Insulation creates healthier buildings

Matt Prowse of Knauf Insulation discusses how insulation can help combat the problems of sick building syndrome, including noise and indoor air quality, sustainably

The average adult spends 90 per cent of their time indoors – and this percentage has increased over the past year as people deal with Covid-19 restrictions. But what if the building you live or work in itself is making you sick? For many people, Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) is a reality. Insulation can play a role in making buildings, and occupants, healthier.

SBS was first identified in the 1970s and refers to symptoms experienced by someone only when they are within a specific building. These symptoms typically reduce when the person is elsewhere. There are a number of factors thought to contribute to SBS, ranging from specific equipment used indoors, to cleanliness and even stress levels. But for architects and specifiers, it’s the building’s fabric that’s important. The way buildings perform, and the materials they are made from, has a significant impact on the internal environment and therefore the health of occupants.

Insulation is a good example. There are many health conditions exacerbated by low temperatures – such as pneumonia, circulatory disorders and arthritis – so high performing insulation is essential. Installed correctly, insulation creates a comfortable indoor environment, keeping buildings warm in cold weather and cool in warm weather. It also creates homes that are cheaper to run – leaving occupants with more money to spend on other things to keep them healthy – fresh food, exercise and dental treatment, for example.

For architects and specifiers, it’s important to know how product choice affects the indoor environment. Beyond the thermal, fire and acoustic performance considerations, providing ease of correct installation should be top of mind. For example, during installation, mineral wool insulation products adapt to imperfections in the substrate. Other insulation products – such as rigid foam boards – can be difficult to install correctly because they will pivot on these imperfections. This creates air gaps between the boards, reducing thermal performance and leading to cold spots.

And it is these cold spots that contribute to poor health because they allow mould spores to flourish, compromising indoor air quality. In fact, a 2019 study by Sustainable Homes and EnviroVent found that residents living in mouldy homes were 63 per cent more likely to suffer from respiratory conditions.

The study also found that new, well-insulated homes, and those with the best loft insulation, were the least likely to have mould. But remember, insulation should always be combined with a good ventilation strategy.

It’s not just mould that affects indoor air quality. Chemical compounds such as formaldehyde are used in the manufacture of many construction products. These products then emit pollutants known as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), which can lead to poor air quality. VOCs have been linked to a wide range of health conditions including headaches, asthma and cancer.

For this reason, many sustainability schemes such as BREEAM and LEED award points for construction products that contribute to good indoor air quality. BREEAM doesn’t just look at the indoor air quality of the finished building, it also requires an air quality plan for the construction site to safeguard installers’ health.

There are third party certifications you can look for to assess the indoor air quality impact of insulation products you specify. Eurofins Indoor Air Comfort Gold Certification is a European-wide accreditation for low VOC products that go beyond the legislated minimum standards and contain no added formaldehyde or phenol.

Knauf Insulation’s bio-based binder ECOSE Technology contains no added formaldehyde or phenol – a key factor in it achieving Eurofins Indoor Air Comfort Gold Certification.

With regards to Mineral Wool insulation, you can also look for the EUCEB trademark, which confirms compliance with stringent European requirements and regulations related to product health and safety.

Another key building health consideration is noise. There is growing recognition that noise can have long term health impacts, increasing a person’s risk of suffering from headaches to depression, and even heart attacks.

Regulations such as Approved Document E for dwelling buildings in England and Wales set out minimum acoustic standards. However, with the recent changes in working practices, there is an argument for increased levels of soundproofing within the home too. For example, adding acoustic insulation to internal walls between the main living space and a home office – although not required by the regulations currently – would be extremely beneficial for home workers.

When it comes to reducing noise, insulation product choice is crucial. acoustic mineral wool is extremely absorbent and provides excellent levels of soundproofing. Other insulation types perform less well. For example, rigid foam boards absorb very little sound – external sound is transmitted directly through the material into the room, and internal sound is reflected back as echoes.

Mineral wool insulation can alleviate some of the most common symptoms of sick buildings. By specifying the right products, architects can create the warm, stable, quiet and comfortable environments people need in order to thrive.

Matt Prowse is director of housing and specification at Knauf Insulation