly love.

The home of Belynda and Michael Meehan is a tribute to the late David Ray Madera, Michael’s best friend and “brother” for decades.  Some of his ashes are even encased in perpetuity in the very thick and unique walls of this home.

Prior to succumbing to melanoma in 2012, Madera had been something of a Renaissance Man from the East to the West Coast: actor, entrepreneur, artist, writer, athlete, cook, gardener, sailor, yogi and builder-developer. As a developer, Madera was a pioneer in the use of hemp as a building material and had joined forces with Greg Flavall to launch Hemp Technologies in Asheville, N.C., having become “a big believer in industrial hemp,” says Michael. The company is still alive and well, building homes with hempcrete and spreading the organic gospel of this wonder matter.

Hemp is not just for your recreation—or aches and pains—anymore. In hemp, Michael not only found an embodiment of his friend’s dreams, vision and passion, but a healthy, breathable, energy-saving building material for his and Belynda’s dream home. However, the Meehans needed an architect that was “nuts enough” and a builder “bold enough” to take it on. He found both in Gerri West, of Folck West Architects, and JM Sykes, Inc. From 2012 to 2014, Team Hemp collaborated on the design and construction of the first—only?—hempcrete home in Coastal Virginia.

The flexible, extremely insulating, mold- and fire-resistant material is a mixture of hemp (minus the psychoactive THC)—which at the time had to be imported from Holland where it was legal—and a binder known as Batichanvre—a French product made from lime, water and cement.

hempcrete house
The driveway leads you into the estate with the cottage on the left and the main
home on the right.

Hempcrete samples in various shapes and in its raw form; one 12-inch-thick wall
section shows the addition of wood inserts, another rectangular piece shows the
fire retardant properties with little evidence of the effects of a 1,500-degree flame
after 15 minutes.

A centuries-old construction material in Europe, hempcrete represented uncharted territory in Virginia Beach. And representatives of the City, who had to be persuaded to approve the material, emerged fans, according to Michael. At the time the Meehans built their home, construction costs did exceed those of concrete by about 10-15%, but Michael asserts that the energy savings of this uber-insulating material over time far outweigh the initial outlay.

Although the home is built with “normal wood framing,” each 12-inch thick wall of the Meehan home was formed on site with a 2-by-6-inch in the center for added support. The envelope is entirely Hempcrete with lime rendering on the exterior, lime plaster on the interior. PVC pipe helped create the home’s smoothly curved corners. Painstaking progress proceeded at the rate of only about 20-by-1-inch per day. 

What emerged was a home that “started out Craftsman,” according to Michael, but “needed to speak to the woods.”  It took on a European farmhouse vibe along the way with its simple forms, deep front porch, light textured walls and dark ipe trim. With characteristic humility, West claims that “the house designed itself.”  But, clearly, it did not.

“She learned us,” reflects Michael, speaking to West’s ability to interpret the couple’s needs and desires into an inspired, cohesive plan. For instance, they wanted a “pull from the front door.” So what was going to be a living room became a dining room, though they joke that it is the dance floor. Open and airy, the space is anchored by a long narrow dining table—almost like a homey banquet table—parallel to the home’s façade. A contemporary wall-mounted gas fireplace flanked by arched windows is the magnetic backdrop.  Above, a long lean bar-style pendant fixture echoes the proportions of the table and exudes a particular brand of contemporary-artisan that flows throughout the home.

Large porches surround the home with open air and screened options.

living room
The cozy fireplace-lit room spills out into one of the many porches.

stairs and bookcase
The stairs deliver you to a library niche with numerous seating options, including the
oversized, cushioned window seat.

hempcrete house window
The homeowner's collection of worldly artwork is displayed throughout the home.

The pantry resembles more of another living space than a closet.

Custom niches on nearly every interior wall provide a lighted display for some of the
cherished memories and art.

The pool deck is only steps away from the backyard garden and offers a stunning
view of the home and cottage.

The open ceiling in the master bedroom is the perfect space for the warm, massive
beams and the brick headboard.

wine rack
Custom wine racks flank the pantry entryway.

backyard porch
The screened porch gets use nearly year-round with the large fireplace and
comfortable furniture.

dining room
The main dining area is an open invitation to those who enter the home and
connects to the rest of the downstairs seamlessly.

A Buddha bust is just one of the memorabilia the homeowners enjoy.

mosaic tile
Custom mosaic in the master bathroom adds subtle texture to the flooring.

Wooden beams “pull down” the 10-foot ceilings creating a sense of openness, but also coziness. Rich woods—white oak, teak and maple—on the beams, floors, built-in cabinetry, and custom trim with its “deco” feel is set-off by white textured walls on both floors. Generous use of oriental rugs creates warmth and pattern underfoot. Arched windows and doorways, exposed brick and brass sprinkler pipe, neutral stone with swirling movement and neutral mosaic tile—much of it salvaged from a boutique hotel Madera had planned to renovate—lend to the home its European feel.

Nooks encouraged by Michael and unique touches like c. 1860 window mullions from the Smithsonian reimagined as a kitchen wine rack establish a distinct flavor for this home, as does Belynda’s approach to interior design. Nowhere is her designing eye more evident than in the jaw-dropping walk-in pantry. Lower cabinets and thick open shelves to the ceiling clad entirely in maple are rustic refinement at its rustic finest. 

The formal chandelier sparkling overhead is unexpected and just right. A gracious screened-in back porch with a brick fireplace and stone tile floor showcases Belynda’s knack for pairing old and new: antique appointments that skew in an architectural salvage direction play nicely with geometric upholstery fabric.

“I love how my house feels,” says Belynda. “It feels clean and alive and fresh. I enjoy how quiet it is; it is a deep, peaceful quiet.”

From the ashes of a remarkable man’s life cut short has arisen a home that celebrates memory, materiality, modernity and master craftsmanship with an Old World flavor.

Betsy DiJulio
+ posts and articles

Betsy DiJulio is a full-time art teacher, artist and curator with side hustles as a freelance writer, including for Coastal Virginia Magazine, and a vegan recipe developer and food stylist and photographer for Tofutti Brands.

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