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Episode 29 – Wool in your walls – Interview with Andrew Legge

Discover how you can green your life by building a knowledge base of current sustainable and eco-savvy trends. This is Build Green Live Green.

In this episode, we will discuss the benefits of wool insulation. We are here today with Jessica McNaughton of CaraGreen and Andrew Legge from Havelock Wool.

JESSICA: Hi, this is Build Green Live Green, and I'm Jessica. And today we have our first guest on the show- well we had Cody, but he's a CaraGreen person. So we have Andrew Legge from Havelock Wool and we are talking today about wool insulation and how, I guess I would call it, Andrew underrepresents, not even underrepresented, I guess how little is known about it and how it's such a superior product. And if you could just kind of introduce yourself and educate the audience a little bit on what wool insulation is and why you guys are so passionate about it.

ANDREW: Yeah. First off, thanks a lot for having me on. We enjoy the opportunity to do these things because essentially all of our efforts at Havelock these days, well really from the beginning, have been about education and awareness. So the opportunity for us to kind of, you know, get, in this case, literally behind the microphone and help people understand why wool is the most dynamic fiber on the planet is not only part of our job, it's something that we really enjoy doing. The origin of our business is pretty simple. I was leaving a former post in the finance space, I actually happened to be stationed in Southeast Asia where I was spending any time that I had for holiday in New Zealand and had developed some personal interests there. And in leaving my old firm, I decided that I wanted to do something that was more New Zealand-specific for a living, so to speak and spending time there over the years, I had identified some things that I thought were interesting opportunities for working with small businesses in injecting capital and helping them develop their opportunity mostly offshore. And that's where I ran into some folks that wanted to do something with wool insulation, and admittedly, I didn't know much about it at the time, but it didn't take long to develop, what I would call a passion for this amazingly dynamic fiber that frankly has evolved across 10,000 years as an insulator. And so it's something that nature has given us for the purpose of insulating. And it seemed to me that it was rather bizarre that we weren't using it for that purpose wherever we possibly could.

JESSICA: So now that you know all these benefits of the wool fiber and we can get into the details, I think that we should, but set the stage for us a little bit about where we are currently with insulation because you're talking about a fiber that's evolved over centuries and millennia probably, and what we currently use today, you know, is a fiberglass fiber and how did we get to fiberglass and you know, kind of do a comparison of the fibers for us?  And you know, why are we always using pink insulation today and how is the wool fiber so much better? 

ANDREW: Yeah, sure. So I mean, if you go back into, you know, kind of modern times of built structures, so let's go back, you know, a couple hundred years, we really didn't use insulation. You might get insulation value out of the way the structure was built. So, you know, if it was stucco, then you wouldn't have air moving it through the wall space or this or the structure to people that the roof was. And so that could provide some insulative of capacity for the inside. But essentially, you know, when we started with wood and stick built structures for the most part, you would find that they were not insulated. And on the one hand that was actually quite beneficial for longevity because the wood was- and the structure, we're able to breathe. So, you know, if you're in a climate zone where you know you've got humidity and moisture at certain times a year and then dry at others, you've got a structure that can breathe and adapt.

JESSICA: So are you saying the addition of insulation doesn't allow that? 

ANDREW: Well, no. I mean, so it does, it did for a while. And so, you know, if you get into kind of early 20th century fiberglass, like a lot of things was created by accident. A scientist working on creating some vacuum seal used a sort of a heavy heat flow that spun out these fibers. And there you had fiberglass, which was not originally used for insulation and building structures but was actually taking on more of a structural component for boats. In some instances, they were trying to make clothing out of it. We sort of joked about that in one of our blogs that, you know, do you actually go out and wear a fiberglass base layer when you're skiing? And of course the answer is no.

JESSICA: And your blog is on your website.

ANDREW: Yeah. Havelock Wool, www.havelockwool.com and we have a whole section where we, we do our best to communicate on a weekly basis about stuff that we're seeing in the industry. So you know, fiberglass, like a lot of things was created by accident and slowly, that was around early 1930s, and then slowly it started to make its way into wall cavities to be used as an insulation medium. Cellulose, which is like a recycled, iy was like a recycled fiber in its early days these days. The attempt is that recycled newspaper, but cellulose predated fiberglass. And I think you know, this is subject to some sort of form of debate, but I think it’s really Owens Corning involvement and you know, a big company with a big marketing budget. And if you talk to people who were… 

JESSICA: And a Pink Panther, right? 

