By next spring a new option in low-embodied-carbon, North American-produced insulation will be hitting the market: wood-fiber insulation from GO Lab. Maine-based GO Lab was founded in 2017 by Matt O’Malia, architect, and Josh Henry, a materials chemist. The first products, expected out in 2021, will be loose-fill and batt insulation. Wood-fiber boards will be out in early 2022.
“I love wood fiber as an insulation. It’s carbon sequestering, recyclable, and vapor permeable,” explains O’Malia. Yet opting to use this environmentally beneficial insulation has meant importing it from Europe, which has its downsides. “The shipping costs from Europe double the price,” O’Malia notes, which was particularly aggravating for an architect based in a state with a large forest economy. Then in 2016, six paper mills were shuttered in Maine, a $1.6 billion loss to the state economy. O’Malia and Henry figured the wood residuals that weren’t being used in those former paper mills could be repurposed.
GO Lab has since purchased one of those former paper mills and is busy transforming it into a 200,000-ft2 manufacturing facility. There, green wood chips are pressurized, steamed, smashed, and then blasted into a flash tube dryer that brings the moisture content down to 7%. Both the batt and loose-fill products are treated with boric acid, which acts as an insect and flame repellant. The denser boards don’t need this treatment to achieve flame-spread specifications for low-rise residential buildings.
To shift the insulation market toward greater sustainability, GO Lab is intending its wood-fiber insulation to be cost competitive with comparable insulation products on a dollar per delivered R-value basis. “There’s no point in bringing an expensive specialty product to market. That’s not going to change anything,” says O’Malia. GO Lab has set a target market radius of 200 to 400 miles from the plant in Madison, Maine. At greater distances, shipping costs can eat into the product’s affordability. “When we’re at full capacity, we could address from 5% to 8% of the Northeast insulation market,” O’Malia asserts.
O’Malia and Henry started GO Lab to help designers and builders of low-energy and Passive House buildings successfully slash those buildings’ overall carbon footprints—including both operational and embodied energy. Wood-fiber insulation is a solution that O’Malia is extremely excited to be making more accessible. Raising the funds, buying and retooling the plant, engineering the manufacturing process—it’s been an exhilarating, and occasionally terrifying, start-up experience. Once GO Lab is fully established, plans are in the works to expand so that its sustainable solution can reach broader markets, most likely starting with the Pacific Northwest.