The race to reduce the industry’s impact on global embodied carbon and carbon emissions has become fierce. These days, it’s rare that an architecture publication or presentation doesn’t mention that the built environment is responsible for 40% of annual global CO2 emissions—with 13% of that total being embodied carbon. And the amount of data to illustrate construction’s carbon contribution is enormous. The cement industry alone emits more CO2 than the aviation industry annually.

Now more than 70 countries and 40% of Fortune 500 Global Companies have committed to net zero targets. Once on the fringe of demand as less-than-worthwhile investments, bio-based and carbon-sequestering products are now rising to become the pop stars of the building industry. And building product companies are fast at work to create lower carbon products that deliver the exceptional thermal performance, fire resistance, energy efficiency, structural performance, and expansive spans that developers and building owners want to meet their net zero goals.

New-world problems can’t be solved with old-world solutions.

“The old thinking was that you trade off one feature for the next,” says Brent Trenga, director of sustainability for Kingspan Insulated Panels North America. “That's no longer acceptable.”

Materials and building products used to be created to do one thing well, like insulate or span, and many assumed that all products in one category can perform similarly. With environmental product declarations and other available data that demonstrate the life cycle analysis of products, it’s evident there is a huge difference among products in the same category.

No longer are price per square foot and energy efficiency the most critical characteristics of a building product. Owners and developers want to know the embodied carbon and carbon emissions, so they can meet their net zero goals and market their properties accordingly.

Creating ‘super’ products that have lower carbon impacts is extremely challenging.

“Everybody talks about bio-based materials and insulation,” says Sandra Del Bove, head of innovation at Kingspan Group and IKON Global Innovation Centre. While they aren’t widely available yet, there are hemp and wood fiber insulation products that are offered as insulation boards and used in built-up systems. Still, Del Bove says, “suitable metal insulated panels with a bio-based core are yet to be developed.”

“Most bio-based products are currently not as good as the common insulation solutions. For example, the fire and thermal performance can be significantly lower, but the products are by nature lower in carbon,” Del Bove says. “So, for a project, if lower carbon is all you care about, happy days.”

As the construction industry turned away from relying on its ancient bio-based roots that were the source-code of architecture—clay, stone, reed, straw, timber, and plant-based materials—investing in bio-based research and development wasn’t seen as a potential profit center. Technological advancements made buildings seemingly more efficient to produce and assemble, so human-made replaced nature-made, and construction became a growing source of greenhouse gasses and embodied carbon.

“Can we actually get to a product that ticks all of the boxes?” Del Bove asks. “We've been looking at this for quite some time at Kingspan in terms of our manufacturing, and have already introduced insulated metal panels with lower embodied carbon that maintain their insulating properties. There are some bigger questions that we need to answer, and they fall into the material chemistry, decarbonization, trends, and different technologies.”

As a leader in sustainability and innovation, Kingspan created the IKON Global Innovation Centre in 2019 that’s dedicated to finding innovative solutions for sustainability, performance, and efficiency in construction. The company is keen to offer a full spectrum of insulation solutions that lower the embodied carbon of existing products and introduce new bio-based options, too.

“Some solutions will need a lot more research and development to fit our high standards and offer the industry well working solutions,” Del Bove says.

How do we innovate past the obstacles?

Developing a new ‘super’ product is even harder than it sounds because there is no obvious solution that delivers on all facets, which means there is inevitable compromise for product makers and building developers. For example, when sustainability credentials increase, thermal performance or fire performance might decrease.

“Ninety-nine out of 100 times, it's not going to work the way you want. But every time you fail, you learn more and more of what success could look like,” Trenga says. “I always look at it like venture capital. Venture capital firms throw 100 bets down and only one of them typically hits. They lose on 99, but the one that hits is a game changer.”

With the spotlight on net zero goals and bio-based solutions, those experimental ideas that lived in the shadows within the research and development world are now finding their way into the mainstream. As industry leaders transform their hard-earned research and development into products, any near-’super’ product will be celebrated as it is welcomed into practical use.

“If it's possible, how can we scale it up and how can we bring it into the business and make it work?” Del Bove asks. “It’s a collaborative approach in the whole ecosystem of building technology, and all the suppliers, manufacturers, building owners, and architects need is time and we will come up with solutions.”

Learn more about Kingspan’s IKON Global Innovation Centre at