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Will Bio-Sourced Materials Change the Way We Insulate Buildings?

DuckerFrontier, August 2, 2019

While they’ve been around for many years, some bio-sourced insulation materials have grown in popularity recently thanks to their impressive properties—as well as their sustainability.

Ecologically conscious architects and construction firms are increasingly choosing bio-based materials over conventional alternatives, both for individual homes and for commercial premises. More traditional or familiar bio-based materials such as wood, hemp, flax, cork, algae or microalgae may seem like obvious choices. However, newer byproducts of these materials such as wood wool, wood fiber, wood foam, or even the chemicals that can be obtained from rapeseed oils or pine resins should remain in consideration.

The Advantages of Using Bio-based Insulation Materials

These products have all been promoted as “low-embodied” energy insulation materials—that is, they require less energy to create compared to more traditional varieties (e.g., glass wool, rock wool, PU-based insulation materials).

Bio-sourced materials present several advantages:

  • They have a limited environmental footprint
  • They come primarily from renewable resources
  • They can be recycled
  • They contribute to the reduction of carbon dioxide (through photosynthesis reaction, plants transform CO2 from the atmosphere into carbon and oxygen, which reduces the global stock of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and thus global warming)

Some may be more commercially viable than others:

  • Wood foam insulation materials promoted by the German Fraunhofer Institute for Wood Research seem to have great potential to scale up across Europe. A variety of woods can be used, along with waste from other industrial facilities like sawmills. Wood foam is also lightweight and adaptable for a range of construction settings.
  • Hemp has the potential to rapidly scale upward. It grows quickly and is naturally resistant to bugs and bacteria, which means it can be cultivated without fertilizers. Hemp is durable and rot-proof, making it not only profitable, but also ecologically sound. France is the European Union’s largest hemp producer. Triballat, a French industrial company, recently built its IT offices from a wooden structure, using hemp insulation.

The use of bio-based insulation materials is growing. For example, bio-based materials are currently estimated at about 10% of the insulation market in France and their sales continue to grow by 10 to 15% per year.

They are used mostly by building owners who wish to make a sensible ecological choice, while taking advantage of the specific basket of performance benefits provided by these materials. For instance, wood fiber is often used in the production of suspended ceilings in Scandinavian countries. These materials also tend to be lightweight, easy to install, and durable.

What the Future Holds for Bio-based Insulation Materials

The increasing use of bio-based insulation materials is attributed to five main factors:

  • Thermal performance
  • Fire resistance
  • Contractor training
  • Material cost
  • Regulation that pushes toward increasingly low-carbon construction

Some wood fiber insulation materials achieve thermal conductivity performance (0.036 W/(m.K) – Pavatex of Soprema group) practically identical to that of mineral wool.

The acoustic rating of the new bio-sourced insulation surpasses most other materials, but not much—if anything—is currently gained in the areas of thermal performance and fire resistance. To convince contractors to give the new materials a chance, it’s essential to focus on the ease of installation and other benefits through communication and training.

Regulations vary from country to country, and must be understood and followed. In 2014, a group of US architects, public health advocates, and scientists asked the International Code Council (ICC) for an exception to the International Green Construction Code. It wanted to use bio-based insulation materials—without added flame retardants—in areas where fire risks are very low. However, a demand like this can be extremely complicated in this very regulated market.

Finally, the cost of sustainable materials needs to be more in line with competing traditional products. This adjustment depends partly on government support for sustainable forestry or hemp cultivation, but also on the expansion of the supply base, which remains limited today. If those challenges are met, Europe’s bio-sourced insulation industry may increase its share of the market.

Bio-Based Materials In Other Building and Civil Engineering Fields

Insulation is not the only area where bio-based materials are used. Today, manufacturers and end users in other segments of the building and civil engineering industry are looking for alternative solutions.

A large French civil engineering construction company (Eiffage) is starting to replace, in several pilot projects, traditional bitumen with a bio-based binder, obtained from Tail Oil , a byproduct from forestry and the paper industry process.

At DuckerFrontier, we believe that the use of bio-source in the construction industry is just beginning, and after a slow start, will experience high growth. The possibilities offered by natural materials in different forms, transformed mechanically or chemically, have yet to be completely explored.

Using exclusive research and an expansive network of industry professionals, DuckerFrontier offers market intelligence and consulting services that will help you navigate the emerging industry of sustainable insulation materials. Please click here to connect with a team member.

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