ANDREW: Yeah, exactly. And if you talk to people who were aware of that developing case, what they would tell you is that in the, you know, let's go back 50 years now, you know, basically structures were either insulated with fiberglass or nothing at all. And that was how Owens Corning and its marketing budgets really started to evolve the industry and frankly take over. Because they didn't have any competition, there were essentially able to charge whatever they wanted and they were making money hand over fist, which of course fueled their marketing budgets and they had a very positive feedback loop towards dominating an industry by this fiber. Where I think, now we can go back to your question is, you know, what is this fiber and what is the insulation market currently look like? And basically these fibers are synthetic construct created in a lab that would rather do a better job mimicking what a wool fiber looks like than they actually do. And so to simplify that, if we were looking at these things under a microscope, whether it's a fiberglass, cellulose, or even cotton fiber, what you're going to see is something that is tubular in nature. And so not very dynamic, not a lot going on there. Sort of like a piece of spaghetti and maybe even a hollow one. And so if you think about that-

JESSICA: Bucatini.

ANDREW: Yeah, exactly. If you think about that when, when you add a challenge to a fiber without a lot of complexity, and that could be time, fibers break down, that could be moisture, which happens readily in the built environment. These fibers are going to start to lose whatever performance they may have started with. So conversely, and this is one of the major drivers for how we got into this business, when you look at a course wool fiber under a microscope, you're going to see an awful lot going on. There are five follicles in that fiber. That's where the inherent moisture management comes in. Because of that dynamic structure, there's a lot more to break down, which means it doesn't happen if it's left in an open, airy state like a wall cavity. It's also a keratin, which is protein-based, which it's- means it's not supporting the growth of mold. And then when you get into the molecular side of it, there are amino acids that are bonding with harmful chemicals like formaldehyde, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide. So for us it's sort of, you know, this is nature's R and D department over thousands of years creating a fiber to serve as an insulator. It's protecting sheep from the elements, hot and cold, wet and dry. And guess what? It does its job day in, day out. And like anything, when you try and replicate that in a lab, there's a very good chance that you're not going to succeed on all of those levels.

JESSICA: So at CaraGreen, we have a CE course on biomimicry, and it sounds a lot like what you're talking about here, how you take something that has evolved over time in nature and apply it to the built environment. So I think what we're saying here is fiberglass, which was this accidental fiber that ended up being in the right place, I guess at the right time when there was no solution for the wall cavity and Owens Corning being the only game in town took over that opportunity and there was really no one there to refute it or compete against it. And pink insulation kind of took over. But the reality is that the performance of a wool fiber and the functionality it provides to a sheep when applied inside a building wall is actually a much more effective product to use in that wall cavity.

ANDREW: Yeah. And I think that's just, I mean, literally it just gets down to fiber dynamics. It's really that simple. You know, it's not Havelock Wool and you know, some amazing thing that we do to the raw material here. In all honesty, we try to do as little as possible to manipulate that fiber. We want to take it from the sheep's back, of course. Excuse me. We want to clean it and then we want it to go in wall cavities to do its thing. And so, you know, we're advocates for wool first, right? Obviously we would rather you get it from us than one of our competitors, but in all reality, you know, if it's between wool from any provider and fiberglass or cellulose or certainly foam, then by all means, you know, we're just trying to help, we have a mantra here at Havelock Wool, which is just help people make informed decisions, right?

JESSICA: Right. Yeah, so you're an educator and I think that that's really important because some of the products that you're talking about- I mean fiberglass, you know, at one point known carcinogen, and then you've got this spray foams, which are coming into the limelight now as being much, much worse than anyone ever thought. Cellulose, you're talking about newspaper, I don't want newspaper in my wall cavity.  Exactly what it says. Cellulose. And then I think one of the most, the guiltiest of installations is Rockwool, which you know, is basically trying to claim that there is some sort of wool fiber when in fact it's basically slag. 

