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Thermal insulation is a material that blocks or slows the flow of heat through
the building envelope. Insulation is vital to most green building design
because it allows spaces to retain what heat they have, while avoid gaining
excess heat from outside.
Its important to understand Heat Energy Flows in a building to understand insulation.Insulation
primarily is designed to prevent heat transfer from conduction and radiation.
Resistance to conduction is measured by R-value (high thermal resistance = high R-value);
Resistance to radiative heat transfer is measured by emissivity (high resistance = low emissivity
and high reflectance). Conduction is the dominant factor when materials are touching each
other; when there is an air gap between materials, radiation becomes important. Convection
usually only becomes an issue when significant air pockets are involved.
Materials used for insulation fall into two broad categories:
(1) Fibrous or cellular products These resist conduction and can be either inorganic (such as
glass, rock wool, slag wool, perlite, or vermiculite) or organic ( such as cotton, synthetic fibers,
cork, foamed rubber, or polystyrene).
(2) Metallic or metalized organic reflective membranes - These block radiation heat transfer
and must face an air space to be effective.

R-values and Insulation (Conduction)

Below is a table of R-values for some common building products. For a more extensive list, see archtoolbox.
Material, 1" (2.5cm) thickness
Vacuum insulated panel
Polyisocyanurate spray foam
Polyurethane rigid panel
Closed-cell polyurethane spray foam
Extruded polystyrene (XPS), low-density
Expanded polystyrene (EPS) high-density
Air-entrained concrete
Fiberglass batts
Cotton batts (Blue Jean insulation)
Open-cell polyurethane spray foam

Rock and slag wool batts
Cellulose wet-spray
Straw bale
Softwood (most)
Hardwood (most)
Poured concrete
Steel stud (source)

Table of R-values for 1" thickness of common building materials. From Wikipedia and Klepper,
Hahn & Hyatt.

Because R-values are 1 /

conductance (U), doubling
the thickness of insulation
will not cut heat loss in
half. Rather, there is an
exponential decay of heat
flow, where the difference
between no insulation and
one inch (or one cm) of a
particular insulation may
save 80% of heat loss, while
going from one inch to two
inches of that insulation
saves an additional 9%, and
going from 9 inches to ten

Reduction in heat loss does not follow R-values linearly, but

in an inverse logarithmic curve.

inches only saves an additional 1%.

For more information on calculating the R-value of the envelope, see Total R-value and Thermal

Low-Emissivity Insulation (Radiation)

There are many situations

where radiative heat transfer
is important to avoid--for
instance, attics or
warehouses where the sun
heats the building's skin
excessively. In conditions
like this, just a thin sheet of
reflective material can make
as much difference as
adding many inches of
conventional insulation.
These are usually called
"radiant barriers".

Low-emissivity insulation is reflective foil-faced.

Radiant barriers must have a low emissivity (0.1 or less) and high reflectance (0.9 or
more). Thus they are shiny reflective or white materials.
They only reduce radiative heat transfer. Because of this, reflective insulation is only useful on
the surface of insulation facing a cavity or the outside air.

Convection and Insulation

Convection through fluids (like air) can also transfer heat. Unwanted convection through the
building envelope can cause unwanted heat gains or losses through infiltration (see Infiltration &
Moisture). Also, suppressing convection within the materials of the building envelope is often
what makes insulation effective.
Convection within the building envelope hurts insulation as well. Still air is an excellent
insulator, so good insulation often uses small pockets of air. The main reason that foam
insulation is a better insulator than batt insulation is that there is less convection of the air within
foam. Aerogel is such a high-performance insulator because it is mostly air, but the micro-scale
structure of the aerogel prevents convection of the air held in it.
Fibrous or cellular products prevent conduction by keeping air still (preventing convection).
Heres how:

Batt insulation traps air in a mat made from a low conductivity solid, such as glass or organic
fiber (wool or polyester).
Open-cell foams trap tiny bubbles of air or other gas in a poor conductor, such as polystyrene or
polyurethane. However, gas can still migrate through open-cell foams.
Closed-cell foams, where gas cannot travel from cell to cell, are the best way to avoid

Insulation Materials
Although insulation can be made from a variety of materials, it usually comes in five physical
forms: batting, blown-in, loose-fill, rigid foam board, and reflective films. Each type is made to
fit a particular part of a building.

Batting / Blankets

Form Factor & Installation: In the form of batts or continuous rolls that are hand-cu
Material: Fiberglass is manufactured from sand and recycled glass, and mineral fi
fibers from jeans are used. Available with or without vapor and flame retarding fac
Benefits: Common and easy to install. Available in widths suited to standard spacin

Blown-in/ Loose-Fill

Form Factor & Installation: Loose fibers or fiber pellets are blown into building cavit
Material: Fiberglass, rock wool, or cellulose. Cellulose is made from recycled plant
Benefits: Can provide additional resistance to air infiltration if the insulation is suffic

Foamed in Place

Form Factor & Installation: Sprayed directly into cavities within the building, where
Material: Polyurethane or polyisocyanurate. Some brands are partially made from b
than 10 - 15%, as there are currently not yet viable bio-based alternatives to the bu
Benefits: It can fully seal the cavity, helping to reduce air leaks. Spray foam, once s
acoustical insulation.

Rigid Board

Form Factor & Installation: Plastic foams extruded into boards, or fibrous materials
both thermal and acoustical insulation, strength with low weight, and few heat loss
Material: Polyisocyanurate, polyurethane, extruded polystyrene ("XPS"), expanded
Benefits: Lightweight, provide structural support, and generally have a high R-value
cathedral ceilings.


Form Factor and Installation: Roll of foil, integrated into housewrap, or integrated in
Material: Fabricated from aluminum foil with a variety of backings such as craft pap
Benefits: Resists radiative heat transfer. The resistance to heat flow depends on th
reduce both summer heat gain and winter heat loss. They are most effective in hot

Working Together
Different forms of insulation can be used together. For example, you can add bat or roll
insulation over loose-fill insulation, or vice versa. Usually higher density insulation should not
be placed on top of lower density material that is easily compressed. Doing so will reduce the
thickness of the lower insulation and thereby reduce its R-value.
Since hot air rises by convection, hot air generally pools at the undersides of surfaces and
conducts heat upwards into those materials. Radiant barriers only resist heat transfer by
radiation, they cannot resist conductive and convective heat flow. Thus they are more effective
at preventing heat from flowing downward through spaces than upward.

Movable Insulation

Windows often provide

valuable heat gain during
the day but cause
problematic heat loss during
the night. One way to
prevent this is movable
insulation, in the form of
insulated shutters or
movable walls, insulated
internal or external rollershades, or--most commonly-thick curtains.
Closed cornice board over curtains
Curtains often have a fatal
flaw of allowing air
convection around
them. Cold air between the curtain and window sinks, falling under the bottom of the curtain
into the room, and warm air from the room is sucked from above the curtain into the space
between it and the window, to repeat the cycle. This is solved by having a closed cornice board
or "pelmet" sealing the top of the curtains.
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