There are many kinds of innovation. Some hit you with a flash of light as you realise that there is a simple, practical and clever solution to a pervasive problem. The kind of innovation that makes you slap your head and say, “That’s obvious! Why didn’t I think of that!”. Except that it wasn’t, and you didn’t.
Others take time to get your mind around. They are intriguing, maybe confusing. You have a sense of the opening out of many possibilities, but you still have loads of questions.
Both are important; both are exciting.
At the CityX conference hosted by Connected Places Catapult in 2019, I came across two examples in the Innovators’ Showcase on stands right next to each other. Both offering new products to the construction sector; Gapotape and Biohm.
Filling the gap
Gapotape is a response to a practical problem in construction. To be energy efficient, buildings must be well insulated. A popular material used in both new-build and retrofit is rigid insulation panels. For use between joists, rafters and in stud walls, these are cut to size on site. Unfortunately, although wood is a great building material, it is hard to make dimensionally stable. It is not completely straight and smooth, and changes shape over time in response to changes in humidity. This makes it very difficult to cut the panels accurately, to fit snugly against the timber, and impossible to maintain the contact over time.
Does this matter? It will only be a small gap after all. But in insulation, small gaps matter. Experiments at NPL showed that the typical tolerances achieved on a construction site meant that the performance of the insulation was reduced by up to 80%. You lose almost all the benefits of the insulation you have just expensively installed.
The Gapotape solution is brilliant in its simplicity. Gapotape is a soft latex strip on a self-adhesive foil backing. You deliberately cut the insulating panels smaller than the space they must fit. Apply Gapotape along all edges and you now have a panel that is an easy push fit, but maintains contact all around. This brings the insulating performance back up to 100% of the theoretical value.
There are other tweaks like using reinforced foil to make sure it does not rip when pushed into place and making the tape in widths to match standard insulation panels. The product is designed to make life easy for workers on site and to provide guaranteed performance every time.
On the next stand, Biohm showed an original approach to construction materials. The problem under attack is the unsustainable nature of these materials. The solution is to grow them from waste using a fungus.
When we think of a fungus, the first image is always of a mushroom growing out of the woodland floor, or a bracket fungus on the side of a tree. That is just the fruiting body, whose purpose is to produce and spread spores to allow the fungus to colonise new places. The biggest part of the fungus is a mass of microscopic threads, the mycelium, that grow around and through dead material.
Fungi are the supreme scavengers and recyclers, taking tough materials like wood and releasing and recycling the carbon into their own bodies. So if you take a load of dry organic waste and infect it with the right fungus, it will convert that waste into mycelium. The mycelium forms a strong, dense mat. Pack the waste into the right-shaped form and you can grow insulating panels.
The panels have great insulating properties, on the same level as most current commercial insulating panels. They do not emit toxic fumes in a fire. Because they do not use synthetic resins as binders, they do not give off any nasty gases or vapours. The mycelium provides good acoustic insulation and is breathable. Biohm can create high-performance insulation from waste using natural processes that capture carbon in a long-lived product. The entire process is carbon positive.
Part of the skill of Biohm is finding the right fungus for the right waste stream. One of the most exciting discoveries is a strain of fungus that can absorb and use plastic waste. This is another approach to dealing with the growing concern about plastic pollution.
Biohm is focusing on producing standard insulation panels first, but you can grow insulation in any shape you want. All you need is a mould you can stuff with waste, and the fungus will fill that shape with mycelium. How could you use that in construction? Could you avoid joints and cold bridging? Could you grow an entire facade or a complete building on site?
Targeted solution versus generalisable technology
These are two exciting but very different products.
One tackles a major problem with delivering high-quality insulation on a construction site. It fixes a specific ‘pain point’ for construction workers. It slots into the existing ways of working with minimal change and guarantees a much better result. It is driven by customer need.
The other comes from the capabilities of a new technology. Initially targeting a drop-in replacement for existing insulation panels, it has the potential to change the way we think about high-performance construction and sustainability. Because of what this technology offers, it could lead to future methods of construction that are very different. It opens up options.
Both these innovations have great potential in their chosen market. Gapotape fixes a specific problem right now and could find immediate application. The Biohm mycelium has wider potential uses but faces bigger barriers to entry.
Innovation is a constant conversation between market needs, a product or service and technological capabilities. You can start wherever you like, a technology looking for an application or a market need looking for a solution. But in the end, need and technological capability have to come together in a product that works.