The Kingspan Group was founded in 1965 in Ireland, and now operates in 159 sites in over 70 countries. It expanded into the North American market in 2008, and today the majority of its construction product manufacturing (around 66%) is dedicated to insulation and building envelopes, although it also offers a range of other products and services, from wastewater treatment systems to moisture management and daylighting systems. Kingspan has set itself apart through impressive transparency, sustainability, and material health initiatives, and many of its products have gone through the industry’s most rigorous certification processes, including GREENGUARD Gold, the Cradle to Cradle Material Health Certificate, and Red List Free. Kingspan also participates in the CDP disclosure system, is a member of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and RE100, and has made the World Green Building Council Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment.
Net Zero by 2020
Knowledge Bank spoke with Brent Trenga, Kingspan’s Director of Sustainability in North America (NA), about some of the company’s ambitious initiatives. Trenga—an architect, construction manager, developer, and project owner—was initially drawn to Kingspan when he heard about their Net Zero Energy program, which was launched in 2011 and pledged to match 100% of the company’s operational energy with renewables. Now he leads this program, as well as Kingspan NA’s material health and transparency program. “As a company that manufactures insulation, back in 2011, I think people fell out of their chairs [when the Net Zero Energy program was announced]. At that point, other companies were not looking to these kinds of goals.”
“At the time, Kingspan was experiencing massive acquisition and growth, and when you’re growing at that rate, you need to be very conscious about how you’re affecting the environment,” says Trenga. They developed a plan with three pillars: Generate More, Save More, and Buy More. That meant improving the energy efficiency of their operations, generating renewables, and buying renewables and offsets. “Energy efficiency is critical,” Trenga emphasized. “Every kilowatt hour we can reduce we don’t have to buy, regenerate, or offset. So we’re reducing everything constantly through energy efficiency programs and in everything we do at every site. Generating electricity was a big component, figuring out how to put renewables on our sites, to help bring renewables onto the grid. And when we can’t do that, we have to buy offsets through verified programs.” Progress was made incrementally, with targets set every year. “We have a global team and we’d meet quarterly and review everything. It was all publicly disclosed,” says Trenga. And now, in 2020, they’ve reached their final target.
Expanding goals through the Planet Passionate program
But as the program drew closer to its end date, invigorated by their progress, they decided to project a new ten-year goal: “We launched a program called Planet Passionate at the end of 2019, going from 2020 to 2030, the next decade of transformational change for Kingspan, with even more aggressive targets. We’re really challenging ourselves—going from one focused target to twelve.” These twelve targets can be divided into four interrelated areas: energy, carbon, circularity, and water.
The first of Kingspan’s energy goals is to maintain their Net Zero target – and even though they’ve already reached this goal by 2020, it’s still hard work to sustain it. They’re also increasing their direct renewable energy use to 60%. “This means investing in onsite renewables, so for the US sites we’ve actually tried to contact utility suppliers that are generating renewables that are directly on our grid,” Trenga explains. And 20% of the company’s total energy footprint will be generated through on-site renewables. “I think last year we were at about 800 Gigawatts, roughly, so 20% of that would be renewable. That will go up incrementally, year by year. Now we generate around 5.6 – 5.8 Gigawatts of renewables across all of our sites and projects, which is substantial, but we want to commit to that growth by 2030.”
Kingspan aims to achieve net zero carbon manufacturing by 2030. Trenga explains: “This is going to require a massive engagement with our supply chain—a 50% reduction in carbon intensity from our primary supply chain by 2030.” This initiative is focused on embodied carbon, which is the CO2 released through the extraction, manufacturing, production, transportation, installation, maintenance, and disposal of building materials. Around 40-50% of a building’s embodied carbon comes from concrete, and in many cases, the next biggest source is insulation and the building envelope. The challenge for manufacturers like Kingspan is to develop insulation that minimizes embodied carbon without sacrificing operational efficiency.
“If you look at our Environmental Product Declarations (and a lot of other building product manufacturers are in the same boat), only about 8% of the embodied carbon comes from behind the Kingspan fence. What we can control. So, when we bring our company’s carbon production down, our product doesn’t become net zero, and that’s because of the manufacturing process. That’s why we need to work with our manufacturers—steel manufacturers, chemical suppliers, and anything else that comes into our sites. We’ve identified our main suppliers across the globe, organized Supplier Days, brought them into our R&D center IKON in Ireland, and explained what our goals are, what the impacts will be, and how we want to collaborate and bring them up to speed on the targets we’ve set.” Kingspan also has a significant sales fleet of cars, and they’ve committed to transitioning to zero emission cars by 2025.
The majority of Kingspan’s portfolio is insulated panels. But according to Trenga, today’s market doesn’t offer insulated panels with recycled content. “The materials that go into them are not usually recyclable—although the steel panels themselves can have a significant amount of recycled content, the foam core has never really been looked at in terms of using recycled materials.” But through new technologies that return recycled material to their molecular components, more possibilities are emerging. Kingspan will use upcycled PET bottles in their insulation, aiming to upcycle a billion bottles by 2025, which will be converted into raw feedstock for the Quadcore insulation.
A key aspect of circularity is the elimination of waste, and Kingspan is also planning to achieve zero company waste to landfill by 2030. This means finding opportunities to upcycle, recycle, and repurpose. In the US, this is particularly challenging. Trenga explains: “In the UK and other places, there’s already been a lot of intensive waste-to-landfill management programs, in part because they don’t have a lot of landfill space available, versus in the US, where it’s incredibly cheap to put anything in a landfill and our recycling programs are very poor. It’s hard to verify that the waste is going where it’s supposed to be going.”
That’s why they’re also focusing on building materials that are more resilient, that will last longer. Trenga told us that Kingspan panels have a 60-year lifespan, although their thermal performance has a warranty of 30 years. “That’s what we can estimate as far as long-term thermal values. We know they’ll last longer but it’s hard to put data behind that because they haven’t been out there for 30 years yet.” Kingspan is also looking at alternative, bio-based materials, and other possibilities for production. “We’ve got a fantastic global R&D team that’s working on a lot of these projects. We’re learning a lot on the way—recycling is great because it doesn’t use virgin materials, but it can be more energy intensive. There is no silver bullet.” Trenga also acknowledges that while these programs are pieces of a circular economy, Kingspan is still a long way away from becoming a truly circular company. “No one [in the industry] has figured it out. We’d have to break our entire supply chain down. But there are a lot of opportunities for us to collaborate with our building owners, construction teams, suppliers, and competitors, to scale some of these projects and make a bigger difference.”
Kingspan’s products don’t require a lot of water, but nonetheless they’re also aiming to reduce the amount used at each of their sites. They’re going to harvest rainwater at every manufacturing site, for flushing toilets, cleaning, landscaping, with a goal of 100 million liters harvested by 2030. And they’re working on five ocean cleanup projects in each of the five major oceans by 2025.
Progress in the building industry
Trenga expressed hope in the changes that he sees in the building industry. “It’s like changing a dinosaur,” he told us. “You don’t think of the construction industry as this innovative, changing space. And in the last hundred years, it really hasn’t done anything. I mean, we built buildings the exact way we built them a hundred years ago until very recently.” But now things are starting to change. Companies and financial institutions are getting on board. Clients and building owners are requesting carbon sequester products and zero carbon embodied products. “The owner has the first say,” explained Trenga, “and now we’re seeing owners demand these kinds of requirements, and that’s changing things. Purchasing decisions and design decisions from the owners’ requirements are what really expedite change. And that’s exciting.”