Innovation comes in all shapes and sizes, including products. Sometimes when we think about innovation our minds immediately go to technology. However, what architect Blaine Brownell predicts will have the largest impact on housing during the next decade isn’t a gadget.

The associate professor and director of graduate studies at University of Minnesota School of Architecture looks to a material that will not only improve the building envelope but could reduce construction time and costs. Developed by Pittsburgh Corning Corp., FOAMGLAS® cellular glass is porous cellular glass insulation that's similar to rigid foam but designed to address problems with thermal bridging, he says.

“It has to do with bridging a weak spot, literally as well as figuratively, between energy performance and structural performance in buildings. In housing it’s especially notable because housing is usually heated more of the year as opposed to commercial buildings which have dominant AC use,” Brownell explains. “Thermal efficiency is primarily focused on heat retention with Passive house and other types of strategies to improve energy efficiency."

Blaine Brownell
Denise Nestor Blaine Brownell

Brownell explains that in floor lines and where the walls meet the roof, structural materials are often poorly insulated and there is a high level of thermal transfer. This is especially problematic with steel, concrete, or masonry, because they aren’t very good thermal insulators. It’s a perennial issue that hasn’t been sufficiently addressed: Structural materials aren’t good insulators. And conversely, insulating materials aren’t very good at support.

This thermal glass material, in its high-load version, has a compressive strength of about 400 psi and a high thermal performance and insulating value. Looking at the material, it could be mistaken for foamed carbon, because it’s black. But, more than half of its content is made from recycled glass and other inert minerals that are nontoxic. It's also inert to most types of decay, he says.

Brownell was first introduced to it at an AIA conference during a session focusing on residential thermal performance. “I thought this could be the next brick!” Brownell recalls.

Although FOAMGLAS® cellular glass's similarities with brick are limited, it is a ceramic type material that is heated, not unlike brick, and it can take on brick-like dimensions. But it can insulate much better than brick. Brownell predicts that it could become economically competitive with other types of masonry within the next decade.

After it surpasses the challenges of initial entry into the market, FOAMGLAS® cellular glass will provide more than just a new material--it would be a new way of thinking about residential construction. he says. Brownell thinks that in the future, builders will place more emphasis on materials that do double duty, such as providing structural support and thermal insulation. Builders would be paying for two things by investing in one, and he says, they could reduce the number of trades and labor involved.

“It’s a very enticing idea to simplify the material composition of building envelopes by using this material. It’s the one of the most promising types of material for the future of housing,” says Brownell.

Brownell will be speaking about product innovation at the HIVE conference Sept. 28 and 29 in Los Angeles. Register now.