As we grow more aware of our environmental impact—and as utility bills grow more costly—energy efficiency becomes a central concern in construction projects and building updates. LEED certifications set efficient buildings apart from the rest. Pink attic insulation doesn’t quite cut it anymore.
Although it’s a hot topic now, energy efficiency—insulation in particular—is nothing new. Since the beginning of time, the Earth and its inhabitants have found remarkable ways to regulate temperature. Atmospheric gases gather in the ozone layer, water surrounds land, mammals grow fur and store body fat, birds are born with feathers, and early on, humans discovered heat-trapping material like wool.
We have always put extra effort into shielding ourselves from the elements. Early humans built their homes out of natural insulators like grass, leaves, straw, mud, ice, and mountainsides. And landscaping wasn’t always about aesthetics—trees planted near houses provided precious shade and insulation.
While keeping extreme temperatures out, people also came up with ways to generate heat within. Some buildings in the Roman Empire and ancient Korea used empty spaces in floors and walls to conduct air heated by furnaces. By 1700, Russian engineers began developing water-based systems to circulate heat.
With the advent of modern heating systems came the need for better insulators. After all, gas and electric systems don’t come cheap like heat from a wood-burning furnace, and they create conditions that need to be regulated in order to work properly.
In 1930, Dale Kleist, a researcher at the Owens-Illinois Glass Company, made one of those lucky mistakes that so often leads to a monumental discovery. While trying to seal two plates of glass together, he accidentally shredded the glass into tiny fibers with a high-pressure air hose. Thus, fiberglass was born and soon found its most common form in blanket insulation.
Meanwhile, manufacturers began to realize the benefit of insulating not just their buildings but their heat sources as well. This helped protect workers and equipment, save energy, and improve overall efficiency.
We’ve come a long way since adobe huts and igloos. Today, engineers use R-values (the measure of thermal resistance) to quantify and compare the insulating capability of different materials. In this way, they can combine the most effective insulators and create premium insulation.