We’re excited to share this free handy Specifier’s Guide to Thermal Insulation by Material Hive. It provides quality impartial advice to the construction industry in an informative and visually pleasing layout. Well done Jamie for getting this off the ground, we look forward to more informative guides in the future!
Building materials: Is it time to up our game?
In 2017 I had what I thought was a simple idea, to create a platform that would help people choose greener building materials.
By building materials I am referring to non-finishing building materials. Materials that typically you can neither see nor touch once the building is complete. The structural fabrics, the insulations and membranes that keep our buildings stable, warm and dry. These are the materials that make up the vast bulk of what we put into our buildings but often the most challenging to specify.
I chose to exclude finishing materials, not because they are less interesting, but because they face an additional set of situational aesthetics challenges, to which already exists a whole range of tools, websites & blogs (Architizer, Houzz, Archiproducts to name a few).
So why are non-finishing materials so difficult to specify? Primarily, because they are complex and each building element has a large set of criteria it is expected to simultaneously perform in, e.g. insulation should be able to resist the transfer of heat whilst at the same time comply with fire regulations, handle moisture in buildings, be simple to construct with, be affordable, available and have a low embodied carbon. What's more, the challenge of material specification increases every year as buildings become more complex and performance standards are ever increasing.
On top this, good impartial information is really difficult to come by. The best written guides are typically written by the manufacturers' themselves who, as expected, promote their own products. In the top trumps world of insulation a guide written by Rockwool will emphasise the importance of fire-Resistance whilst one written by Kingspan will emphasise the importance of U-values, each fixing the game to their individual strengths.
So how do we decide which materials to use? My research has found that architects will typically go with what they know: choose a brand that they trust and buy into their philosophy. Designers will also place a great deal of importance on recommendations, discussing products they have used in the past and use that as the starting point for research.
It is important to remember that choosing materials isn’t a requirement for architects and is understandably something often left to a contractor to arrange. Handing over responsibility will not only simplify things but most likely save your client money. Even when an architect does specify materials there is no guarantee this wont be substituted for another further down the line.
Why does this matter? Choosing ‘good’ building materials will rarely win architects awards nor gets buildings published in the Architects Journal. The benefits are also unlikely to be fully appreciated by clients or end users. You’ll rarely find someone purchasing a new flat on the basis of materiality. So why is it important to push for quality products?
My opinion, is that quality and well-understood materials are essential to creating high-quality buildings and improving our built environment. This is needed now more then ever as we look to create ever more sustainable homes where material performance really matters. Further, as homes become ever more efficient, the embodied impacts of materials will climb higher on the agenda. Currently around 10% of UK carbon emissions derive from the construction process and if we are to tackle this issue it's essential we continue understanding materials and communicate their embodied impacts. If we don’t take ownership of this issue it is inevitable that decisions will be handed over to contractors, who are largely incentivised by cost.
If you interested to learn more and stay informed you can sign-up to MaterialHive for updates or share our free guide on Thermal Insulation to help you with your next specification.
By Jamie Keats