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Design-Build Firm Seeks Toehold in Insulation Market

A Maine-based startup is developing fiberboard insulation that it hopes will rival rigid foam

Posted on Sep 8 2017 by Scott Gibson

A Maine-based design-buildCompany that handles house design and construction. Since both services are provided by the same firm, integrated design can often be more easily achieved. firm best known for its super-efficient Passive HouseA residential building construction standard requiring very low levels of air leakage, very high levels of insulation, and windows with a very low U-factor. Developed in the early 1990s by Bo Adamson and Wolfgang Feist, the standard is now promoted by the Passivhaus Institut in Darmstadt, Germany. To meet the standard, a home must have an infiltration rate no greater than 0.60 AC/H @ 50 pascals, a maximum annual heating energy use of 15 kWh per square meter (4,755 Btu per square foot), a maximum annual cooling energy use of 15 kWh per square meter (1.39 kWh per square foot), and maximum source energy use for all purposes of 120 kWh per square meter (11.1 kWh per square foot). The standard recommends, but does not require, a maximum design heating load of 10 W per square meter and windows with a maximum U-factor of 0.14. The Passivhaus standard was developed for buildings in central and northern Europe; efforts are underway to clarify the best techniques to achieve the standard for buildings in hot climates. buildings has taken on a new partner with a background in materials science and set up a new firm specifically to develop low-density fiberboard insulation for the U.S. market.

GO Lab, created earlier this year by GO Logic, is hoping to have fiberboard insulation in production in the next 24 months, giving builders here access to a type of insulation common in Europe but currently not manufactured anywhere in the U.S.

The effort is headed up by Joshua Henry, a 39-year-old former professor at the University of Maine and Bates College whose varied background includes work on semiconductors and materials used in photovoltaic(PV) Generation of electricity directly from sunlight. A photovoltaic cell has no moving parts; electrons are energized by sunlight and result in current flow. devices. His energy-modeling for GO Logic, a firm founded in Belfast, Maine, by Matthew O'Malia and Alan Gibson, eventually ledLight-emitting diode. Illumination technology that produces light by running electrical current through a semiconductor diode. LED lamps are much longer lasting and much more energy efficient than incandescent lamps; unlike fluorescent lamps, LED lamps do not contain mercury and can be readily dimmed. to a new partnership, the creation of the research company, and efforts to develop a U.S. counterpart to the type of fiberboard insulation available in Europe, such as Gutex.

Henry said in a telephone interview that fiberboard insulation is attractive from an environmental point of view because it is made from wood fiber rather than petroleum-based compounds, can be manufactured sustainably, and is completely recyclable. The insulation can be applied as a continuous layer on the outside of a building, much like rigid foam, to boost overall insulation levels and reduce thermal bridgingHeat flow that occurs across more conductive components in an otherwise well-insulated material, resulting in disproportionately significant heat loss. For example, steel studs in an insulated wall dramatically reduce the overall energy performance of the wall, because of thermal bridging through the steel. . Like foam, it is not a substitute for structural sheathingMaterial, usually plywood or oriented strand board (OSB), but sometimes wooden boards, installed on the exterior of wall studs, rafters, or roof trusses; siding or roofing installed on the sheathing—sometimes over strapping to create a rainscreen. such as plywood or OSB.

Although available from some specialty retailers, such as 475 High Performance Building Supply in New York, it's not widely used in the U.S., and importing it from Europe is expensive.

"Importing insulation board from Europe is a kind of no-go," Henry said. "It's a low-density product, so most of what you're importing is European air. It's a product that has to be manufactured in the United States in order to achieve a larger market."

Comparing fiberboard to foam

Henry said he first saw samples of fiberboard insulation when he came into the offices of GO Logic for a meeting. At the time, he was teaching at the University of Maine and had connections with its Advanced Structures and Composites Center, a cutting-edge research facility located on the university's Orono campus.

"I took a look at some of the boards and realized that this was something we could be doing at the University of Maine, or developing in the United States," Henry said.

Both O'Malia and Gibson were adamant there was a potential market for the insulation in the U.S. as high-performance and Passive House building becomes more commonplace. Discussions with the university, some patent research, a few grants, and a closer look at European products pushed the three toward the launch of GO Lab and more intensive product development.

The biggest advantage of fiberboard over rigid foam insulation, Henry said, is that it's truly a green product. It's manufactured from wood chips, and it's pleasant to work with: "renewable and recyclable," as Henry put it, and an attractive option for builders who avoid using foam because of the environmental baggage it comes with.

Fiberboard insulation is three to five times as vapor permeable as expanded polystyrene (EPSExpanded polystyrene. Type of rigid foam insulation that, unlike extruded polystyrene (XPS), does not contain ozone-depleting HCFCs. EPS frequently has a high recycled content. Its vapor permeability is higher and its R-value lower than XPS insulation. EPS insulation is classified by type: Type I is lowest in density and strength and Type X is highest.) or extruded polystyrene (XPSExtruded polystyrene. Highly insulating, water-resistant rigid foam insulation that is widely used above and below grade, such as on exterior walls and underneath concrete floor slabs. In North America, XPS is made with ozone-depleting HCFC-142b. XPS has higher density and R-value and lower vapor permeability than EPS rigid insulation.), two of the most common rigid foam options, Henry said. That makes it especially well suited for insulation upgrades on older houses because it won't trap moisture inside wall cavities.

European fiberboard insulation has an R-valueMeasure of resistance to heat flow; the higher the R-value, the lower the heat loss. The inverse of U-factor. of 3.7 or 3.8 per inch, Henry said, but GO Lab is at work on formulations that would yield R-4 per inch boards and put fiberboard in a position to challenge EPS — providing costs can be competitive.