ANDREW: Yeah. It's basalt rock and slag with a formaldehyde binder. Some of their products, they've gotten rid of the formaldehyde, but you know, there's this highly contested new factory going in in West Virginia, which is in the media, you know, at least a monthly, you know, the local community doesn't want it, because they don't want the formaldehyde in the air. And who can blame them because talk about known carcinogens. That is one. And you know, on the fiberglass piece, I'm happy to offer a little bit of science because, you know, like you, I was like, you know, fiberglass used to be a carcinogen. How come it isn't anymore? And so I did the research and I’ve put this out publicly. I've received a letter from Owens Corning telling me they didn't like my opinion, but they didn't refute it with, you know hard science. And so what my research told me was that they change the aspect ratio and that allowed them to remove the label as a carcinogen. And so basically what that means is the aspect ratio of fiber is the relationship with length to width. And so they just made it smaller, right. And so then what they said is, look, this isn't bio-persistent, it's bio-soluble. So you inhale it and now it's not going to hang around, bio-persistent, it's soluble, it's going to dissolve. And for me that's still shards of glass in your respiratory tract. And we wrote a blog about this and you know, we're not here to agitate Owens Corning, they could put us out of business tomorrow, but we are here to help people make informed decisions.

JESSICA: And I feel like,  I feel like people should know when there's a product in your walls that you won't even touch or you don't want to go in the attic because there's something up there that you don't want to even make contact with. You know, it's sitting in your walls and you talked earlier about airflow and I think that's an important thing to touch on here is air is flowing through your wall cavities. It's part of, you know, the way a building functions. And can you talk a little bit about what Havelock does in that role, because it doesn't just insulate, you know, it actually performs beyond just being an insulator.

ANDREW: Yeah, I’m happy to. I have to say though, I just, I sort of chuckled when you said if you won't touch it, because that's sort of a new thing for us with our architect friends. We literally walk into a meeting and we bring wool and we bring fiberglass and we ask them to engage with the product. And of course the fiberglass never comes out of the bag. And so we look at them and we say, “if you won't touch it, why are you specifying it?” And I think that's a very easy way to help people understand that this product, aside from being cheap isn't doing anybody any favors.

JESSICA: You mean fiberglass.

ANDREW: Fiberglass. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. So to your question- building is getting quite interesting and you know, it's taking on in the high-performance realm, some really interesting conversations around building efficiency because climate change is happening. Carbon footprint is a real thing. So we'll leave the discussion about materials and upfront carbon aside for now and just talk about building efficiency and how to reduce your heating and cooling demands. And the way you do that is to build better. And a leading way to do that is to build with an airtight structure. But that introduces a whole new problem set that needs to be dealt with. And so first and foremost, if your building is airtight, you need to now think about all of the materials that are in it and you are breathing those materials. So there's formaldehyde in plywood, I mean formaldehyde comes out of your toaster oven. So, you know, there's lots of places where we're finding sort of low-grade materials, right? Cleaning products, what's in those chemicals. I mean, everybody needs to pay attention to that stuff. And then more benign is just, you know, an average family of four will create two and a half gallons of water internally in the house every day in the form of vapor and condensation. So if your house is sealed, where's that stuff going? And what's in your wall cavity? Sure, there's wallboard, but you know, that stuff's not a sealant. So you've got stuff moving in behind your wallboard and frankly if you've got harmful chemicals in some sort of insulation medium behind that stuff, it is absolutely working its way into your living space. And so that's where one of the really unknown advantages of wool comes in, which is this amino acids in the structure, in the structure of the fiber that allows for an irreversible bond. It's both chemical and physical bond with formaldehyde, nitrogen oxide, and sulfur dioxide. And that's not marketing speak- that's science. And there's plenty of third-party information out there. Most of it is on our website. There's a great thesis from a young gal at UT Austin doing some graduate work in 2014 about the relationship between wool and formaldehyde. That's not on our website, but we're happy to share it. All anybody has to do is email us. And so whenever you get into this discussion, which seems to be increasingly prevalent around indoor air quality, which by the way, the EPA is telling us that it's two to five times worse indoor than outdoor. You know, we're now sort of in this discussion of a, which again is something that is, you know, increasingly part of the norm, which is, you know, I'm eating healthier, I'm taking better care of myself. The next step in this equation is what are the materials that I'm surrounding myself with. And of course this goes way beyond wool insulation and how do I, and that's, you know, right to what you guys are doing, right? Get people in your store and educate them on how they can use better materials because they should be considering these things as something that they surround themselves with every single day. And so wool’s inheritability is that passive filtration. And then you know, that moisture that's moving around, you know, that needs a home. And if it finds its way into something that can mold, you've got a problem. And that's where another advantage of wool installation comes in, because it's literally absorbing and desorbing. Just like you know, if you're out going for a run and you're wearing wool or if you're skiing and you're wearing a wool base layer, it's going to work actively year in, year out absorbing and desorbing, think about that against like a capilene, you know base layer where you know it's going to work for a little while but then the efficiency's going to go down and it's going to start to smell bad. And that goes right back to this discussion. Same thing if you look at those fibers under a microscope versus wool ones, you're going to see the same dislocation in what those fibers look like and what that inherent performance is. I've got wool base layers that I’ve been wearing for a decade. I threw my capilene one's out a long time ago, but I ski in the backcountry with friends all the time and I can tell they're wearing capilene because they don't smell good. And that's because those fibers aren't working anymore. And this is the same thing for structures that we're building where we're using wool installation, which is there to last and do its job over time versus a weak fiber that you're buying to save money and you're throwing it in a wall cavity and you're thinking it doesn't matter when in fact it does.

