GO Lab, operating out of a small second-floor office in the Masonic building in Belfast, has designs on redeveloping the shuttered Madison paper mill to produce a type of wood-fiber insulation not currently manufactured in the United States. (Photo by Ethan Andrews)
GO Lab, operating out of a small second-floor office in the Masonic building in Belfast, has designs on redeveloping the shuttered Madison paper mill to produce a type of wood-fiber insulation not currently manufactured in the United States. (Photo by Ethan Andrews)
Last week a grant announcement revealed that Belfast-based GO Lab is in the process of buying the former Madison Paper Industries mill to manufacture environmentally friendly insulation from wood. GO (pronounced “go”) Lab’s parent company, GO Logic, has been around since 2008 and, in its first decade, had built a reputation on stylish energy-efficient “Passive House” buildings, starting with one-off homes and moving on to larger projects, including the Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage complex and the TerraHaus residence hall at Unity College. Recently, the company moved into modular kits, hinting that GO Logic was thinking beyond custom homes. But becoming factory owners — industrialists, even — wasn’t obviously in the cards, at least from the outside. So, how did a Belfast architectural firm with 30 employees find itself on the verge of buying a factory?

“It wasn’t an evolution of what was going on at GO Logic,” Joshua Henry, president of GO Lab, said last week, after the plan came to light. The preparations dated back two years, he said, and were on a parallel track to what the architecture firm was doing.

Henry is a chemist and materials engineer. While teaching at the University of Maine several years back, he met GO Logic co-founder Matt O’Malia and subsequently worked with the company on energy modeling and grant writing. During this time, paper mills were closing regularly — the Madison mill closed in 2016. The Portland Press Herald reported it as the fifth paper mill closure in two years. Around that time, Henry quit his job to work full-time under the banner of GO Lab, developing insulation from wood fiber. It was a leap of faith, he said, but one that seemed necessary. GO Logic was already using Maine wood products. “We saw what was happening [with the mill closures] and wanted to do something about it.” Still, he said, “We didn’t anticipate doing this.”

Last October, GO Logic posted a “Wood Manifesto” on its website laying out the argument for wood-based insulation and sketching a loose outline of plans to produce the insulation in Maine using the supply chain of raw material that had been left dangling as the state’s paper industry folded. The manifesto hinted at a big move but only after admitting a big problem — that Passive House practitioners, “GO Logic included,” had been glossing over an important detail in the otherwise-impressive carbon footprint calculations that were one of their main selling points: “In our efforts to minimize the energy consumption and carbon emissions that result from a building’s operations, [we] deferred addressing the environmental cost of the materials that make up the building.”

The early GO Logic buildings were wrapped in extruded polystyrene foam panels, a product that is ubiquitous in new building construction. It’s a very high quality insulator but it takes a lot of energy to make and it doesn’t return gracefully to nature when it’s done being house insulation. In an effort to come clean on the full environmental costs of Passive House construction, GO Logic decided that new projects should include a life-cycle assessment, which takes into account the energy used to create the materials used in construction and the carbon emitted in their eventual disposal.

Wood-fiber-based, low-density insulation board was the obvious replacement for pink foam. It offered comparable insulating properties and had the advantage of being nontoxic at both ends of the life cycle. As a bonus, the energy used to create it was at least partly offset by the fact that, provided the house didn’t burn down, the wood continued to sequester the carbon it had taken in as a living tree. Wood-fiber insulation had been available in Europe commercially for 20 years, Henry said, but it was hard to import and consequently hadn’t become a mainstream product in the U.S.

“Maine needs to take our chances on these products that make sense,” he said. “Not every product makes sense to manufacture in Maine, but this one does.”

GO Lab tried to get a European producer interested in the concept but couldn’t get a bite, so Henry and company decided to do it themselves. This was easier said than done. Grand ideas tend to wither in the light of day, and well-meaning products often launch at a scale too quaint to break through to the mainstream. “We got a lot of feedback, ‘Could you do it at a lesser scale?’” Henry said. “Think of it from the point of view of a contractor. Are you going to buy a product that is a one-off? There’s no dipping your toe in the manufacturing game. You have to be all in.”

With the purchase contract almost finished, Henry said GO Lab is working to pull together the rest of the funding to float the enterprise until the wood-fiber panels start coming off the assembly line.

“It costs a lot,” he said. “It’s not just the equipment. It’s not just the build-out of the plant. It’s a new product to the U.S. market. We have to have the budget to do it justice, to have enough staff and intellectual and talent firepower to have the product introduced to the U.S. market. You could just say on the order of $50 million or north investment.”

GO Lab expects to have a completed contract to buy the mill by the end of this week and to finalize the sale by the end of summer. The finished product will come in three styles: exterior board insulation, batting that Henry compared to rockwool but suitable for bare hands, and a loose blown-in insulation. If all goes according to plan, he said, the products will hit the market by the end of 2020.