Why Architects, Engineers, and Builders Choose Spray Foam Insulation
Architects, engineers, and builders who design and construct residential and commercial buildings consider spray foam insulation an indispensable part of achieving “high performance.” Particularly as adherence to US, and International Building Codes becomes mandatory, and home and business owners demand their buildings be as energy efficient and “green” as possible.
Spray foam has a higher R-value per inch than competing materials, greatly reduces air and moisture infiltration into buildings, acts as a sound barrier, and doesn’t degrade after installation. Closed-cell spray foam insulation formulations even add to the integrity of the structure of the building itself allowing for use of less lumber, thus saving trees.
Because of its versatility, unique installation method, and superior energy efficiency qualities, spray foam insulation is the contemporary choice for architects designing tomorrow’s more environmentally sound houses and buildings. Insulation is a crucial element of design because it is a major factor in creating a live or workspace that provides the big three: comfort, health, and energy efficiency. Insulation helps with:
Airflow: prevents air infiltration (closed-cell SPF)
Heat flow: keeps heat in during winter and out during summer so the interior maintains a uniform, consistent, comfortable temperature
Water/moisture: prevents water penetration as well as vapor and general moisture
Air quality: by blocking airflow and preventing moisture infiltration, it can help prevent mold from growing and releasing toxic spores, thus providing a healthy air quality
Freedom of Design
Architects particularly turn to spray foam insulation when designing non-traditional buildings that require a versatile and malleable insulation material that can conform to unusual spaces and cavities. Unlike traditional forms of insulation, it can be easily integrated into unique, oddly shaped, curved, or rounded designs. Architects and designers are not constrained by geometric, standard sized insulation, and are free to be creative in their designs. Spray foam is used consistently in award-winning Solar Decathlon model homes and prefab homes.
“A typical 2,500-square-foot home has more than a half mile of cracks and crevices.”
— Air Barrier Association of America
Leaks occur in drywall and sheathing when gaps are created to accommodate doors, windows, framing joists, electrical outlets, and plumbing hardware. Plus, accidents happen and drywall may be punctured or cut irregularly. Perhaps the most pertinent quality of spray foam insulation is that it provides an excellent air barrier where other traditional types of insulation do not. Because spray foam insulation is installed as a liquid that expands and solidifies as it cures, it seeps into every tiny little nook and crack in a cavity and, in the case of closed-cell SPF, is designed to stop air from flowing through. Along with superior R-value ratings, various spray foam insulation formulations stand up under real-world conditions better then other types of insulation—like fiberglass batting—which require separate air barriers or extra sealing in order to perform to their lab-stated R-values.
In addition to providing a superior air barrier to help conserve energy in a building, spray foam insulation also blocks molds, pollens, and other dangerous airborne particulates from entering a structure, keeping the air quality higher for residents.
Architects are motivated to avoid moisture in wall cavities for good reason. Over time, moisture in the form of actual water or water vapor can lead to:
Compromised health from out-of-control mold growth and spore release
Higher energy costs
Lower re-sale value
Spray foam insulation acts as a moisture barrier, blocking moisture infiltration and condensation inside wall cavities. It thus denies mold the moisture it needs to grow and decay in the walls of a residence or commercial building. As we all know, once mold grows and spreads, it can do great harm and cost a great deal of money to remediate. Spray foam insulation is a preventative method of inhibiting mold growth.
“Closed-cell spray foam provides very good continuous thermal control. Spray foam is an air barrier, so convective looping and air leakage thermal losses do not occur… Because closed-cell spray foam is an air and vapor barrier, there are no risks to air leakage or vapor diffusion condensation.”
Spray foam insulation provides a sound barrier to reduce both airborne and structure-borne noise (impact noise) through the walls, roof, and floor. Architects often use spray foam specifically to soundproof residences near airports, highways, train tracks, and other noisy constructions, and they also use it to soundproof specific spaces like home theaters, media rooms, master bedrooms, and rooms particularly close to plumbing or laundry appliances.
Low and medium-density spray foams, in particular, block sounds by tightly sealing tiny cracks and gaps that would otherwise allow sound to pass through. The very chemical structural make up of the foam once cured dampens, and/or cancels sound.
Seamless, Monolithic Durability
Spray foam insulation doesn’t just provide excellent air, water, and noise control; it can also add to the structural integrity of the building itself. Because spray foam insulation is seamless and can be monolithic—a single mass of material without cracks or seams—it improves the building’s durability and strength. Architects look toward materials like spray foam insulation that can provide more than one benefit to a structure.
