Insulation made interesting

 By Jim McClelland

Insulation has a vital rôle to play in energy conservation, thermal efficiency and fighting fuel poverty, but as a topic for discussion it is sadly often thought rather dull and short on innovation, with sheets of plasterboard and rolls of stone wool/fibreglass typical. Jim McClelland looks at 3 alternative materials with rather more interesting stories…

Insulation is important, but dull. Sadly, this appears to be the common public perception. While insulation has a vital role to play in energy conservation, thermal efficiency and fighting fuel-poverty, it sparks little interest as a topic for discussion.

Business, however, is big and growing. Recent figures from the Building Thermal Insulation Market suggest a projected global value of $27 billion by 2020. With sheets of plasterboard and rolls of stone wool or fiberglass seemingly the default materials of choice for most homeowners and builders, you might be forgiven for thinking the sector is short on innovation. You would be wrong. High-performance alternative solutions are out there; you just need to know where to look — for instance, in a farmer’s field, or your own wardrobe…

Firstly, there is sheep’s wool insulation. Suitable for use in both walls and roofs, it has been popularized in prime farming regions of the world, such as the UK and New Zealand, with brands there including ThermafleeceBlack Mountain and Insulwool.

Typically, the material might comprise anything between 75%-100% natural fibers, with the balance made up of recycled content. Healthy to handle, it is promoted for its strong thermal efficiency, and very low- to zero-carbon footprint — it both absorbs carbon naturally and requires maybe 15% the energy for manufacture of some mainstream rivals.

Also marketed as easy to install and non-itch, a second natural-fiber solution comes in a form immediately familiar to most: old blue jeans. Usually comprised of 80% recycled and post-consumer cotton and fibers, denim insulation matches sheep’s wool in exceeding much conventional product in performance, as well as being backed by standards for fire, smoke, fungi and pest resistance. There is even an accompanying carbon footprint report in the case of Inno-Therm, distributed since 2002 by Recovery Insulation, a social enterprise based in Sheffield, England.

As well as energy-saving benefits, insulation from recycled denim also helps divert textile waste from landfill and can itself be fully recyclable. In the United States, for example, theBlue Jeans Go Green program collects denim across the country to upcycle into UltraTouch Denim Insulation, manufactured by Arizona-based Bonded Logic.

If you consider sheep’s wool and denim unusual insulation materials, then a third pair of options trialled at the Brighton “Waste House” in the UK will strike you as downright radical.

Conceived more as an educational tool and a provocation to industry convention than an operational home, the project investigates strategies for constructing a low-energy building using over 85% “waste.” As a result, walls have been filled with insulating materials as strange as stacks of old video cassettes and some 20,000 toothbrushes.

Part of the purpose is to get people to think differently about sourcing materials. This is where insulation gets really interesting, concludes Waste House designer Duncan Baker-Brown, Architect at BBM and academic at University of Brighton:

“It is increasingly important to consider the source of insulation materials (what they are made of and how they were made) as many of them create a lot of pollution and consume a lot of energy during their manufacture. The good news is that there are lots of non-toxic options that are also easy to depose of at the end of their useful life. There are even mushroom-based products that hardly require any embodied energy to make or grow.”

“Insulation is exciting, because it can be an easy ‘win’ if you are concerned with helping out the environment.”


SEE MORE: 5 strange ways to store energy by Jim McClelland


about the author
Jim McClelland
Editor + journalist for supplements to The Times + Sunday Times, also quoted in Guardian, Sunday Telegraph. I blog for such as GE + Gap. Active on social media. Specialisms include Sustainability.