“Montage Building” Helps Lake Home Project Meet Deadline

lake house shellWith time running out and their prospective home site building permit deadline fast approaching, a couple from Iowa was in a race against time. The 3,000 SF custom home they wanted to build on a steep, challenging site on a southern Vermont lake had to be designed and substantially completed by mid October 2014—and it was already late February.

To make matters worse, without the building documents in hand the prospects wouldn’t be able to combine their (higher-rate) construction loan with their (lower-rate) mortgage to shorten the former and avoid two closing costs—and besides, they could not close without knowing if they could complete their home before the existing build permit expired.

site prepWith just a little over seven months remaining to build, the couple turned to Bensonwood. They were familiar with another home we built on the same lake, and as long-time fans of the PBS television series, This Old House, they had seen Bensonwood featured on the program and thought our processes might hold the key to streamlining the process.

After two visits to our facilities, the husband put his cards on the table:

“If you can build me the house, I’ll buy the land next week!”

We accepted the challenge. Within a few days the Schematic Design contract was drawn up. Next, architect Randall Walter, landscape designer Tim Calabrese and the owner all met to walk the build site in snowshoes. The landscaper was brought so early because setbacks on the property were so tight, and the property so steep, site work and landscaping would need to be completed first as there would be no room to bring in heavy earth moving equipment once the home was up.

From there, the Bensonwood design and engineering teams finalized plans for the custom home in a few months and detailed construction documents were presented to the lender, who was then able to approve a combined construction and mortgage loan.

wall panel raisingThe home was fabricated off site into panelized assemblies and timber elements concurrent with site prep. Simultaneously with work by our in-house interior designer, Jenny Fulton, project manager Tony Poanessa coordinated the in-house teams, on-site sub contractors and just-in-time deliveries.

With all the pieces in place, the home’s shell was erected within a week’s time in August by our raising crew, headed by job captain Iver Bowen, and site supervisor Mark Williston. The completed home will be ready by October—a little over seven months after the client first visited Bensonwood.Wdnss_cropped_01

Randall Walter summarized, “Normally this process would take 12 to 18 months, but in this case, the stars aligned with the clients, their banks, the subcontractors, our suppliers, our schedule and the weather, so we were able to get everything done remarkably quickly.”

 

A Passive House Design (with a Few Curves Thrown In)

passive house designUnlike many panelized home builders who enclose their home shells using standard XPS and EPS foam core SIPs exclusively, Bensonwood builds many of its own structural, insulated wall and roof panels to realize the visions of its in-house design team and outside architects alike, while reducing waste by eliminating cutouts for doors and windows, which are not recyclable and end up in landfills.

Our walls feature dense-pack cellulose for insulation (a renewable, recycled product), and can be easily upgraded to extreme R-Value and air tightness for Passive House levels of performance. They also incorporate our Open-Built® chases for easy access to wiring and plumbing.

passive house curvesPerhaps best of all, our custom panels can accommodate curved walls and join complex, compound roof pitches to realize the contemporary designs of even the most innovative architects. One such Passive House design, by Jonathan Knowles and Laura Briggs of Briggs Knowles Architecture + Design, is a strategically sited home on a wooded lot in the Hudson River Valley of New York. Passive House is a rapidly emerging standard requiring that buildings use extremely small amounts of energy for heating and cooling.

The striking 3-bedroom, 2.5-bath house re-imagines the often utilitarian designs of the Passive House vernacular with its own unique curvilinear aesthetic, open space plan and multi-level views.

passive house walls panelThe first-floor plan includes a living area with a wood stove and screened porch, a separate kitchen and dining area, 2 bedrooms, 1.5 baths, a mechanical room, and a polished concrete floor. The dining area and one of the bedrooms are built into the curvature of the outer wall design, creating interesting interior spaces and angled wall partitions.

The second-floor plan has a generous, curved master suite complete with a large walk-in closet, sauna, bamboo wood floor, balcony, and dramatic, cantilevered porch. Rounding out the second floor is a large playroom open on one end to the living area below.

Bensonwood delivered and rapidly raised the home shell in the middle of winter, with R-49 roof panels and R-35 wall panels pre-installed with Zola triple-glazed windows. From there, the on-site builder, John Hommel of Ashley Homes, added additional layers of insulation to easily bring the house up to Passive House levels of performance, then finished out the exterior and interior of the home.

Ken Burns and Bensonwood Featured at the 2014 Timber Framers Guild Conference

ken burns and tedd benson

Bensonwood’s Tedd Benson (left) and filmmaker Ken Burns at the 2014 Timber Framers Guild conference.

