A passive house architect spreading his wings
I was impressed with the houses designed by GO Logic for several years and have included their homes in several of my books. They were innovators in the design and construction of prefabricated homes as well as extremely energy efficient homes – many Passive house approved. When I learned that Matthew O’Malia, co-founder and lead architect of GO Logic, and now executive partner of OPAL architecture, his most recent venture was to start a new insulation business, I was delighted to to hear about it, because Matthew has always been at the forefront of highly efficient home design, I asked Matthew a few questions and here are his answers.
How did your training in Germany influence your approach to design as an architect?
My professional experience and postgraduate studies in Conceptual Design in Frankfurt opened my eyes to the true foundation of sustainable construction: thoughtful systems working together to create built environments requiring few operational interventions. While still in Europe, I began to think about how, as an architect, I could apply this broader, long-term vision of efficiency to construction in the United States.
The beginning of this business really came to life in 2008 when Alan Gibson and I founded GO Logic on the coast of Maine, where we began to design and construct buildings using passive house standards as our guide. We have had great success incorporating continuous insulation, airtightness, high performance windows and doors to create building envelopes requiring very low heating and cooling loads.
We designed and built the first passive house in Maine and extended our reach throughout New England and beyond.
How does a passive house architect become the co-founder of GO Lab, Inc., a company that manufactures wood fiber insulation?
Through my experience at GO Logic, and now recently as an OPAL architecture, I realized that insulation is more than just an R-value. Our builders have complained about the irritating particles in mineral wool and fiberglass, and they expressed concerns about air quality. Our sites produced non-recyclable foam waste which took up a lot of space in the dumpster; micro foam beads and plastic dust from cutting board insulation have always covered floors and installers’ clothing during and after application.
And I became more and more concerned with an ideological contradiction: We used insulation products heavily derived from or dependent on fossil fuels to reduce the amount of fossil fuel needed to operate the buildings we design. We were reducing operational energy, but canceling it out by using insulators rich in embedded carbon. It felt like a zero-sum game, or worse, when it came to examining the environmental impact associated with construction. I started to look for other solutions.
In 2016, I partnered up with current Josh Henry GO Lab President. Josh holds a PhD in Physical Chemistry and Materials Science and has extensive experience in advancing renewable energy and energy conservation technologies. Together, we found that wood fiber insulation provided the high performance we were looking for, while ticking every other box on our list.
The biggest problem with wood fiber insulation was that we couldn’t get it without paying a hefty premium to cover the cost of shipping from Europe. There are 15 manufacturing plants across Europe that generate sales of $ 700 million across the EU, but there are currently no manufacturers of bulk wood fiberboard, mattresses or dry processing panels in North America.
Josh and I started to wonder, “Why doesn’t someone make wood fiber insulation in this country?” As we searched for the answer, we learned that the entire product line could be produced more affordably here than in Europe due to the much lower raw material and energy costs.
I remember thinking, “Imagine the impact of being able to provide the mainstream construction market with a range of affordable high performance insulation products that are not derived from or heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Imagine the potential for carbon sequestration in the US real estate market alone.
So we set out to manufacture wood fiber insulation for the first time in North America starting in 2022.
How do you see traditional construction in the United States accepting wood fiber insulation?
Wood fiber insulation has so many layers of benefits, so many stories to tell. We knew we had to find a good strategy to present all the messages to a large audience. We have decided to leverage our brand name, HP wood, to deliver the themes that resonate so strongly around wood fiber insulation. Frame clearly defines where our product begins: the vast forests of Maine. HP has three layers: High performance; Healthy people; Healthy planet.
High performance—Lucky for us, European manufacturers, designers and building scientists have perfected wood fiber insulation systems over two decades of application and innovation.
Healthy people– Free of toxins, harmful particles and the ability of the wood fiber to manage humidity; we have a whole story to tell about safe installation and improving indoor air quality.
Healthy planet– The carbon impact is the biggest story to tell here.
Impact investing continues to be an area that receives a lot of attention. Can wood fiber insulation remove carbon from the atmosphere at a level of scale that can attract significant impact investments?
There is no doubt in my mind that we can champion this cause. The wood fiber insulation is unique. It’s made from trees and ends up storing the original carbon that was locked up, sequestered if you will, in those original trees. Wood fiber insulation also inhibits heat loss, meaning it saves operational energy, where and when it’s installed.
There is a massive amount of existing housing that is either completely uninsulated or in need of serious renovation. As a market opportunity and a carbon mitigation opportunity, this is absolutely huge! The simple act of upgrading 10% of the existing building stock in the United States to higher code levels would on its own sequester half a gigaton of carbon. And it is only integrated carbon, not operational carbon, that it will also save in the future.
There is no new science here. There is no battery to check. Everyone knows how to do it. We must have the will to do it. And if we have the will to install and replace insulation, on a large scale, with wood fiber; we will make immediate progress on today’s problem.