Can we get rid of plastic foam in our buildings?

© A pile of foam being used in a Passive House

When one complains about the use of plastic foam insulation in building, people look at you like you are nuts. It's got great insulating value, it's cheap, spray foams are really effective, what's not to like? If you complain that they are made from fossil fuels, they will point out that it will save far more fossil fuels over its life than is used to make it.

But as Alex Wilson of BuildingGreen pointed out years ago, they are also full of fire retardants that are bioaccumulative toxins, they are made with known carcinogens, they are incredibly dangerous in a fire and the blowing agents used are often terrible greenhouse gases.

In an era where we are trying to cut our use of fossil fuels, insulate and seal our buildings better, it may seem crazy to many people that we would give up such a useful tool. But it has come to the point where architects are finally taking the health issue seriously and looking at alternatives. Few of them give as much insulation value per inch, many are much more expensive and they need a lot more care and detail, but it's happening. At BuildingGreen, Tristan Roberts asks Can we replace foam insulation?

Perhaps, but it's a "nice to have".

While the issue is on the radar, it is not yet an incoming missile. One health care specialist told Tristan:

“A project where we might consider this is also targeting net-zero energy and has a tight budget, so it’s a ‘nice to have,’ and it slides down in importance,” she says. Also working against the issue: “It’s not contributing to LEED Platinum, which is another goal that some projects would have. It’s an issue external to LEED and energy—or in conflict with energy.”

Foam works better in tight spaces. Spray polyurethane foam is effective in renovations, in sealing everything up into a tight package. I was planning to use it in my own house, where I am doing a small addition and every inch counts. (I am not anymore; the City rejects it when you are close to a lot line because of its combustibility)

It is a difficult call. In his own house renovation, Alex Wilson is using Foamglass under his slab and cork on his walls. Both are seriously more expensive than the usual foams, and the trades are unfamiliar with them. In my own house, I am using mineral wool, But will have a wall with conventional R-ratings, a third less than I would have had with SPF. On the other hand, we live in interesting times; new products are being developed and old products are making comebacks. Tristan concludes that "we’re arguably in one of the most creative and environmentally innovative stages of development the industry has yet seen."

This is an important article about a significant change happening in green building, an awareness that there is more to building than just saving energy; Health and safety matter too. Read Can We Replace Foam Insulation?

Can we get rid of plastic foam in our buildings?
It's the next big trend in green building, but it is expensive, difficult and people think you are nuts.

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