The Timber Framers Guild held its annual Conference, August 7-10, at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, NH, in the heart of timber framing country. In keeping with the conference’s historical track, the renowned documentary film director-producer Ken Burns, known for such acclaimed PBS documentaries as The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz, The War, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, and Prohibition, was the featured speaker at the Conference.

ken burns barn raising film

A scene from the short film by Ken Burns and Florentine Films’ Evan Barlow on the raising of Ken’s studio barn.

Friends of Burns, Tedd and Christine Benson encouraged him to participate in the conference. A timber frame enthusiast in his own right, Burns hired Bensonwood to build his Florentine Films studio in 2012.

The design and building of this timber frame barn structure, which incorporates salvaged timbers from a derelict barn Burns owned, is a new barn made to look old, and is the subject of a short film independently produced by one of Burns’ collaborators at Florentine Films, Evan Barlow, which was shown at the conference.

In the film, Tedd talks of the importance of timber frame architecture throughout American history—with its honest and durable aesthetic—and, by implication, the essential message it holds for todays troubled building industry.

Timber framers guild display

Bensonwood’s visiting French Compagnon, Thomas Beauvillain, (top) helps demonstrate classic timber framing techniques.

Bensonwood architect Bill Holtz also appears on camera to describe the collaborative, creative process of working with filmmaker, Ken and his wife, Julie, to build the studio. In the film, Bill describes the timber frame design, with its open space plan, as anchored in history but not limited by it; a point underscored by the interior scenes where traditional and modern elements blend seamlessly together. At one point, in tying the film studio’s design to its function, Bill compares the play of light through the building’s carefully calibrated catwalk balustrade to an early Zoetrope, the 19th century forerunner of the modern motion picture projector.

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Bensonwood Timber Frame Captain, Dennis Marcom (right), using a vintage mortise cutting tool at the 2014 TFG conference in August.

Bensonwood, a platinum sponsor of the conference, was well represented at the event with its “Who’s Who” of timber framing. In addition to the Bensons and Mr. Holtz, long-time timber frame department head and safety director, Dennis Marcom, presented a company review slideshow and collaborated with a State Department of Labor OSHA representative regarding safety in the workplace.

bensonwood crew at TFG conference 2014

(Left to right. ) Bensonwood architect Bill Holtz, timber framer Dennis Marcom, former Bensonwood engineer Ben Brungraber and Tedd Benson.

Also on hand, former Bensonwood employee and structural timber engineering maverick Ben Brungraber, PH.D., P.E., now of Fire Tower Engineered Timber, served on the Engineering Council Symposium preceding the conference. Ben worked at Bensonwood from 1986-2007, and was instrumental in elevating our engineered timber frames to new levels, proving to building inspectors unfamiliar at the time with modern timber frame engineering the efficacy of his sophisticated compression and tension joinery.

In 1984 Tedd, along with a small group of timber framers, formed the Timber Framers Guild of North America to establish a forum for learning and standards. Christine is currently on the TFG’s board of directors.

ken burns TFG film presentation

Bensonwood Earns FSC Certification

FSC LOGOBensonwood is proud to announce that we have received Chain of Custody certification from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). FSC Chain of Custody certification provides customers with independent assurance that a product supports responsible forest management. It can also be used to verify that a product is from post-consumer recycled sources.

We have long sought the most sustainable products and building methods over the past 40 years, but this an important further step in demonstrating our commitment to responsible forestry practises.

The FSC is the global leader in responsible forest management. As a member led organization with economic, social and environmental interests sharing equal authority, FSC represents a consensus voice of forest stewardship, affording forest stakeholders a seat at the table. As a nonprofit, FSC sets high standards that ensure forestry is practiced in an environmentally responsible, socially beneficial, and economically prosperous way.

Landowners and companies that sell forest products seek FSC certification as a way to verify to consumers that their products are sourced from well-managed forests consistent with FSC standards. Thanks in part to the recognition of the FSC in the Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) program of the U.S. Green Building Council, there has been a surge in the use of FSC certified wood in green building projects.

Many green homebuilding programs and the nation’s largest DIY retailers, along with many local lumberyards, recognize FSC as the best guarantee of responsible sourcing of wood building products. FSC-certified building products include a wide array of lumber, sheet goods, flooring, millwork, doors, windows, paneling and decking.

For more information on the Forest Stewardship Council visit their website.

