Wool-insulation maker educating consumers, builders
December 15, 2014
Andrew Legge looks at the $16 billion annual market for insulation products for new residential and commercial construction in the United States.
And then he looks at the number of sheep in New Zealand — 31.1 million by one recent count.
"There isn't enough wool in the world for us to take over the business," says Legge, founder of a young company that's importing raw wool from New Zealand and converting it into building insulation.
But if the production from the Sparks factory of Havelock Wool LLC manages to capture its fair share of the folks who are willing to pay just a bit more for an all-natural, sustainably-sourced insulation, Legge will be in business.
The five employees of the Havelock Wool plant on Stanford Way in Sparks unpack bales that arrive from New Zealand through the Port of Oakland and process the wool on two production lines that create loose-fill insulation as well at batted products.
It's a technology well-known in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, where wool insulation is common and sheep are plentiful, says Legge.
Recommended Stories For You
The big task that's faced Legge since the 2013 launch of Havelock Wool has been convincing U.S. consumers, architects and builders that wool insulation makes sense here, too. The pitch: Wool is sustainable. It naturally manages moisture. It doesn't contain harmful chemicals. Installers don't need protective clothing.
"Wool has been protecting sheep from the elements for thousands of years," Legge says.
The price of Havelock Wool's insulation is higher than the price of fiberglass insulation and tucked just a little below the price of foamed plastics.
Early markets for the insulation have been high-end consumers who aren't terribly concerned about the price tag, figuring that insulation accounts for less than 2 percent of the price of their home anyhow.
Another early market, Legge says, has been composed of folks building highly energy efficient homes that rely on sustainable materials.
Among its market of early adopters, Havelock Wool is strongest in metropolitan markets of the West Coast and New York City, Legge says.
"It takes a fair amount of education and awareness," he says. "We find interest among people who are more discerning."
Legge previously worked in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Rim for six years, most in investment management, and he began learning more about the wool business as he studied opportunities to boost exports from New Zealand.
While the company's headquarters remains in San Francisco, Legge spends much of his time at the Sparks plant. There, he works with the company's staff, running venerable wool-carding machines once used in textile mills of the American Southeast.
"There's a virtual graveyard of those machines across the Southeast," he says.
The northern Nevada location makes perfect sense for the facility, Legge says, because of its location close to both the Port of Oakland and major western markets.
Havelock Wool also was drawn to the region by its ability to recruit skilled professional and manufacturing workers.