Don’t Be Insulated from Green Building

Scott Miller

January 1, 2012

As NIA members, we should be walking the talk. It’s a phrase we’ve all heard and one that provides a no-bones-about-it proof point. In Knauf Insulation’s case, walking the talk provided the organization with a comprehensive, better-educated green building vantage point—and proof point—when it came time to take a big step in sustainable development.

In 2007, after fire destroyed an office building on the Knauf Insulation corporate campus in Shelbyville, Indiana, Knauf targeted and in 2010 earned U.S. Green Building Council LEED-NC Gold certification for a new 24,860 ft2 corporate engineering office building. This provided the company with both a challenge and a tremendous opportunity. We became a more active player because of this experience due to the fact that LEED buildings are now pervasive.

Here are two proof points for the growth in green building: 1) more than 40,000 projects are currently participating in the commercial and institutional LEED rating systems, comprising more than 8.3 billion ft2 of construction space across the United States and in 120 countries, and 2) green building is projected to contribute $554 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product from 2009 to 2013.

In walking the talk, Knauf experienced the trends and desires that sustainable-minded end-users are after: increased energy cost savings, enhanced indoor environmental quality, and social benefits with responsible resource use and manufacturing. Now, we have a building that is 38 percent more energy efficient than a typical building and also uses much less water. While we continue to be proud of the ways the company’s products and processes touch the industrial, commercial, and residential markets to create enhanced sustainability, it’s important to note that everything in our sustainable development has been extremely cost-effective. We haven’t had to spend a lot of green to be green.

Sustainability benchmarks like LEED certification are becoming a real target for users of commercial and industrial insulation products—and may even be the right aspiration for your organization.

LEED-ing by Example

Our LEED example illustrates that simply the everyday products you use can make a significant green difference to building owners, operators, and occupants. We have R-40 walls in our building, much more than in a typical building. Using an extraordinary amount of insulation in the walls helped meet our daylighting targets.

The insulation uses 55.7 percent post-consumer recycled content, which can count toward LEED credit. That in itself is a huge social benefit, but that figure also generates a critical result with manufacturing savings—it allows Knauf to use 15 percent less energy in manufacturing insulation products. This is because using recycled glass requires less melting energy than using virgin resources. The fusion losses associated with making glass with virgin resources is avoided. There is perhaps no more noble sustainability story than using post-consumer content to save energy during manufacturing and in buildings.

The manufacturing energy example also speaks directly to pipe insulation regarding embodied energy recovery. When you really examine it, it’s miraculous how much energy you can save per lineal foot of pipe insulation. In about 1 day, a lineal foot of pipe insulation recovers the energy it took to manufacture that foot of insulation. And the energy savings are similar with cold pipes: in a day or two, the embodied manufacturing energy is recovered. Insulation is essentially perpetual in what it does. Once the embodied energy is paid back, insulation just keeps saving energy, reducing carbon emissions, and saving water via reduced demand on power plants.

Smarter technologies also played a role in the office building’s design. An example is the maximization of daylighting and the minimization of electric lighting. Motion sensors shut off lights when there’s no movement in a room. In the auditorium event/training space, heat and ventilation do not turn on unless carbon dioxide sensors register the respiration of people using the room. Sustainable features also include water-saving plumbing fixtures and a white membrane roof that minimizes the heat island effect.

Asking the Right Questions

Sustainable building is the result of the desire and patience to ask the right questions and find the right answers. It makes sense to simulate a building hundreds of times on a computer before it’s built to really have a good idea of how it’s going to perform. On the other end of the spectrum, there are still people insulating industrial processes to deliver functionality but not energy efficiency. They’re not designing it to optimum techno-economic performance; there could be a better economic thickness that would use less fuel and deliver fast payback.

More owners and operators of green structures and facilities here and abroad are getting terrific buildings that simply perform better. However, it is naïve to think there isn’t skepticism around potentially adding cost to building construction. This skepticism can be countered by considering the building’s long-term operating costs. If building a smarter building adds 5 or 10 percent more cost, and cost is the primary motivator, the analysis should include the possible costs of not being able to buy fossil fuels any longer—e.g., what if a geopolitical event halts the availability of fossil fuel for the U.S. economy? Renewable energy may then be too expensive if your building isn’t designed to perform as well as it possibly can. You would be paying for wasted energy.

Energy efficiency is critical when you start thinking about renewable energy sources and the probability of their success. This is one current difference between the United States and Europe, where infrastructure is more rapidly becoming as energy-efficient as possible. In Europe, there’s a built-in incentive to insulate and make a building perform as well as it possibly can. Savings are that much greater and give renewable energy sources a better chance to succeed.

Additional Advantages

The chief results of sustainable building are resource efficiency and energy efficiency—long-term reducers of cost. However, there are additional advantages that may not be so straightforwardly tangible to some, such as comfort. A pleasant work environment is a productive one. In our LEED building, individuals have a three-degree control over their individual offices. Compare this to a building that both performs poorly and offers no adjustability for individual spaces, where you might see a haphazard array of space heaters or fans—symptoms of poor-performing buildings.

Like many other LEED-certified buildings, we also have an exercise facility. When health-care expenses are considered, promoting wellness is good for both employees and employers.

Productivity and comfort may also be enhanced through acoustics. Since we took insulation up all the way through the ceiling, there’s no crosstalk or disruptive noise between offices. Acoustics is one way you can use insulation as an advanced strategy to earn innovation points via LEED certification.

The Triple Bottom Line

When I think about my grandchildren and future generations, I know sustainable choices are the right choices. And they’re often easy ones to make for practical economic, environmental, health, and community reasons.

Here’s how simple sustainability really is. We take curbside recycling transported by train to our facility, so we can decrease landfilling and the use of virgin resources and also use energy-efficient transportation. We then turn that recycled content into insulation that helps save energy. It’s not any harder than how you’d strategize through a different business operation, but it is the right thing to do—and it’s financially viable.