"I think the biggest thing that's going to make it competitive with foam insulation board is that we really think we can be cost-competitive on a performance-based standpoint with foams and Gutex," he said. "If you can have a product that's renewable, recyclable, and is easy to work with, and builders on the ground actually like working with it, and it's not a cost premium, why would you not at least take a look at it?"

For U.S. builders, Gutex would take some getting used to. Four-Seven-Five lists Gutex Multitherm — a moisture-resistant version intended for use under a rainscreenConstruction detail appropriate for all but the driest climates to prevent moisture entry and to extend the life of siding and sheathing materials; most commonly produced by installing thin strapping to hold the siding away from the sheathing by a quarter-inch to three-quarters of an inch. — at 43 5/16 in. by 31 1/2 in., not exactly compatible with the 4-foot grid builders here commonly use. Henry said that GO Lab would shoot for a size more familiar to U.S. builders, although probably not 4x8 sheets because of weight.

Then there's cost. Multitherm 40, which is 1 9/16 inch thick and is rated at R-5.8, sells for $1.81 per square foot. A 4x8 sheet of Insulfoam R-Tech EPS 1 1/2 inch thick and rated (according to the manufacturer) at R-5.78 is $20.45 per sheet, or 64 cents a square foot, at Home Depot.

A good fit with regional resources

Henry and his partners would like to take the insulation to a national market, and see it available in retail outlets like Home Depot and Lowe's. It's potentially great news for Maine, where the forest products industry has been hammered by the steady erosion of a once mighty pulp and paper industry and by continued troubles with the financial viability of biomassOrganic waste that can be converted to usable forms of energy such as heat or electricity, or crops grown specifically for that purpose. power plants.

"One thing we've recognized, as we take samples around to manufacturers in the Northeast, is there was sort of an immediate recognition that this really fits with what they do," he said. "It can be manufactured from sawmill residuals. Their first question is, 'How soon can you be in production?"'

GO Lab continues to work on product development as it tries to raise the $40 million to $50 million it will need to open a production facility. Exactly where the factory will be built is up in the air.

"We do think Maine has a lot of things going for it," he said. "It has the bandwidth right now to think about new products, the political will in the state right now to get something going, and we have a lot of good partners right now with interesting financial incentives we think we can leverage to get a plant built in Maine. But ultimately, it will come down to numbers to where the plant is built."

In addition to seeking capital in both the U.S. and Europe, GO Lab is talking to European producers with the idea of tapping into their established engineering and manufacturing expertise. European producers are excited about the prospect of having a U.S. partner that's more than a manufacturing arm for their own products and actually advances the performance of the insulation, he said.

The key, Henry added, will be getting a product to market at a price that is competitive with foam.

"The hard sell is if you're a design-construction firm and you're already selling a competitive product," he said. "If Passive House is going to reach the masses eventually, it's going to have to be cost-competitive with standard construction."

Henry said that his experience in the development of photovoltaic materials taught him that sales really took off not when the devices started to become extremely efficient, but when they could compete with natural gas and oil on a cost per kilowatt-hour basis.

"It's great to market a green building product," he said. "I think we need more green building products. But ultimately, as big an environmentalist as I am, the realist side of me says that green building products have to have a good financial argument for its ultimate consumer, especially for a product like foam that your consumer, your homeowner, is never going to see."

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Image Credits:

  1. GO Home
  2. GO Lab

Sep 8, 2017 3:16 PM ET

Bring it on!
by Dana Dorsett

It's about time somebody on this continent got into the fiberboard insulation game in a more serious fashion!

The only North American fiberboard product anywhere near GO Lab's prototype product is MSL'a SONOclimat eco4:

But comparing these products is a bit like apples and pears- SONOclimat eco4, like similar-density European products is designed to be both insulation and structural sheathing, and comes in at R2.5-R3/inch. Any R4/inch fiberboard is of necessity lower density and not as strong, and won't cut it as structural sheathing (just as EPS isn't structural sheathing). It's really an insulation-only product. Gutex Multitherm mentioned in the blog piece is also non-structural, lower density/ higher-R (~R3.7/inch) and thus a more apples-to-apples comparison to the GO Lab's product than SONOclimat eco4.

Sep 8, 2017 3:34 PM ET

Great news
by Malcolm Taylor

It's a product that would also fit very well into the existing mills here in the PNW.

We live in strange times. Things are looking up and down all at once.

Sep 10, 2017 6:26 PM ET

What About Roxul Comfortboard?
by Scott Wilson

The primary concern for developing this product seems to be that it will be a more permeable insulation than rigid exterior foam. The article also states that the fiberboard is "not a substitute for structural sheathing like plywood or osb".

Don't we already have a great option for a permeable exterior insulation product in Roxul Comfortboard? This too is applied to exterior sheathing, doesn't require petroleum products and is very fire and water resistant as well.

It's strange that the developers of this product aren't comparing their fiberboard to the Comfortboard.

Sep 18, 2017 1:56 PM ET

Edited Sep 18, 2017 1:59 PM ET.

by Ken Levenson

As the North American GUTEX partner - 475 ( - we wanted to clarify a few points.

Not only is GUTEX made from a renewable resource, the embodied energy of Gutex, even when shipped by container, is in balance - as the amount of carbon sequestered is not surpassed by its shipment to the US. Foam and mineral wool insulation options do not sequester carbon and are not made from a renewable resource.

It’s also important to note that GUTEX wood fiberboard insulation is also a WRB - behind wall siding and as roof underlayment. Meaning that an additional WRB is not required, saving material and labor. Given these factors, GUTEX can be cost competitive with mineral wool when buying 10,000 SF or more.

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