ACTIS over the last 30 years

ACTIS over the last 30 years

2010 marked the 30th anniversary of ACTIS, the leading manufacturer of reflective multifoil and wood fibre insulation. Managing Director Matthew King explains how the past 30 years have influenced the future of energy efficiency.

It’s been a very changeable 30 years for the construction industry. In 1980, the year ACTIS introduced multi-foil insulation to the European market, people had an entirely different relationship with their homes. We weren’t a nation of aspiring home owners and climate change and energy efficiency weren’t the personal and national obsessions that they are now.

But in 1980 everything began to change. The UK Government passed the Housing Act, giving council tenants the right to buy their own homes. The Act meant that even working class, low-earning people could aspire to own property, and the Thatcher government very much encouraged people of all classes to become proud, responsible home owners rather than tenants reliant on the local authority.

As well as the rising popularity of homeownership, there was another movement gaining traction during that decade that would come to have a huge impact on construction: environmental awareness. In 1985 the EU established the Corine programme (Coordination of Information on the Environment), the first European-wide system for environmental data collection, which would later inspire the creation of the European Environment Agency. In the same year the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established by the World Meteorological Organisation and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

At the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s the debate began to focus on carbon emissions. We gradually become aware as a planet that an environmental disaster was looming and that the industrialised West was largely to blame. This all came to a head in 1997 in the form of the Kyoto Protocol, a commitment to reduce four greenhouse gases, signed by 39 industrialised countries including, of course, the UK.

In the battle against climate change, the construction industry has been one of the government’s top targets. According to the Centre for Sustainable Energy, 27% of all carbon emissions come from residential properties. Of that 27%, 53% are from space heating.

The government took note and introduced legislation to fight the problem. In the 1990s it became compulsory for all new builds and extensions to feature cavity wall insulation, while in 2002 the government set new targets for insulation energy efficiency. This was strengthened in 2006 when the government introduced the Standard Assessment Procedure (SAP) rating for both new and existing buildings as a whole, which encourages architects and builders to take a much more holistic approach to energy efficiency both in new homes and existing housing stock. Led by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), the British government today is aiming to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. Construction firms will eagerly await announcements of new regulation and legislation designed to help achieve this ambitious goal.

It’s not just the government leading the way to energy efficiency. Since the days of Thatcherism we’ve become canny house buyers and more willing to become amateur builders ourselves, with programmes such as Grand Designs and Property Ladder encouraging us to take on jobs only skilled professionals would normally consider. We know our way around a survey, we know what cavity wall insulation is (at a basic level) and we’re aware that if our house is leaking energy, our bills will be higher. Homeowners are much more aware of how houses perform as a machine for living and builders are also much more aware that energy efficiency is a top priority.

In 30 years the world has moved on but insulation innovation hasn’t reacted as quickly. Prior to the property boom of the 1980s, insulation was by no means automatically installed, but when it was installed, the technology wasn’t hugely different to how it is in many houses now, i.e. mineral fibre mats or polyurethane boards placed in the wall cavities.

But as architects are being encouraged to view building insulation holistically and not just in terms of walls and roofs, new technology needs to be considered. Houses have been built to the same traditional pattern since Roman times, but this pattern now has to perform at much higher standards of energy efficiency. One result of the 2006 building regulations, and the 2010 update, is that certain insulation standards have to be met, particularly the U value. With traditional solutions such as mineral fibre mats or PU boards you must apply thicker and thicker layers until there are enough to keep the heat in.

Even though fibre and foam still predominate, there are a plethora of insulation innovations that have the potential to transform the industry. Naturally, we would regard one to be thermal reflective multi-foil, which is thinner than traditional solutions and is being used to great effect across Europe in buildings that can’t be served by inflexible fibre and foam. There is also phase-change insulation like aerogel and vacuum insulated panels which have a very low conductivity value but are still very expensive. Another consideration is eco-friendly insulation materials which provide the double benefit of being environmentally responsible and highly effective.

A natural solution is to use insulation made from animal fibres, such as sheep’s wool, or from vegetal fibres, such as wood wool. ACTIS recently launched SYLVACTIS, a wood fibre insulation product which offers low conductivity value and high thermal lag making it a suitable insulation solution for both winter and summer. Also, the breathable qualities of wood wool, provided through its natural fibres, ensure that air quality is maintained inside the house.

Bio-based insulation will soon command a larger share of the market as ‘life cycle analysis’ is just one of many ideas gaining prominence and starting to influence purchasing decisions in the construction industry.

In the future, we’re more likely to move to different ways of measuring energy efficiency. If one of the primary reasons for fitting insulation is to help reduce carbon emissions, then the real life energy consumption in kWh/m2/yr or CO2 emissions in tonnes/yr of the entire building must surely be a more helpful way of measuring or testing the entire energy output of a house. This is why, the European Commission for Standardisation (CEN) decided to establish a working group, known as WG13, with the objective of developing a standard based on in situ tests for insulation products which measure thermal performance in lifelike conditions, such as purpose built test buildings, rather than in laboratories.

But if we’re going to satisfy modern building regulations, not to mention the demands of agreements such as Kyoto, then we have to turn to technological innovation. Over the past 30 years, ACTIS has been at the forefront of that innovation with its TRISO-SUPER 10 multifoil and SYLVACTIS wood fibre insulation, and we will strive to pioneer insulation innovations for many more years to come.

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