Jorge Sierra. The introduction of eco-design for promoting the use of eco-materials: the cork as building material

25 November 2016
Edificio ICTA-ICP. Campus Bellaterra. Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

Supervisors:  Dr. Xavier Gabarrell Durany,  and Dr. Jesús Boschmonart Rives

Cork is a natural, renewable material, typically concentrated in Mediterranean areas. The cork oak forests are mainly located in the Iberian Peninsula, and, therefore, where the most cork extraction activity is located. Cork is sustainability extracted from cork oak outer bark without damaging the tree or affecting biodiversity. The main current application of cork is as closure for wine and champagne bottles. The present dissertation has taken up the baton of a previous study about the Catalan cork sector carried out to analyse different system and subsystems of the sector from an environmental approach. That study highlighted the need of investigation in new field: diversification of cork products, giving more added value to the resource, and avoiding the excessive concentration of cork sector applications in wine markets.

The main objective of this dissertation was to address the diversification of cork sector, promoting its use in the building sector through the use of an interdisciplinary methodology framework from an environmental approach. This thesis was supported by several specific studies related to the economic characterization of the Iberian cork sector, the environmental assessment of current system for building insulation and the introduction of eco-design methods for the diversification of cork market.

The characterization of the Iberian cork sector identified important differences between Portuguese, Spanish and Catalan sectors. The formers are producers and processors of raw cork, acting as leader in the global market, and in the case of Portugal acting as a very powerful industry. Meanwhile, Spain sector is focussed on raw material and low intermediate basic cork products. Moreover, the building sector was identified as potential market on which promote cork material through the eco-design of new products.

Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) is an eco-design method used to assess the environmental impacts of products and systems throughout their life. This method was used to assess the current cork insulation product for buildings, and also the most common insulation materials and constructive solution on which could be installed. Results concluded that currently cork solutions did not fit the requirements to compete with the most common insulation materials, because caused more environmental impacts. So, the use of cork as a natural and renewable insulation material did not necessarily imply a better environmental performance in buildings. However, if manufacturing processes improve thanks to processes eco-innovation, this solution should be more efficient and can reach a better competitiveness of the product in the market. Moreover, the integration of LCA methodology with Thermal Dynamic simulation was also presented in this dissertation, to evaluate the energy saving renovation of an existing building. This integration was identified as suitable in the energy characterization of buildings and allowed obtaining more realistic results.

Once the initial situation was analysed, an eco-ideation process was carried out to generate new concepts of products, and the versatility of cork fitted perfectly with the creative methods used, due to the singular combination of cork properties. Some specific physical characteristics of cork, self-supporting, water vapour permeability and lightness, originated the most interesting concepts focused on the minimisation of materials use in the internal insulation systems or the treatment of moisture, in addition giving to the building a unique aspect due to the singular aesthetic of cork.

This dissertation has concluded the great convenience and possibilities of cork for its use in buildings, and the suitability of the life cycle thinking in the proposed interdisciplinary methodology.