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Lakesideca News

Design-Build Firm Seeks Toehold in Insulation Market

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

Image 1 of 2
A new option for insulation. Maine-based GO Home assembles this panelized wall with a layer of Roxul mineral wool insulation, but a sister company is at work developing a lightweight fiberboard alternative that would compete with products now imported from Europe.
Image Credit: GO Home

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.

, 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 .

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 , 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.”

4 Comments

  1. User avater
    Dana Dorsett | | #1

    Bring it on!
    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.

  2. Malcolm Taylor | | #2

    Great news
    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.

  3. Scott Wilson | | #3

    What About Roxul Comfortboard?
    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.

  4. User avater
    Ken Levenson | | #4

    Clarifications
    As the North American GUTEX partner - 475 (www.foursevenfive.com) - 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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