From wool to hemp, sustainable building materials are a growing business in the Mountain West
On a recent Wednesday afternoon inside a 67,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Reno, Nevada, a large machine was moving a fluffy, off-white material through a series of drum rollers. The substance was being layered into thick panels of insulation made from a material not often found inside walls in homes: wool.
“Hot, cold, warm, dry – wool does it all,” said Andrew Legge, founder and managing partner of Havelock Wool.
The company makes insulation products entirely out of sheep wool. Legge started the company in response to the lack of healthy and sustainable choices in the insulation industry.
“As an insulator, we’d like to say that evolution has occurred in nature’s R&D department – not in some lab creating a synthetic fiber that is from the onset just not going to perform as well,” said Legge.
According to the Environmental Working Group, an environmental health advocacy nonprofit, commonly used materials like fiberglass and spray foam may contain toxic chemicals that can pose health risks to installers. Legge said that’s pushing more homeowners to say, “Wait, I don’t want that.”
“And if we’re doing our job,” he continued, “then when they go searching for an alternative, they find us.”
And a lot of people did during the pandemic. Havelock Wool’s sales quadrupled during the first year of COVID-19 and grew another 25% in 2021. Legge said sales were flat last year because production couldn’t keep up with demand.
Another company trying to capture those consumers is Hempitecture. Based in Ketchum, Idaho, Hempitecture makes insulation out of hemp sourced from farmers in neighboring Montana. Mattie Mead, founder and CEO, said sales have doubled year-over-year since he launched the business in 2018.
“Consumer sentiment towards sustainability is a huge factor,” said Mead. “The pandemic heightened the awareness of how much time we spend indoors.”
Havelock Wool and Hempitecture are just two of the companies trying to get a piece of the sustainable building materials market estimated to be worth nearly $81 billion. Another one catering to eco-conscious consumers is Denver-based RavenWindow. It makes “smart windows” that automatically tint when it’s hot to reduce heat and glare and allow maximum light and warmth when it’s cold, helping homeowners consume less energy.
Still, businesses with eco-friendly solutions trying to gain a foothold in the building sector face plenty of challenges, said John Freer, director of the Sustainable Construction Technology program at the University of Montana’s Missoula College.
One of the biggest hurdles? Many contractors are resistant to change and can be scared off by a new material or technique.
“They know the material they’re working with, they know how much it costs, they know how long it takes them to install it, they know the longevity of it, and they know the warranty of it,” Freer said.
Meanwhile, many customers are deterred by the prices of products like sustainable insulation, which can cost twice as much as other types. Fiberglass panels, for example, range between 30 cents and $1.50 per square foot, according to HomeAdvisor. Havelock Wool’s website lists its wool panels for between $1.50 and $2.25 per square foot.
Insulation is typically less than 2% of a home’s total construction cost, with the average amount for a typical single-family home just over $5,000, according to a 2019 report by the National Association of Home Builders.
Nonetheless, that can add thousands of dollars to a project, said Daniel Fraiman, who builds multimillion dollar homes around Lake Tahoe and Truckee, Calif.
“The cost becomes an inhibitor for doing some of these products,” Fraiman said. “They love the idea, and they get attached to it early on, and then once we get into what it costs, it doesn’t make the cut.”
Fraiman said clients that decide to go with sustainable insulation have researched the benefits and studied the health risks of other kinds, especially for the installers.
“Spray foam insulation is one of the gnarliest products there is,” said Fraiman. “Those guys are wearing spacesuits. I mean, they’re in full hazmat suits because that stuff is gnarly.”
Back at Havelock Wool, flurries of wool could be seen floating through the air as workers in typical face masks bagged and boxed products. The company doesn’t add any synthetic mixes or bonding agents to the material but does add a small amount of non-toxic boric acid to repel insects.
Standing in the center of the factory floor, Legge said the company will increase output later this year. He invested in new machinery so they can triple their processing capacity to more than 16,000 pounds of wool a day.
“We are well aligned with what long-run demand looks like and this shift in consumer demand for better, healthier, more sustainable products,” Legge said.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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