Unity Homes’ Air Source Heat Pumps: Pulling Energy Out of Thin Air

By Rheannon DeMond

Bensonwood/ Unity Homes Energy and Sustainability Specialist

ASHP DIAGRAMHeat pump technology has been around for over a century, and even though the technology has advanced, the principles are still the same. There are some who are still critical about Air Source Heat Pump (ASHP) technology, but we at Bensonwood and Unity Homes prefer to use them whenever possible as they’re especially well suited for highly- insulated, airtight homes with very low heating and cooling loads. In fact, our building envelopes are so energy efficient that our smaller, open floor plan homes can often be comfortably heated and cooled with one central unit. Regardless of home size, however, Air Source Heat Pumps are an extraordinarily efficient and feasible option for our homes, and this article will cover why we think this technology is the best all-around choice.

Technology

Unlike combustion-based systems that produce heat at around 80-95% efficiency, ASHPs move heat from one location to another using the energy drive from the refrigeration cycle. This process is very similar to how a household refrigerator works.  The increased energy drive allows a heat pump to produce 100 kWh of heating and cooling energy using only 20-40 kWh of electricity, resulting in efficiencies of 200-350%.

ASHP IMAGEHow much electricity is consumed is dependent on the temperature differential between the outdoor and indoor air. In fact, a common reason people have shied away from using ASHPs in the past is because the efficiencies drop in cold temperatures, making these units not as ideal for cooler climates. However, recent advances in the inverter technology of these systems now allow ASHPs to operate down to -17°F, and produce heat at 100% of its capacity and efficiency down to 0°F.

Energy Usage

ASHP technology is efficient and here is a real life example to put it a little more in perspective:

For a 1,780 SF northern Vermont home that requires around 57.1 million Btus per year to heat:

Heating with #2 fuel oil would cost around $1,600 a year at current rates.

  • Heating with a propane-fired system would cost around $2,000 a year.
  • Heating with wood would be the least expensive option at around $850 per year (but the effectiveness is highly dependent on the user, stove design and kind of wood being burned.)

It should be noted that all of the aforementioned options use combustion, which we know is bad for the environment.

  • Electric resistance heat would cost around $2,500 per year and the impact that would have on the environment would be dependent on the source of electricity.
  • Air Source Heat Pumps can generate the same amount of heat for only $1,090 per year, and they can provide efficient cooling in the summer!

Environmental Impact

If the electricity used to operate an Air Source Heat Pump is generated by a renewable energy source, then the system has little to no impact on the environment. Oil, gas and wood-fired systems create heat using combustion. Combustion creates carbon dioxide, which is harmful to the environment and is a leading cause of unsafe emissions released into the atmosphere every day.

Using the same northern Vermont home as an example, the difference in electrical usage between electric resistance heat and the heat produced from an ASHP is around 9,500 kWh per year. A great way to look at those savings is how it will reduce the impact on the environment, as well as your wallet.

This EPA website allows one to input estimated energy offsets and see how those savings will reduce the impact on the environment. A savings of 9,500 kWhrs is the equivalent to eliminating the CO2 Emissions from 737 gallons of consumed gasoline, or 7,037 pounds of coal burned or 15.5 barrels of oil consumed. And that is just one year. Imagine what the environmental savings would be over 30 years.

Feasibility

Air Source Heat Pumps can be ducted, centrally located or zoned with multiple head units.  The system uses small copper refrigeration lines for connections, which minimizes required mechanical space and makes zoning much simpler. They offer a variety of head units that fit easily in both new and existing construction projects, and with their low operating loads these systems can be easily powered by a small renewable energy source.

Installation Costs and Return on Investment

We’ve already discussed how Air Source Heat Pump systems can save money on annual utility bills, but for something so efficient one would think it has to cost more money than conventional systems, right?  Wrong. These systems are very cost competitive with most other systems, and remember, they provide whole house cooling and heating, so they may even end up being less expensive.

So what is the return on investment on a system that will not cost the consumer any additional money? It is immediate, but on average this system will pay for itself in energy savings in less than six years!

 Cold Climate Operation

The one downfall to these systems is that at around -17°F there is a chance these systems will shut down and stop producing heat, which is what scares some people away. What these people do not understand though is how infrequently the temperature drops below minus 17°F in most of the United States. Even in the coldest climates this is not a common occurrence, so not using a system that is as efficient as this one because of that one fact is not the right approach.

A simple back up source of heat can be installed for use in these rare occurrences. In our homes we use electric resistance for back up heat, because it is inexpensive and can also serve as zone heating. There are also systems available with electric resistance back up heaters that will continue to operate into these low temperatures.

Other Types of Heat Pumps

After heating and cooling, domestic hot water consumes the most household energy, but luckily they also make a heat pump for that. Heat pump water heaters operate at high efficiencies, and have settings to ensure a steady rate of hot water.  When compared to electric resistance, oil and propane powered systems, these units will see a return on investment in less than three years. The only catch is that how efficiently they operate is dependent on the ambient air around the system, so installing a unit in a cold basement would not be ideal, but if you have a continuous source of heat to pull from, these units are a great and affordable solution.

