Integrating Healthier Materials into Energy Efficiency Programs: A Materials Guide and Resources Informing Action

2018 - 2022

Insulation and air sealing are two of the most common interventions performed in energy efficiency upgrades, and yet they can introduce many chemicals of concern into buildings. That’s why Healthy Building Network (HBN) teamed up with Energy Efficiency for All (EEFA) and other partner organizations to consider healthier insulation and air sealing materials and how to help encourage their use in multifamily energy efficiency upgrades. The resources below were researched and written by HBN or partners on this project and co-released by EEFA member Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Click on the document titles below to download these resources. 

HBN-Authored Resources

Making Affordable Multifamily Housing More Energy Efficient: A Guide to Healthier Upgrade Materials
This report includes details of HBN’s research on the common chemical content of a range of insulation and sealant materials as well as simple, actionable recommendations to make the best material choices possible. Because hazardous content is not the only consideration when making material choices, also included is HBN’s compilation of relative cost information, performance characteristics, and installation and code considerations. Finally, the report introduces a discussion of policies that may impact material decisions and how to encourage the use of healthier materials in multifamily energy efficiency upgrades.

Guidance for Specifying Healthier Insulation and Air-Sealing Materials
This document summarizes HBN’s guidance for evaluating and selecting healthier insulation and air-sealing materials and specification language for incorporating these choices into energy efficiency upgrade projects. Guidance is provided in multiple formats including summary guidance on healthier insulation and air-sealing materials, tiered recommendations by product category, and sample specification language. 

See the full report above for information about why it is important to be aware of the use of hazardous chemicals in building products, references to the scientific literature on health impacts of building upgrades and materials, the methodology behind our recommendations, and detailed research into the common content of various insulation and air-sealing materials. 

Insulation and Air Sealing in Low-Income Multifamily Energy Efficiency Programs: Current State, Challenges, and Opportunities to Use Safer Materials
This 2022 report outlines the current state of insulation and air-sealing measures in low-income multifamily energy efficiency programs. It includes findings on the extent to which insulation and air-sealing measures are currently being performed, some of the challenges to including these important measures in multifamily building retrofits, and opportunities to increase their use while ensuring that safer materials are used.

Partner-Authored Resources

Policy Brief and 2-page Fact Sheet
Although material choices are driven by many considerations, policies that shape standards and certifications have a significant impact and present opportunities for change. Project partner VEIC developed these resources that focus on policies at a state and local level that drive material decisions for energy efficiency upgrades in the affordable multifamily sector. This research, based on 12 states with diverse climate and policy contexts, centered on these three questions:

  1. What drives multifamily retrofit materials choices now?
  2. How do healthier materials fit into the building standards and certifications that are commonly used?
  3. How can we further promote the use of healthier materials through these processes?

Drivers, Adoptability, and Performance of Healthier Energy-Efficiency Retrofit Materials in Affordable Multifamily Housing
Three3 captured insights from contractors and industry experts within the affordable multifamily energy retrofit industry through in-depth interviews. The study team aimed to understand the contractors’ and other experts’ motivations and values related to retrofit material choices and use; their perspectives related to usability, adoptability, and limitations of healthier materials; and their recommendations for improvements in promoting the use of healthier materials. The interviews attempted to capture rich anecdotes from those who are most familiar with the use, impact, and performance of these healthier alternatives.

Interviews revealed that health, safety, and environmental impacts are in fact being considered when insulation materials are selected. This understanding is an important starting point for designing educational information to further increase the adoption of healthier building materials.

Case Study: Energy Performance of Chicago Properties Retrofit With Fiberglass Insulation
This is a case study of 13 Chicago metropolitan-area multifamily properties in which retrofits included air sealing and then insulating the roof cavities or attic floors using a blown-in fiberglass insulation. Fiberglass insulation is in the recommended category of insulation materials examined in the above report, Making Affordable Multifamily Housing More Energy Efficient: A Guide to Healthier Upgrade Materials.

The report states, “This case study is intended to illustrate that energy savings were achieved in a set of Chicago metro area multifamily properties upgraded with a fiberglass insulation. The energy savings analysis is based on pre- and post-retrofit weather normalized energy usage data gathered from utility bills. The energy performance of these properties is compared with the findings from a larger national study conducted by Three3 on the post-retrofit energy savings of multifamily units weatherized as part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) in program years 2010 and 2011.”

The national comparison further supports the observation that fiberglass insulation, specifically an insulation that contains lower levels of toxic materials as verified by third party designations, achieves effective levels of energy performance.