The material selection process for energy efficient upgrades in affordable multifamily projects often prioritizes cost, durability, and aesthetics. However, the content of materials and influence they can have on occupant health must also be considered. In the United States chemicals are considered safe until proven otherwise, and not all manufacturers disclose the full chemical content of their materials. These circumstances have given rise to the presence of toxic substances in building materials; leading to cancer, developmental defects, reproductive defects, gene mutation, and respiratory issues for installers, residents, and building staff. For example, asbestos was widely installed in buildings and homes until it was identified as a cause of lung disease and other respiratory complications.

Energy Efficiency for All (EEFA) created a guide to help navigate the material selection process. The September 2018 report, Making Affordable Multifamily Housing More Energy Efficient: A Guide to Healthier Upgrade Materials, offers a comprehensive guide for builders on how to select healthier insulation and air sealing materials. To develop this guide, EEFA researched the content of common insulation and air-sealing products and created a health-based ranking system to provide practical recommendations for the materials selection process (Figure 1).

Building Insulation Materials Table

Figure 1: A partial view of the Ranking of Building Insulation Materials Table

To rank the products, EEFA researchers developed a system of comparison against a baseline. The baseline includes a list of the most common insulation and air-sealing products, which researchers identified primarily through surveys. Researchers applied a four-step methodology that includes (1) product testing, (2) product research, (3) hazard screening, and (4) product comparison. EEFA’s recommendations for healthier materials are based on avoiding toxic chemicals as the best way to prevent building-related negative health outcomes.

In addition to materials ranking and recommendations for insulation and air sealing, the guide includes resources about various materials and how they are used. It suggests next steps that policy-makers can take to influence the use of healthier materials by improving standard practices with the goal of product transparency from manufacturers and production of non-toxic materials. Ultimately, energy efficient upgrades should provide greater energy efficiency in conjunction with a healthy environment for the residents, installation workers, and broader community.

In March 2019, EEFA released Guidance for Specifying Healthier Insulation and Air-Sealing Materials as a supplement to original report. This document provides guidance for evaluating and selecting healthier products, and outlines how to write project specifications that incorporate healthier insulation and air-sealing materials.