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September 6, 2018 - 8 min

Overview of the Origins of Insulation

Published by Pierre-André Lebeuf

Insulation has a long history when it comes to building construction or renovation. To better understand the trends, it is relevant to focus not only on its evolution over time, but also on the reasons why insulation is still relevant.

Check out this blog to better understand the origins of insulation in Canada.

Timeline of Insulation

Regardless of the type of materials used, the purpose of insulation has always been to protect the building against thermal influences. The two main factors that have impacted Canadian construction techniques over time are closely related to weather conditions and the availability of resources.

Before the 1950s: The Logic of Subsistence

Until the end of the 19th century, stone was widely used to erect building walls. Consequently, the buildings were neither insulated nor waterproofed until the 1940s. In the 1950s, wooden planks were replaced with the first insulating materials and intermediate panels. In some cases, simple black paper served as a vapour barrier on the inside and as an air barrier on the outside. We should keep in mind that possibilities were limited at the time. Heating costs were not high, and the poor quality and high cost of materials were a barrier to accessibility (Bergeron, 2000).

Before the democratization of building materials, most buildings from this era were insulated with newspapers, animal wool, wood chips and sawdust. History books show that subsistence motivated the ingenuity of the builders to ensure the survival of the occupants, especially during harsh winters. They had to insulate to the best of their knowledge, often at low cost on a shoestring budget to survive the outside elements.

Under such conditions, materials were often not enough to retain heat and ensure the thermal comfort of the occupants. Demonstrating the rise of real mobilization and awareness regarding the importance of building insulation, the Association des entrepreneurs en isolation du Québec (now Association d’isolation du Québec) was created in 1959.

The 1970s: The Great Oil Crisis

The years 1973 to 1979 are marked by the great oil shocks. All sectors were affected by soaring oil prices (Perspective monde, 2016). For buildings heated with petroleum fuels such as fuel oil, this energy source became scarcer and more expensive. As a result, these events drove insulation efforts. In addition to increasing sealing, improving the building envelope was one of the ways to reduce energy consumption (Maref, 2017). This period sees the first significant efforts in terms of energy efficiency.

The 1980s and 1990s: Efforts to Improve the Building Envelope

The 80s were marked by the arrival of the first air and vapour barriers. The main technical challenges were the movement of air and transfer of moisture through the building envelope, as well as management of the diffusion of water vapour (Maref, 2017). Advances in building science helped to improve the building envelope so that it could reduce energy consumption while providing better thermal comfort.

Insulation To Address Today's Challenges

Each era bears witness to the efforts made to adapt buildings according to the needs, environmental stresses and socio-economic situations. Although insulation has not always been that consequential through the ages, progress was significant in terms of material performance and building quality improvement.

With the emergence of sustainable development, which is becoming increasingly important in the building sector, new challenges are reinforcing the effectiveness of insulation and waterproofing. These are essential solutions to ensure the comfort of occupants and increase the overall performance of the building. Read further through our blog series to learn more about these topics.


Association d’isolation du Québec [AIQ] (2015). History. Retrieved from http://www.isolation-aiq.ca/a-propos-de-nous/notre-organisation/

Bergeron, A. (2000). La rénovation des bâtiments. Québec, Québec. Les presses de l’Université Laval.

Maref, W. (2017). L’importance d’une réhabilitation intelligente, efficace et éco énergétique des bâtiments. Département du génie de la construction de l’École de technologie supérieure (ÉTS). Retrieved from http://www.destl.ca/static/uploaded/Files/publications/COLLOQUE_A3_ETS_wahid.pdf

Perspective monde (2016). 16 octobre 1973 : Début du premier « choc pétrolier ». Retrieved from http://perspective.usherbrooke.ca/bilan/servlet/BMEve?codeEve=520

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