Geothermal or Ground and Water Source Heat Pumps (GSHPs) operate using the same heat pump technology as air source, except they move heat using the consistently warmer temperatures of the earth and ground water.  Because of this they can operate at efficiencies of 300-600%. These systems are very popular in European countries with very strict guidelines for energy usage.

GSHPs are growing more popular in the cold climates of the United States, but they have high upfront installation costs and a small pool of qualified installers. Like most emerging and efficient technologies, it may take some time before these systems are offered at prices that offer an attractive return on investment.

Conclusion

Buildings are responsible for around 40% of the carbon emissions released into the atmosphere every day, and with the fluctuating cost and availability of fossil fuels, and threat of irreversible climate change, another solution is very necessary. With the advancements in heat pump technology and decreasing costs of renewable solar energy, achieving net zero energy consumption is not just feasible, but a great investment as well.

A Classic Barn for a Classic Car Enthusiast

elevation of classic car garageAre you one of those people who owns a classic car and longs for an appropriate place to keep your dream machine? That was the impetus behind one car enthusiast’s desire to physically connect his passion for collectible automobiles to his existing 1930s Delaware residence. The owner, who has an existing garage for his family cars, tools around in a ‘76 Triumph TR6 and hopes to acquire more vintage cars once his new timber frame car barn is completed next month. The result will be an architecturally true barn and connector addition that can drive home, literally, his automotive passion.

The barn and connector were designed by Patrick McDonough, of John Milner Architects, to integrate and reflect the style of the existing main house while adding to the majesty and proportion of the façade.

classic car garage elevationBensonwood was hired by the owner/builder, a repeat client, to fabricate and raise the free-standing timber frame barn shell. The lengthy connector joining the house with the barn will be site-built by Dewson Construction Company, a Delaware-based general contractor and construction management firm.

The car barn, with four bays and an epoxy-painted concrete floor to showcase the vehicles, will be a traditional design, with a single, 28-foot-long glulam girder to achieve a post-free opening to the shed bump at the rear of the building. Roof trusses on either end of the barn will have straight bottom chords, with three arched glulam bottom chords on the trusses in between, defining the vaulted space. The structure includes a central king post with decorative and structural steel reinforcement plate custom fabricated by Bob Taylor of Alstead, NH. A multi-purpose loft with ladder at one end of the structure will add useful square footage to the plan.classic car garage interior rendering

CAD DRAWING vintage auto barnTo integrate the architectural style of the barn with the main house, an eight-sided “lantern” cupola will be stick-built atop the barn by a local company to match the cupola on the main house. In addition to its unifying aesthetic, the copula will allow in natural light to illuminate the timber frame interior and future car collection. Dewson Construction will then finish the barn with a brick exterior to match the main house.

The classic car barn, currently in fabrication at our Blackjack Crossing facilities in Walpole, NH, is slotted for a September 15 raising, with the complete weather-tight shell installed within a week’s time.

Contemporary Polynesian Pool House on the Charles

polynesian pool house

Photo by John Linden

A young couple with children asked Charles Rose Architects to design a “contemporary Polynesian hut” for their property southwest of Boston on the Charles River.

timberframe pool house roof

The design called for indoor and outdoor sitting and dining areas; kitchenette; stainless steel outdoor shower; bath/changing area; 1,500 SF deck with in-ground hot tub; and a fire pit with built-in seating. The architect carved out one corner, creating a covered, but open and airy, outdoor lounging area.

Everyone agreed that the new pool house should be wood construction — primarily to match the look and feel of an earlier project the architects designed for the clients, a wood-clad “play barn” with two large rooms, divided by an outdoor space framing views of an adjacent pond. That’s where Bensonwood came in.

pool house interiors

Photo by John Linden

pool house timberframeOur timbered Douglas fir frame supports an asymmetric hip roof whose peak is pulled off-center so that the pool house subtly connects with the geometry of the existing play barn. Our timberframer C.J. Brehio was the job captain, and did a masterful job executing complex compound joinery. Custom concealed steel connections were also used throughout the building. Western red cedar lends rich, warm hues from exposed beams, custom doors and millwork.

complex compound joineryThe stainless steel shower structure was was a built by Alstead, NH welder and metal sculptor Bob Taylor and has a unique sand blasted finish and unique hardware such as flush mounted tapered screws and a big piano hinge for the door.

Other wood used includes: mahogany for the windows; ipe (pronounced “ee-pay,” aka Brazilian walnut); and bamboo. See more photos on our Houzz page here.​

charles river pool house

Photo by John Linden