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Building sector needs to ramp up innovation

Innovation in the construction industry is rife and it seems like every week new materials are introduced. But a recent study shows that the speed of innovation within the sector is nowhere near it could be - and convincing architects and homeowners of the merits of new building materials presents a significant challenge.

A case in point is the introduction of bio based thermal insulation materials. These have typically much lower "embodied energy" levels compared with more conventional building materials. Simply put, this means that they are better for the environment. And an added advantage is that the source materials for bio insulation sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide via photosynthesis. So, instead of considering carbon as a problem, building with it recasts our relationship with it to one of positive innovation.

Figures from a project backed by the European organisation ISOBIO show that a typical bio-based insulator which outperforms conventional materials by 20 per cent, reduces energy used by five per cent over the lifecycle of a building. But that is not all. It also reduces the total costs of a building by 15 per cent. Those are great figures, but the bio building sector is still niche.

Once people are convinced of the merits of bio materials however, they are both receptive to change and knowledgeable with bio products to some extent. A recent study conducted by the Architects' Council Europe (ACE) for the Low Embodied Energy Insulation Materials (LEEMA) project, shows for instance that 94 per cent of architects surveyed indicated they would consider using a new and innovative insulation material.

The story is different when homeowners are taken into account. These may be inclined to buy energy saving appliances and install energy saving light bulbs, yet remain blissfully unaware that retrofitting wall and roof insulation leads to the greatest savings opportunities.

Renovations present a key market for producers of new insulation materials. According to the Buildings Performance Institute Europe (BPIE), more than 40 per cent of Europe's existing homes were built before the 1960s, when there were few requirements for energy efficiency, leading to low insulation levels.

Increasing awareness of the importance of insulation among homeowners is an important consideration. Homeowners may be inclined to, for example, upgrade appliances and install energy saving light bulbs, unaware that retrofitting roof and wall insulation leads to the greatest savings opportunities.

Veronika Schropfer, lead author on the ACE survey, says that bio-based insulation materials will continue to move from the niche into the mainstream in due course.

She states the main stumbling blocks for bio insulation materials involve pricing and regulations in different European countries. For architects it is important that a new material has all the necessary certificates, Schropfer believes, adding that product information also needs to be transparent so users can easily compare its performance and price with traditional products.