An interview with BIOCIRC project partner Chris Brookman

Chris, tell me a bit about your background. What is your company’s experience of working with bio-based or recycled materials?

Back to Earth started out as a construction company back in 1995, building with one of the most sustainable forms of construction material – cob, a mixture of clay soil and straw. This started our journey in to learning about and then sourcing other bio-based construction materials.

By 2000 we had started using modern versions of historic materials, such as engineered lime renders and plasters, cob blocks, modern clay plasters and eventually wood fibre insulation products. This gave us enormous experience in actually using these materials, helping us guide our customers through the installation process and trouble-shooting any issues along the way.

As part of the BIO-CIRC project, you are leading on the development of new training content. What is your experience here? How do you think this will benefit the project and wider industry?

There is so little information available on how to actually use many materials like wood fibre insulation, so at Back to Earth we built our own training portal. This was my attempt at taking all of the knowledge I had learned and incorporating it into a platform that could be accessed widely and could benefit anyone who wanted to learn more.

We’ve tweaked our training portal several times and we now have an average of 5 people or so undertaking courses every day. This might not sound like much but over the course of a year, 1800 or so is quite a few people to have helped.

The training content developed for the BIO-CIRC project will be much more generalist and so should be attractive to a wider audience. It will offer courses on a wide range of topics, not just wood fibre insulation, and so can be used by Policy Makers, Designers, Architects, Specifiers, all the way down to the general public.

It will contain topics which can help people understand the reasons why a change in attitude towards material use is important and hopefully slowly change the direction in which the construction industry is travelling. This will be achieved by influencing not only designers and policy makers but end users too, who are ultimately all powerful in ensuring their requirements are met by a building.

You are helping to test the prototype products. How?

The thermal properties of the product will have to be tested using the standard BS tests but these don’t always give you the best picture of how an insulation material works in the real world.

We will therefore be conducting some in-situ U-value tests on an historic commercial building in Kent. This is done by a very clever piece of equipment which can measure heat flow through a structure and then calculate the thermal resistance of it. We intend to assess the current U-value using the existing mineral wool insulation, without any insulation and then with the new prototype polyester fibre insulation.

Do you think the prototype products have a good chance of being adopted by the mainstream market, and why? Are there any significant barriers? 

Depending on where the raw material is sourced from, the final insulation material does have a very good chance of being used commercially, particularly if and when embodied carbon becomes a consideration. Having a resource that has had it’s carbon emissions counted elsewhere means the physical processing and packaging are all that are counted. The energy involved in creating the fibre in the first place does not come into it.

Cost is still the barrier though but the use of waste materials to make a commercial product could also be encouraged by levying higher taxes on landfill. If this cost becomes punitive enough, the cost of laundering used bedding would become less significant, creating a whole new source of raw material that is currently wasted.

Currently the original manufacturer of oil based products does not pay anything for their manufacturing emissions, pollution or the end of life disposal. Changing this would level up the landscape somewhat.

How do you think the research project will benefit industry? And the Channel Manche region?

Re-manufacturing a waste product into another product has many many upsides. The reduction of waste to landfill, the creation of industry and therefore jobs can benefit the extremities of the region where unemployment is still a problem.

Whilst the project focussed on re-manufacturing polyester fibres, our research also highlighted other research going on into using bacteria to break down the polyester fibres into the Polyethylene Terephthalate monomer that is used to create the fibres. This would allow the production of completely new polyester fibres that would be completely sterile, even though the monomer may have come from quite soiled polyester fibre.

Again, using this technology could enable the region to become a technological hub where these fibres could be re-processed both physically and chemically.

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