Properties of bio-based insulation materials and their potential impact on indoor air quality

Daniel Maskell, Carla Florbela da Silva, Keith Mower, Rana Cheta, Andy Dengel, Richard Ball, Martin Ansell, Pete Walker, Andrew Shea

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Significantly decreasing energy consumption in buildings requires more air-tight construction combined with much higher insulation levels. A potential unintended consequence of this approach has been deterioration in the indoor air quality, resulting from significantly reduced ventilation rates and the accumulation of airborne pollutants, and this has proven to be a bottleneck to successful implementation of legislation. The use of natural bio-based insulation materials has increased in recent years, largely driven by concerns over the embodied energy and whole-life environmental impact of insulation materials. This has led to their increased use, typically within breathable wall constructions. A breathable wall construction allows the insulation material to directly contribute to the indoor air quality.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) having boiling points within the range 60-280 °C contribute to the indoor air contamination in buildings, and at certain concentrations can contribute to building-related illnesses. This paper presents some findings from the early stages of a phased experimental study to explore use of bio-based insulation materials, including hemp-lime and sheep’s wool, to reduce VOCs from the room atmosphere. There are many different volatile organic compounds and this study will consider the Total Volatile Organic Compound (TVOC) emissions expressed as toluene, as well as the formaldehyde emissions separately.
Insulation specimens with nominal dimensions 200 x 60 x 50 mm were prepared and placed in horizontally mounted cylindrical chambers. Air maintained at 23 °C (±2 °C) and 50 % (±5 %) RH was fed in coaxially to one end of the cylinder. The exhaust air was sampled for VOCs and for formaldehyde following 3 and 28 day of exposure. The results of this paper will help inform the design of holistic indoor environments that consider more than just the hygrothermal properties of insulation materials.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages8
Publication statusPublished - 2015


  • Air tight construction
  • Building Related Illness
  • Indoor Environment
  • Formaldehyde
  • Volatile organic compounds


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