A Maine-based design-build firm best known for its super-efficient Passive House 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 devices. His energy-modeling for GO Logic, a firm founded in Belfast, Maine, by Matthew O’Malia and Alan Gibson, eventually led 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 bridging. Like foam, it is not a substitute for structural sheathing 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 (EPS) or extruded polystyrene (XPS), 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-value 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 rainscreen — 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 4×8 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 4×8 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 biomass 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.”