A Maine-based startup hoping to expand the wood fiber insulation market in the U.S. is in the process of buying a shuttered paper mill and hopes to start production of batt, board and blown in insulation next year.
GO Lab, a spinoff of GO Logic in Belfast, Maine, is plunking down roughly $2.5 million for the Madison Paper Industries mill that was closed in 2016 amid the slow deflation of the state’s pulp and paper industry, according to The Portland Press Herald.
Matt McConnell, director of market development, said in a telephone call that the company has purchased used equipment from Germany and can begin setting up a production line as soon as a paper-making machine has been disassembled and removed.
Insulation made from wood fiber is fairly common in Europe but it’s a relatively expensive and hard-to-find product in the U.S. There are only two known retailers in the country — 475 High Performance Building Supply in New York, which sells German-made Gutex, and Global Wholesale Supply, a Maryland-based company that distributes Steico insulation, which is manufactured in Poland. GO Lab would become the first producer in the country.
In an interview with GBA in 2017, GO Lab CEO Josh Henry said that wood fiber insulation will make an appealing alternative to rigid foam because it’s made from wood fiber rather than petrochemicals, can be recycled, and can be manufactured sustainably from Maine’s abundant wood fiber resources. Like rigid foam or mineral wool, it can be applied in a continuous layer on the outside of a building to reduce thermal bridging through the structural framing. Fiberboard insulation is not a structural component.
GO Lab hopes to sell the insulation both to lumberyards and to insulation distributors and contractors. Distribution will be mainly in the Northeast, McConnell said, but the company would ship it to buyers elsewhere.
Factory site is in the heart of paper country
Madison, Maine, is a town of about 4,800 in the rural midsection of the state. The mill’s closure in 2016 was part of an industry contraction that saw the number of mills decline and employment fall from its peak of 18,000 workers in the 1960s. The downward trend followed lower demand for newsprint and the type of glossy magazine stock the Madison mill produced.
The end of paper making in Madison was a blow to the community. Two hundred and fourteen people lost their jobs, and the town lost its biggest taxpayer.
But wood products, including paper, remain an important part of Maine’s economy and cultural identify. Industry officials look to non-traditional means of using the state’s forest resources to bring jobs back. If GO Lab can get its business off the ground and make good on Henry’s goal of hiring 110 people, it would be good news on Main Street.
GO Lab has been looking for private sources of money, and won a $100,000 grant last year through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Then, earlier this month, the company was awarded another $750,000 grant, this one from state sources.
McConnell said the company is “feverishly” raising money and would need between $60 million and $65 million to get the operation off the ground. “We’re getting good traction,” he said.
So far, a niche product here
Fiberboard insulation will appeal to builders who want to avoid any type of foam in their roof and wall assemblies. European builders apparently like it, but U.S. builders don’t have ready access to it, and it’s considerably more expensive than rigid foam.
Gutex Multitherm 40 (R-5.8) costs about $1.80 per square foot — nearly three times as much as 1 1/2-inch-thick EPS with the same R-value — and it comes in an odd size that is incompatible with the 4-foot grid used by U.S. builders (although the tongue-and-groove design means seams don’t have to land on framing members).
Gutex Multitherm, meant for application on exterior walls, is sold in thicknesses ranging from 1 9/16 inches to 7 7/8 inches, with R-values from 5.8 to 29.1 respectively. The composition of Multitherm is 1% paraffin, 4% polyurethane, and 95% wood. It has an R-value of 3.7 per inch and a perm rating of 44 in a 1-inch thickness.
Steico’s competing product, called Steico Universal, comes in a variety of thicknesses, with 40 mm (1.57 inches) and 60 mm (2.36 inches) the most popular here, according to a company spokesman. It’s R-value is about 3 per inch, with standard sheets sold here about 7.2 feet by 2.5 feet.
McConnell said that the company hopes to get the price of fiberboard down so that it’s only slightly more expensive that extruded polystyrene (XPS).
As much as current fiberboard retailers like the product, they recognize that it isn’t likely to dethrone rigid foam or fiberglass. “We’re not going to make this a mainstream product,” said Will Grupenhoff, vice president for business development at Global Wholesale Supply. “It’s not going to be a product that winds up in Home Depot.”
But both Grupenhoff and Ken Levenson, 475’s chief operating officer, look forward to a growing market for the product in the U.S. as interest in healthy, low-carbon buildings gains a wider audience.
“Like Passive House and all the players in Passive House, whether you’re window suppliers or airtightness [product] suppliers or insulation suppliers, all these different efforts to grow the market and the availability of these products is going to help everyone,” Levenson said. “It’s going to make a more dynamic and more mature industry to serve the market.”
Levenson said that fiberboard insulation is a good fit with mass timber construction because it uses waste that would otherwise be burned or used in another product with a shorter carbon cycle. “It’s real value added in terms of the climate fight in that way,” he said. Other benefits include excellent sound attenuation and workability.
This post was updated on April 24.