JESSICA: So I think what you're saying as far as wool insulation and a building cavity is that it actually acts like an air filter within that space. You may not be overly aware of it, you may not be staring at it all the time, but you don't have to worry because that filtration is actively helping. And it's actually removing pollutants from the air as well as any surrounding building materials that may have formaldehyde or some other chemicals in that, correct?

ANDREW: That's a hundred percent correct. And again, you know, there are studies out there, we don't make this stuff up. There's a good one that Illinois Institute of Technology did. They built four houses in Tennessee and they monitored all of them over the course of the year without them being inhabited, just to see what, how they would perform and what they would do. And the standout for us, and of course we were looking for this, but you know, again, it's just what we found in the data, is the highest concentrations of formaldehyde were in the wall cavity.  So that could be from the installation, that could be from the sheathing, it could be from the plywood. But either way, think about if that's a wool batt or blow in insulation for that matter, that is going to bond with formaldehyde, and it is going to hold onto it. And you know I'm not a chemist, but I can tell you that it's a polar bond. So first of all, what happens is something called chemisorption and physiosorption. The physical piece is about 15% or 20% of the relationship, the chemical piece, you know, 80, the dominant side, 80% ish is totally irreversible. And then the 15% is only reversible at extreme temperature or moisture. And so that means that you've basically got to take this thing and submerge it in water, which is highly unlikely for that bond to be broken down. And so it's going to sit in that wool and not be a part of your daily life, but it's also not going to be released such that you need to be worried about it later.

JESSICA: So you've got a completely natural fiber. It removes pollutants from the air. It can also regulate humidity as you were describing before. It's clear that, you know, it's a superior product. I mean, we've worked with it for a while. We've sold a lot of it. We sold a lot of it to tiny homes, van life, you know, people that are in a small space and they want to surround themselves with something healthy. They're very tuned into it at a smaller level. They're making really smart choices about all of the materials they're using in these small spaces. I'm interested in finding out how we can get that to scale up to larger spaces, is increasing awareness to the point that people look at wool insulation and say, “I need this in my whole building. This is a better choice for my building occupants. This is a better choice for my students. This is a better choice for my family, for my employees, though my patients, hospital patients.” I mean the idea of fiberglass insulation in a hospital is a little bit shocking. So there are obviously challenges, you know, to get increasing awareness and to getting wool out there in these applications instead of fiberglass. What is the biggest challenge that you see? Is it awareness or is it price?