Using spray foam insulation is particularly important when designing buildings for areas of the country that experience severe wind uplift such as from hurricanes and tornadoes. A building’s roof is its first line of defense, but it can also be its first place of failure during violent weather, and if the roof fails, the entire structure is in jeopardy. Closed-cell spray foam insulation used in roofing acts as a powerful adhesive and can more than double the roof’s wind uplift resistance—and reduce energy bills.
“Engineers and designers versed in energy-efficient construction agree that efficiency begins with building envelope performance. A high-performance building envelope involves two significant factors: high levels of effective insulation, and a superior and consistent air barrier system.”
Engineers endorse spray foam insulation for all of the reasons that architects do, and have a particular focus on building envelopes that are “tight” and stand up to weather and wear. In this image, you can see how integral spray foam insulation formulations are to the proper construction of a building:
Insulation needs air sealing in order to work, and any air movement through a permeable type of insulation will decrease the R-value that material received in lab testing. Only spray foam insulation completely seals the air by sealing tiny nooks and crannies in the cavity.
Air leakage can result in a 15% increase in cooling energy (in hot weather) and a 20-40% increase in heating energy (in cold weather).
Engineers rely on spray foam insulation not just as an efficient material that stands up over time, but because it helps gain environmental rating credits. Gaining points with commercial energy efficiency rating systems such as LEED and ENERGY STAR is becoming less of an option and more of an expectation for engineers. Arguably the most reputable and well known of all green/sustainable building standards, the LEED program is a third-party system that acts as a benchmark for best practices in both residential and commercial buildings. Because it’s the current standard for good building practices, homeowners who buy today are recognizing that they’ll need LEED certification in order to sell their houses in the future. LEED is quickly become less of an option and more of an expectation. (Read more about this.)
Green homes share of the construction market was 17% in 2011, equating to $17 billion, and expected to rise 29-38% by 2016, potentially a $87–114 billion opportunity, based on the five-year forecast for overall residential construction.
Homeowners are increasingly demanding homes that save them money on energy bills over the life of the home. According to Harvey Bernstein, Vice President of Industry Insights and Alliances at McGraw-Hill Construction, “When builders are able to offer homes that not only are green, but also offer the combination of higher quality and better value, they have a major competitive edge over those building traditional homes.”
Air leakage in the building envelope is a huge source of energy loss in homes, so architects choose insulation materials that will prevent air leakage. Spray foam is ideal for this, because it is installed as a liquid that expands to fill even the tiniest cracks and nooks in the cavity, adhering to the substrate to create a tight air barrier before curing to a permanent solid.
“Heat loss through the ceiling and walls in your home could be very large if the insulation levels are less than the recommended minimum. Given today’s energy prices (and future prices that will probably be higher), the level of insulation might be inadequate, especially if you have an older home.”
The green building market has grown tremendously, from $10 billion in 2005 to an estimated $85 billion in 2012, with expectations of exceeding $200 billion by 2016, according to the Dodge report. Globally, 51% of firms told Turner Construction they expect about two-thirds of their projects to be green by 2015—nearly double the percentage reporting that expectation in 2008.
According to Forbes, “The commercial buildings sector boasts the most explosive growth in green building. In 2010, a third of all new commercial construction was green, amounting to a $54 billion market for commercial green buildings. By 2015, green buildings in the commercial sector are expected to triple, accounting for $120 billion to $145 billion in new construction and $14 billion to $18 billion in major retrofit and renovation projects.”
Greenguard.org, one of the leading “green” certification groups, says, “For commercial and institutional buildings, sustainability has become an overarching and highly important project driver.” In their white paper Green Building Insulation, the Environmental Benefits, they cite four main factors associated with “green building”:
High energy efficiency
Increased property values
Spray foam in commercial buildings can:
Save on energy costs
Eliminate thermal bridging through studs and gaps with exterior application
Provide an insulation/water/air/vapor barrier in one product
Reduced the size of the HVAC
No VOCs and if applied correctly no off-gassing
Adds structural strength and lasts for the life of the building
Adds LEED points
Used in roofing: leak free and requires little or no maintenance, adds insulation value, can be “cool roofing” with proper coating, minimize energy lost from air infiltration improving energy performance, eliminates thermal bridging across fasteners, seamless moisture barrier,
“What we’re seeing is that more people are building green each year, and there is nothing on the horizon that will stop this megatrend or its constituent elements.”
When applied correctly, spray foam insulation exceeds building codes and regulations. More importantly, it saves the commercial building owner money on energy costs and can pay for itself many times over the building’s lifetime.
The Net-Zero Energy Commercial Building Initiative, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), is a government research program focused on improving the energy efficiency of commercial buildings in the United States.