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Energy efficiency: a platform for innovation


“When I first entered what was then a rather limited thermal insulation industry, over twenty five years ago – selling STYROFOAM extruded polystyrene insulation to architects and end users of all types – I was amused by the fact that as a nation we were insulating many agricultural buildings far better than any new properties built for human occupation.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t begrudge the chickens and pigs a warm bed for the night, but they, or their chicks and piglets, didn’t have to worry about the cost of turning up the thermostat to cope with cold snaps: after all, at Dow we were busy helping to wrap their sheds with cosy SYTROFOAM!

Subsidies no doubt helped, but along with animal welfare, energy costs were of primary importance and the main driver for the farmer. Let’s just say, common economic sense prevailed!

Over the years, the construction industry began to make progress and the use of thermal insulation began to take shape. However, until more recently, its use was pretty limited. Back in the 80s, pioneering property developers installed 50mm of fibre in the loft and 25mm of board foam into cavity walls. It was good news, and a step in the right direction (considering there was no legislation driving it – only a document asking them to make ‘reasonable provision’ for the conservation of fuel!). However, it’s worth pointing out that at the same time the piglets were snuggled up with 80mm thickness of insulation!

As with the farmer back then, the burden of energy costs are catching up with us all, and fast – at home, in the office we work in or at our manufacturing facilities. Here in the UK, we really shouldn’t be facing the fact that more people are being pushed into fuel poverty, which of course has its own impact on health and well-being. In short, unless things change, energy costs threaten to become the enemy of financial freedom for a significant section of the population and a competitive burden on the UK as it competes in a global economy.

But it’s far from all doom and gloom. Government departments such as the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) are thankfully taking the issue very seriously. I am pleased to say that over the recent decade or so energy efficiency has become an integral part of any new building for human occupation.

There are of course more steps to take before we can consider our work done, but we can thank pioneers such as the Association for the Conservation of Energy, whose bold efforts have brought about changes in legislation and helped to establish what is required for continued future improvement.

Farmers saw the benefit of improved energy efficiency because they were paying the energy bill and wanted their animals to thrive. But, think about this – building designers, developers or contractors rarely pay the energy bills. It’s a shame, but it’s fact that it takes progressive legislation to increase energy efficiency and make a change that will, at some time in the not too distant future, mean that the owner or occupier of a newly built property will not be burdened with escalating energy costs.

Buildings last a long time and many of our families, friends and neighbours are still living or working in old, poorly insulated or even completely un-insulated buildings. However, the framework to make real change is here and now. The noise is louder than ever before, and not just within government and industry: people around the UK are finally talking about energy efficiency of the buildings they occupy.

This means that an opportunity for British industry is unfolding, not just in the construction market, but the manufacturing industry, the chemical industry, the services industry, the energy sector, and beyond. The prospects for growth in my specific industry – thermal insulation – are better than ever.

So what role can innovation play? As a manufacturer of thermal insulation products we’ve been developing ever thicker products that deliver more insulation ‘power’. We are seeing the tide turn. In the past, thermal insulation had to fit with building methods, but now for the first time, building methods themselves are changing because of the demand for greater insulation thicknesses.

We’ve also made strides in the processes we use to manufacture insulation materials. We at Dow take carbon dioxide from industry and use it a blowing agent to produce our foams, bringing major environmental improvements.

But let’s face it, apart from overcoming some mechanically challenging production limitations and technical hurdles, that’s really as far as we’ve got: the biggest opportunity is yet to come if we are willing to embrace it.

If we want thermal insulation within the construction industry to up its game and create the next generation of insulation products and solutions, then we in industry must play our part and rise to the challenge. Those who dare will win – those who invest in new thinking, in research and development and ultimately in new production methods are the future.

My dream is for the next generation of insulation to emerge as being painted on, wrapped around, unfolded, or stretched into place. And to me that is the day the thermal insulation industry will have truly entered the 21st century and come of age.

So the opportunity to really innovate is finally with us. If we in industry embrace it, we become creators, leaders, exporters, winners in a whole new world of energy efficient solutions.

The new home, office, school or hospital of this decade – with true commitment to building regulations and progressive legislation – will need walls consisting of at least 200mm thick thermal insulation. And all around us, old buildings need to be re-furbished to that standard too.

However, in order to be practical, that 200mm thick of thermal insulation will actually need to be 50mm or far less, yet offer the same thermal performance. It’s now time for a step change in science, in attitudes, in investment and joint government-industry commitment to make the difference.

Thanks to DECC and initiatives such as the Green Deal and ECO, we in industry have the platform: so let’s not waste the opportunity.”

Jayne Law, MBE, Dow Building Solutions UK and Ireland