ANDREW: I mean, it's a great question Jessica, and you know, this is what we deal with all day every day. And for me it's awareness. Insulation is 1.8% of construction costs, right? And so if you add to that in an overall construction budget, this is the way this is, this is largely contextual. It's why I think it is awareness over cost. And we're not flipping about costs. Sure, we're asking you to spend more money. But the reality is you're getting a product that's way outweighs the cost delta. And in fact, we've got people that we work with now who are repeat users and they're coming back to us saying, “I can't believe how much more I'm getting for such a low cost, for such a small cost differential.” And so for us it's about the context and it's about getting trade professionals on board. And so this is sort of the fun part for us. You know, we originally followed the traditional path to market through architects and builders and they did what they love to do by kind of pushing us off to, “oh, maybe I’ll find the right client for you and we can work together.” And we just found that they were very happy to keep that brush off alive. And so what we did about two years ago is we started appealing directly to homeowners. And so this is a long story that I'm going to make really short, what we're able to do now is we're able to take that experience and that data and we can go back to trade professionals and say, “look guys, we don't want to hear that you know, you're going to wait for the right client cause your client’s calling us every day. We know they want this product. And so let's work together on how we can get this into more places.” And that is back to the awareness equation because again, in this context of insulation being 1.8% of construction costs, let's say you're building a house for $300- if you want to have all wool instead of fiberglass, you're talking about $301 or $302 per square foot. That's how that math plays out across a construction budget. And so our argument is, “hey, if I sit with you, homeowner, and I make that clear to you, instead of $300 a foot, you're going to build for $302 a foot. And you can have this amazing high-performance natural material instead of fiberglass, which frankly no one likes.” I'm willing to bet that the odds go way north of 50% in that equation in terms of how that decision gets made. And so it's just continuing to educate and, in some instances, pound the table and say, “give these people the option.” You know, we're not here to take 10% market share, but I'd love to get 1% market share. And in doing that, we're giving people a better place to live. We're using a rapidly renewable material in its creation. It's longer lasting, it's higher performance, and when the structure gets repurposed 50 or a 100 years later, you can compost wool insulation versus adding to landfill. So, you know, we just have to keep our head down and you know, play this blind faith game of awareness. And you know, the cost piece is not something that we just brush aside. We realize that it's a real thing, but we really aim to get people thinking about it in the right context, because then it becomes a very easy decision. 

JESSICA: That's great. I think that's absolutely the right answer. I think the only time price becomes an issue is when someone was expecting to get all those performance benefits without paying for them. 

ANDREW:  Yeah, I mean I don't want to, I don't want to bash the competition, but let's talk about it for a second. I mean they've created a race to the bottom because the only measurable unit for insulation in its current form is cost. It doesn't do anything. It's not a high-performance product or when we're talking about fibrous insulation, the foam is a separate discussion. So literally it's just become this measure of “how cheap can I get it.” 

JESSICA: Yes. And I think when you're talking about the awareness side of it, I think that kind of the question you need to ask is, you know, “why am I insulating in the first place?” And if you can frame it that way, then you can get to the discussion about, you know, fiberglass versus wool, but someone really has to fundamentally understand what the point of insulating is, what it was intended to be versus what it actually is today. As you say, the race to the bottom with price. 

ANDREW: Yeah. And in that, you know, again, a very simple question, Hey, we're building all these structures. What's a structure designed for like in its purest form? To protect us from the elements, right? So why are we trying to make the part of the structure that does indeed protect us from the element? We're going back to walls and roof here. Why are we trying to put the cheapest, lowest integrity products in those spaces when we've got better options where against the construction budget, the delta is a rounding error. Like this is just common sense and we're just trying to get people to employ it a bit more.

JESSICA: Well I think that's great. And I think that, you know, as you guys just keep doing what you're doing at Havelock and at CaraGreen, we will do the same, you know, wool installation really is, I think it's going to gain a foothold here and you know, we'll do everything we can to kind of help you guys, you know, have a successful- continued successful launch of the product here in the US. 

ANDREW: Yeah, thanks. I mean, we value these relationships, we love the opportunity to support them through things like this and of course otherwise, and it's just kind of fun to be a, you know, an evangelist for an amazingly dynamic fiber. And so, you know, we'll keep doing it and we'll keep hoping that you know, you'll join us in the fight and certainly appreciate everything we've done together. 

JESSICA: You know, give us an email address. You mentioned email address earlier and remind everyone of the websites, so they know how to find Havelock Wool.

ANDREW: Yeah, thanks. So our website, we try to be really informative. And then what we also like to do is direct traffic to us so we can answer all of our questions and then wherever possible handoff to our distribution partners like across the east coast, CaraGreen very well situated in North Carolina. So, the idea for us is to try to drive traffic to our website, which is www.havelockwool.com. We've got an “info at” email address to make it easy for people. That's info@havelockwool.com. And we're just here to again, help people make informed decisions. Hopefully that includes wool. But we've learned a lot about the space and we're happy to share what we know.

JESSICA: Thanks Andrew. This is Build Green Live Green. Thanks for listening.

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