When choosing insulating materials for your home or building, the options are more numerous than they first appear.
A visit to the hardware store will yield only a few options: foam board, fiberglass rolls, and perhaps spray foam. These materials, although widely available, contain many synthetic chemicals that you may not want to have in your home or around your family.
If you’re attempting to construct your building with all-natural materials, these conventional options may seem disheartening. But don’t lose hope! There are several eco-friendly, chemical-free alternatives for insulating your home that will be effective and safe for both you and your family.
The first option we’ll explore is sheep’s wool. Sheep live in some of the harshest and coldest climates in the world. They thrive there because they have a thick coat of wool that has natural properties to retain heat, even when damp. You’ll often find native sheep living high in the mountains, where it is extremely wet and cold, and yet they’re perfectly content.
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For the same reasons that sheep’s wool does a great job protecting sheep from weather conditions, a roll of wool insulation will do wonders to insulate your home. When wool fibers are compressed down into a roll of insulation, the crimped nature of the fibers creates millions of tiny air pockets, which provides great insulation, keeping warmth in the winter and out in the summer. In addition, wool has a tremendous amount of breathability, as it absorbs and releases moisture in the air. When wool absorbs moisture, it actually generates heat, preventing condensation in cavities by keeping the temperature above the dew point. This property creates a natural buffering effect, using relative humidity to stabilize the building temperature.
Old denim and cotton clothes also can be a great alternative to conventional insulation. Many cotton insulation rolls made today are constructed from recycled blue jeans and other textiles. Some companies even will let you donate your own old denim. Although cotton insulation made from recycled textiles is about twice as expensive as fiberglass insulation, it is incredibly safe to handle, has a longer useful life than fiberglass, and has superior soundproofing qualities. For some homeowners, the knowledge that they aren’t putting potentially harmful chemicals in the walls of their living space is worth the extra cost.
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If you are constructing your home from scratch, using straw bales to construct the walls is a great insulation option. Straw bale homes typically have an R-Value (a measure of materials’ resistance to heat flow; the higher the number, the higher the insulation value) of more than 10. This is comparable to the insulation value of fiberglass. This, in addition to the huge cost savings compared to traditional insulation materials like fiberglass, makes straw bale walls an excellent option when building natural structures.
Straw bale walls can be finished with a wide variety of materials to make them look and feel exactly like a normal home wall. Most people who visit your home will have no idea that the straw bales are there! Straw bales also provide great sound insulation for walls and are very fire resistant when packed tightly and covered with an appropriate skin.
Don’t be fooled by the lack of variety when you visit the insulation aisle of your local hardware store. There are great alternatives – if you just know where to look.
Aryn Young lives in Homer, Alaska, running a small farm and sustainable land clearing operation.