In Summary:

Being thoughtful about which insulation materials are installed in buildings can reduce or eliminate hazardous chemicals from living spaces.  Here’s what you can do:

  1. Review the Insulation Stoplight chart to find out how your go-to insulation materials fare from a health perspective.

  2. Work with your design team and contractor to find ways to substitute better insulation options for applications where you currently use poorly ranked insulations.


This is Why:

“Without a clear focus on the safety and health of the materials used to make affordable housing more energy efficient, we will be trading lower energy costs for greater health impacts and ignoring the potential manufacturing job growth from the production of safer materials.”
Kimberly Glas, Executive Director of the BlueGreen Alliance

When you consider how many square feet of a building require insulation of some kind, it’s easy to see how choices in materials can have a cumulative effect on the health of those spaces.  

Building on past research done for the Quartz Project, Healthy Building Network spent much of 2016 researching insulation materials that are used in new construction and in retrofits of existing buildings, and identifying where healthier options exist.  This research came about as part of a collaborative effort with the Energy Efficiency for All Project (EEFA).  EEFA’s goal is to increase energy efficiency in the affordable multifamily sector as a way to reduce pollution, maintain housing affordability, and create healthier, more comfortable living environments.  To ensure that the healthiest material options available are used in these retrofits, EEFA partners NRDC and Elevate Energy have teamed up with HBN, Vermont Energy Investment Corporation (VEIC), Three3 and the International Living Future Institute (ILFI) to develop material and policy recommendations for multifamily energy efficiency retrofit projects.

The collaborative is working to compile these recommendations as well as sample specification language and general cost information, into a guide for affordable housing practitioners (scheduled for release in 2017). In the meantime, we’ve summarized what we know about common insulation materials in our Insulation Stoplight chart.  

As part of this effort, we looked at insulation use by application (wall cavities, HVAC systems, etc).  As it turns out, this is a handy way to evaluate insulation use in buildings of any kind, because it clarifies which applications are ripe for easy substitutions, and which applications currently lack any good options.

Take a moment to review the stoplight chart and identify which insulation materials you use in your current projects.  Where you’re using materials at the bottom of the chart, identify their applications.  Are there opportunities to use something more preferable in its place?  For example, we found that XPS board insulation is commonly used to insulate attic hatches (scuttle holes), but that readily available fiber glass batt insulation could easily be used in its place.  Making this change avoids the chemical hazards that come with XPS without compromising on R-value.

For more information on insulations: