When Is An Insulation Manufacturer…
…not an insulation manufacturer? No, it’s not the set-up for a bad joke! All construction projects, even the smallest domestic extensions, feature many different voices either asking for information or offering advice. For any project to be a success, good communication between those voices is vital.
Alas, ‘communication’ doesn’t necessarily translate into ‘collaboration’, meaning the shared goal of creating a quality, comfortable and efficient end product can get lost. With varying levels of knowledge and confidence, it can be difficult for people – particularly those with limited experience of construction – to know which voices to listen to.
The imperative for insulation manufacturers to demonstrate the performance of their products to meet thermal regulations sees them thrust to the forefront of the process. A side effect is that their advice is sought on all aspects of the constructions where their products are used – even when that guidance should be sought from other professionals.
It’s the question that comes up time and again: “What U-value do I need to achieve?
For refurbishment and extension projects, it’s a relatively easy question to answer. Work to existing buildings takes an elemental approach with each part of the building looked at in isolation. Each country’s Building Regulations set out defined targets for individual construction elements and, in the majority of cases, nothing else needs to be addressed.
New buildings require a more holistic approach. The performance of the whole ‘package’ – U-values, air tightness, heating, renewables, solar gains etc. – is assessed in combination. Specifications can be tweaked to optimise the design and, where U-values are concerned, improved performance in one element can offset a shortfall in another.
The energy efficiency of new buildings has been assessed this way for a decade or more throughout the UK, but there are times when the concept remains an alien one. For people not used to working with regulations day in, day out, manufacturers are more likely to be the first port of call.
Insulation companies might employ people experienced in carrying out SAP and SBEM calculations; they may even partner with companies who provide energy assessment services. But, unless the customer is copying the ‘notional dwelling’ specification, a manufacturer is unlikely to be able to definitively state what U-values should be met.
Those notional specifications provided in the Building Regulations for England, Wales and Scotland provide a starting point. Experienced assessment professionals can refine those specifications based on experience and common construction practice, but for new build projects SAP or SBEM calculations must define the performance of individual elements. Any U-value target suggested by an insulation manufacturer is therefore precisely that: a suggestion.
Chartered surveyors / building inspectors
The potential scenarios that result in insulation manufacturers being asked to give their blessing to work are too numerous to be explored individually in this word count, but can involve some or all of the following:
- A lack of knowledge, experience or confidence when installing or inspecting insulation.
- Not enough appreciation of what low energy construction requires or looks like.
- An attitude of ‘I’ve always done it this way’.
- Shortcuts taken or product substitutions made due to time or cost pressures.
- Poor communication between parties involved on the project.
This feature was conceived as a lighthearted examination of the times when too much is asked of insulation manufacturers. When it comes to the quality of our built environment, however, it’s difficult to avoid being entirely serious.
It’s no exaggeration to state that the performance gap – the disparity between a building’s intended thermal comfort and efficiency at design stage, and how it behaves once constructed – is endemic within much of UK construction. Speed of construction is prioritised over quality; questions are asked after the event, rather than checking correct installation procedures before starting.
It speaks to issues of knowledge, skills and training in the whole construction industry – issues we are all aware of, but for which solutions always seem to remain tantalisingly out of reach. For the majority of projects, post occupancy evaluation still lacks feasibility. We don’t know how the buildings we produce are performing.
Checking as-built performance simply isn’t on the agenda, but unless issues like those listed above are picked up during the design and construction phases, the end user will be saddled with an uncomfortable building and high energy bills. And, as events in 2017 have shown us, these sorts of compromises do not just risk compliance with energy efficiency requirements…
Too often, poor insulation installation is only picked up once it is too late. When a problem is raised, when the original intent has not been met, the aim becomes to find the ‘best’ compromise solution. You can’t blame people for being reluctant to take down work that has already been done, but you can question why every step wasn’t taken to ensure the work was done correctly from the outset.
Photographs are emailed from site; restricted views of small areas of the build. “The building inspector is happy if you say this is okay,” comes the accompanying request. Insulation manufacturers understand how their products should be used as well as, if not better than, anybody. But they can only comment on whether an installation meets, or appears to meet, their recommendations.
That isn’t to pick on Local Authority Building Control or Approved Inspectors. It is to demonstrate the importance of all professionals working together and enjoying proper collaboration, rather than hoping manufacturers have magic wands capable of curing on site conflicts.
Next month, part two of this feature will look at how far insulation manufacturers can go in helping with architectural and structural design.
What are your thoughts on insulation manufacturers? Do you agree with the views in this article. Share your thoughts and join the insulate debate in the comments box below: