Bensonwood Educates at Greenbuild 2014 New Orleans

2015 GREENBUILD BANNER

Bensonwood architect Randall Walter, AIA, LEED AP led an education lab at this year’s Greenbuild Conference in New Orleans titled, “School Building as Teacher: Design for the Future.” Learning objectives for the session were to understand:

  • Outcomes of promoting social change through synergistic curriculum and building/campus design.
  • Impacts of building systems and resource transparency on student learning.
  • The synergies between green building and impacts on student learning.
  • Unintended consequences and learning opportunities from this project.
Bensonwood architect Randall Walter with Sheila Kim (left)  products editor of Architectural Record and SNAP Magazine.

Bensonwood architect Randall Walter at Greenbuild 2015 with Sheila Kim (left) products editor of Architectural Record and SNAP Magazine.

Built and opened to students in 2012, Burr and Burton Academy’s Mountain Campus is an innovative model for place-based environmental education. From campus design and construction to curriculum design and execution, all elements of the process have worked to maximize the success of the program mission: to be a catalyst for student growth as individuals, members of communities, and citizens of a sustainable world.

Walter discussed design concepts that helped the campus achieve “net zero” targets, as well as biophilic design, student experiences monitoring the building’s energy performance, living in and caring for the space, and the ripple effects of student experiences. The design, construction and active use process, including initial design goals, site evaluation, review of LEED criteria, design process charette, site schedule and assembly of the building, occupation, and daily and seasonal changes during the first two years of operation were discussed.

This award-winning project exemplifies how a school design can benefit both students and education professionals. Emphasis on the connections between effective learning environments, innovative green design, and the natural environment are at the heart of the educational program and creative process for this building.

new Orleans skylineGreenbuild is the world’s largest conference and expo dedicated to green building. The ideals and passion of the green building community come alive at Greenbuild. Greenbuild also brings together industry leaders, experts and frontline professionals dedicated to sustainable building in their everyday work, and a unique energy is sparked.

 

Project Update: A Sustainable Family Lake House

OPTI_Brtltt-(5) This energy-efficient lakeside home is designed for an extended family who has been vacationing in New England for generations. The home combines the rustic charm of a New Hampshire cottage with cutting-edge building technology and sustainability.

At around 3,100 sf, the design requirements were to blend in with the existing Lake House vernacular of the neighborhood and the heavily wooded lot, frame views of the surroundings from inside the house, and fit into the lakeside cottage community in scale, proportion and style. Nestled into trees (carefully preserved during construction), the wood shingle home has a roomy screened-in porch and built-in BBQ—a lake retreat must. The colors and textures of materials reflect the laid-back community and surroundings.

lake house elevations The home’s vaulted timber frame and prominent stone fireplace lend a rustic lodge feel, yet remains intimate and cozy. The building has an advanced thermal envelope using prefabricated structural panels, sealed with gasket and tape technology for superior airtightness, moisture control and indoor air quality.

OPTI_BRTLTA2A folding glass wall opens the main living areas to the screened in porch, with lake views and an outdoor gas fireplace and cooking/dining area. One of the three, second-floor bedrooms is a spacious bunkroom accommodating eight or more—all are open to the living/dining area below via a shuttered gallery, retaining the theme of an open gathering space. The kitchen, dining, alcove seating area and great room all have views of the gas-burning, fieldstone fireplace.

Sustainable Building Features:
-Programmable bath fans.
-Multi-zone radiant heating.
-High-efficiency Low E windows.
-Eco-friendly dense-pack cellulose insulation providing R-Values of 35 in the walls and R-44 in the roof.
-No mechanical air conditioning—ceiling fans, window placement and stack effect design provide natural cooling.
-A timber frame constructed of sustainably harvested timbers salvaged from fire or insect-damaged forests.

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Unity Homes Style Series: The Versatile Värm

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All Unity Homes have been optimized for health, comfort, energy efficiency and durability. But among the four Unity platforms, Värm™, with its full two stories, has special attributes when it comes to the range of style and configuration possibilities.

In Sweden, the word “lagom” has deep cultural significance. It doesn’t translate directly in English, but it roughly means “just enough,” or “just right.” Perhaps most notably, it also means “in balance”—not too much, but not too little either. Tedd Benson’s family hails from the central farming region of Sweden known as Värmland and it is from these roots, and from this concept, that Tedd and the Unity Homes design team created Värm.

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With its simple core volume, library of Open-Built® components, and variety of available finishes, any number of architectural styles can be achieved without the high cost normally associated with custom design. Whether your tastes run towards the classic colonial, the country farmhouse, the barn style, the Adirondack/mountain style or the clean lines of modernist architecture, the Värm core volume is a great place to launch your dreams.

The Värm platform, with its simple, yet spacious volume, is especially suited for clients looking to custom design the look of their three or four-bedroom homes. To emphasize the architectural versatility of the platform, here are exterior views of four very different Värms we’ve built recently…and plans for a fifth we will erect in Greenwich, CT in the spring.

The first, shown here, is a farmhouse style home in southern New Hampshire with a wraparound, screened-in-porch, a connector with an open-timbered porch, and a barn-style garage. The full, two-story home, with its optimized footprint and understated elegance, nestles lightly on the land, perfectly complementing its country setting.

The second Värm in Arlington, MA, has been finished as a barn-style home, with vertical, red-stained, rough-sawn boards, large windows, and louvered sunscreen overhangs, giving the home a simple clean look that is at the same time, both rustic and contemporary. A connector and traditional garage round out the home’s exterior.

As a third Värm example, this mountain-style ski home in Bethel, Maine, offers a robust look with its vertical board and shingle siding. Timber frame elements that support deep shed overhangs announce both the home’s aesthetic and function. The connector, with open-timbered porch entryway, joins the house and garage.

This fourth example is a custom Bensonwood home inspired by the Värm platform, but includes a hip roof, emphasizing its verticality and giving it a majestic quality within a relatively small footprint.

These elevations and floor plan of a home to be built in Connecticut in 2015 demonstrate even more creative possibilities for the Värm.

Regardless of your style preferences, the Unity Homes Värm platform optimizes its function in three different ways. First, with its full-height second floor, Värm maximizes the living space, making it perfectly suited for families with older children, where separation and privacy are often desirable. Second, the Värm maximizes its square footage relative to its footprint on the property, leaving more land for recreation—while its second story can offer more distant views. Perhaps most importantly, Värm maximizes square foot cost by factoring the most expensive elements, the roof and foundation, over greater living space.

Lastly, these Zero Net Energy-ready homes have ample roof surface for photovoltaics (PVs) and, as with all four families of Unity Homes, their energy requirements are minuscule, offering the possibility of true fossil-fuel-free comfort year-round, and a new standard for low energy, high comfort and lagom values.

 

 

Living Green: Should I Build New, or Retrofit an Existing Home?

At some point in the decision to buy a home, there comes a critical calculation: Do I build a new house on my own land, or buy an existing one? And if that existing home is poorly constructed or simply outdated, how will that impact me over time?

Aside from the obvious fact that existing buildings are where they are, as opposed to where you’d like them to be, they also come with hidden costs that may not be immediately apparent to the average homebuyer. As one example, getting older existing houses up to current energy code, let alone the stringent standards of today’s high-performance buildings, can involve impossibly long payback periods.

Martin Holladay, in writing for Green Building Advisor, indirectly addressed this issue in his March 2014 article, The High Cost of Deep-Energy Retrofits. In the article, he asks the question, How much does it cost to perform a deep-energy retrofit on a 100-year-old single-family home?”

His findings? Around $100,000.

Mr. Holladay based his finding on a study that was sponsored by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). The program, centered in the Utica, New York area, paid for deep-energy retrofits of four wood-framed buildings.

So, how were the “deep energy retrofits” defined? In a nutshell, the goal was to reduce energy use by 75% by insulating slab floors to R-10, below grade walls to R-20, above-grade walls to at least R-40, upgrading windows by adding either low-e storm windows or new windows to achieve a U-factor of 0.25, achieving an airtightness goal of 0.15 cfm @ 50 pascals per square foot of surface area, and updating to the latest HVAC systems.

Without going into the myriad steps required to achieve the above, the retrofits resulted in impressive levels of energy reduction. Though the goal of a 75% reduction was not met, overall energy usage was reduced by 60-65%.  But while the retrofits resulted in draft-free comfort with new siding, windows, and HVAC systems, the energy savings alone, in Mr. Holladay’s words, “…can’t possible justify the very high costs of this type of retrofit.”

In fact, when factoring in the retrofitting costs to the energy savings, at least on houses built in the early 20th century, the study found that the simple payback period was 139 years, longer than the houses were old!

So, getting back to the original question, how does the green home buyer evaluate building new vs. retrofitting an existing building? It’s a complex subject with many variables, but what becomes immediately apparent is that it can be easier, more efficient, and in some cases, less expensive to build your high-performance home from scratch than to retrofit an existing older home.

That’s not to say that existing homes shouldn’t be updated to improve their performance. There are many who feel that the greenest building is the one that is already built. Some buildings are indeed worth the investment because of the inherent quality and craftsmanship in their original construction. Moreover, with historical and rare buildings, even condition is relative and preservation may trump energy performance.

But some buildings are clearly not worth it for the opposite reason. The embodied energy in an existing building is only part of the energy equation. Operational requirements, especially involving fossil fuels, affect the true cost to the owner as well as the environment. Every energy retrofit should begin with that calculation. Better technology and systems for economically achieving deep energy retrofits need to be developed with an eye towards getting the cost down. There are some very interesting scanning technologies available today that just may be a way to get there.

It’s important to note, however, that most of the homes needed in the next 50 years (because of population growth and demise of existing stock) are yet to be built. The next generation home HAS to be much better in every respect, but especially in the elimination of fossil fuel dependence. Thankfully, the technology and systems for building sustainable, healthy, Net Zero-ready homes (with Passive House levels of air tightness) are available today.

Either way, to achieve the aggressive environmental goals the U.S. has set for the coming decades, all buildings (which account for over 40% of total US energy consumption) will need to do their part in forestalling climate change.

Featured Project: A High-Performance Vermont Farmhouse 

An Interview with Bensonwood Client Stephen Ferber

Moving from a cherished mid-nineteenth century farmhouse, why did you decide to build new?
For the past 37 years my wife and I had been living in a 150-year-old Greek revival farmhouse on 40 acres. Retired now and in my mid-sixties, I wanted to downsize somewhat but wasn’t willing to compromise on what I had. Ultimately, three or four things came together in making the decision: First, I wanted to downsize to make it easier on myself. Secondly, I had made a deadline to retire from my job. Third, we wanted to move closer to family and my wife’s work: she works at Lyndon State College. Lastly, I wanted the new energy-efficient home to be a reward for all our hard work.

Why did you decide not to renovate your old house?
Our drafty old house cost $2,400 a year to heat, but that wasn’t the main consideration for building new. I had an energy audit done by the Efficiency Vermont folks, which showed us where the problems were, but I wasn’t willing to compromise the architecture by adding layers of insulating material over architectural features. I didn’t want to see beautiful Vermont granite block covered by insulating board.

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I know you were anxious to get into your new home as soon as possible. Did that affect your decision in choosing Bensonwood?
To be honest, I would have preferred the overall quicker turn-around that the pre-designed Unity Homes plans offer. We didn’t necessarily need a custom house designed from scratch, but we wanted more customization than Unity Homes could provide, so we went with Bensonwood. During the planning stages, we gave quick answers to questions posed by your architect Chris Adams and project manager Tony Poanessa in order to move the process along. We didn’t want one day lost.

Our old house had sold in four days, much quicker than we thought, but that meant we needed to rent while our new home was being built. Our old 40-acre property was deemed organic, which made it of special interest and why it sold so fast. The Jasper Hill Farm cheese people bought the home and property. Among the many renowned cheeses they produce is the organic Bayley Hazen Blue cheese you find featured on high-end restaurant menus.

So while the design process turned out to take a bit longer than we expected, the construction is going quickly and we should be in by the holidays.

What were your design considerations?
I wanted to start with a clean sheet of paper. I basically wanted to repeat my setup by building a farmhouse with a garage that looked like a barn. In my old house we had a four-bay garage and a large woodworking area. And while I wanted to recapture some of this space, I didn’t want my new house to look like a McMansion, with an enormous looking four-bay garage, that would stick out like a sore thumb in its rural Vermont setting. So we wanted the garage to look like a barn, with red-stained, rough-sawn, vertical siding—to make it look like two buildings with a connector.

In the broader sense, I have a real sense of place. We very much wanted to blend into the local vernacular. The home needed to look like an old New England farmhouse, not Adirondack style with orange stained siding—or modern looking, which might look fine in a lake or mountain setting, but not where we wanted to build. It had to look right in its farm setting. We didn’t want our new neighbors to be upset by what we built.

Given Vermont winters, what were your energy considerations?
Our new house, situated on 23 acres with a nice view, is in the middle of a field, with no trees so there are no shadows. We sited the garage due south, so putting PVs (photovoltaics, aka solar panels) on just one side of its roof will be more than adequate to supply all of the home’s electrical needs. We’re using a heat pump system for space heating and cooling and for hot water, with an ERV (Energy Recovery Ventilator) to recapture energy. I think the whole PV system cost $15,000 after tax credits. We had radiant heat tubing put in, just in case, but I don’t think we’ll really need it. The house, designed for Net Zero performance, is all electric—with the exception of a gas cook top.

What could Bensonwood have done better to improve your experience?
We felt we were flying half blind, not being able to walk through a Bensonwood home at the time, in order to say we like this room in this house, and that room in that house. We were shown many plans and pictures, so we knew the quality, but that’s not the same as actually standing in the home and getting a sense of what it’s like. I’m sure not everyone wants people traipsing through their homes. And I guess it’s not practical to have a model home near your facilities, but that might have helped.

On a related subject, how would you feel about your home being used as an example of state-of-the-art energy efficiency?
Situated where we are, within a mile of Lyndon College, with its degrees in Environmental Science and Sustainability Studies, and our proximity to the Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium, with its meteorological focus (they provide Vermont Public Radio’s Eye on the Sky weather forecasts)—I know there’s going to be a lot of interest in our high-performance home.

Tedd Benson Keynotes Northwest EcoBuilding Guild Conference

northwest eco building logo

Green building is not a stagnant goal, but rather a rapidly-moving evolutionary process. The Northwest EcoBuilding Guild plays an active role in that evolution, working to turn back carbon emissions, become self sustaining, contribute to local economies, and promote health and community. Forward looking, the Guild’s mission is, “Advancing a 200-year perspective on the built environment.”

A featured speaker at the Guild’s October 10th conference, Tedd Benson delivered the keynote address: “New House Rules: Achieving 21st Century Sustainable Dwelling.”  In the address, Tedd spoke of the paradigm shift and industry overhaul necessary if the carbon neutral goals of the 2030 Challenge are to be met.

In the talk, Tedd emphasized that the building industry needs to create a new vocabulary, better work culture, and ever-greater efficiencies. From there, Tedd spoke of how Bensonwood and Unity Homes have been taking on this challenge and leading by example.

At the outset of his talk, Tedd set a hopeful tone by offering a 2012 quote from New York Times columnist, Thomas L. Friedman in his Op Ed piece, Come the Revolution:Big breakthroughs happen when what is suddenly possible meets what is desperately necessary.” Then, after asking the audience to keep these three phrases in mind, Tedd went on to describe his civil rights activism while a student at Colorado State University in the late 1960s—activism that landed him under the scrutiny of authorities.

Aside from redirecting him towards a career in building, Tedd made two points about his activism in the ’60s. The first concerned the overall moral and civil rights issues that would later connect directly to climate change; the second had to do with society’s tendency for timidity in the face of such challenges. As Tedd would point out later in his talk, with the climate change problem, we all will have to answer the call to action, instead of ignoring it, or even denying it—both responses being all too typical.

After sharing this personal history, Tedd began with Friedman’s last, “desperately necessary” piece first, citing Nobel Prize winner, Mario Molina’s research into the chemicals showing up in our atmosphere that within a year would become a harbinger of the environmental emergency known as global warming.

northwest eco building roundtable From there, Tedd spoke of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change’s (IPCC) recent conclusions: That anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) is fully upon us, and that it is severe, pervasive, and irreversible…unless the equivalent of a wartime response is initiated immediately. Then, framing climate change as essentially a civil rights issue, Tedd quoted Naomi Klein from her book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate: “In the hot and stormy future we have already made inevitable through our past emissions, an unshakable belief in the equal rights of all people and a capacity for deep compassion will be the only things standing between civilization and barbarism.”

“Compassion means action,” said Tedd, and he pointed out that we already know how to combat climate change: slow the burning of fossil fuels, speed up the development of alternate energy sources, and mandate that we leave 2/3 of the fossil fuel reserves in the ground. Moreover, he pointed out that, according to the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, as costly as this would be, it would be no more expensive than dealing with the damages caused by doing nothing.

Moving on to the “suddenly possible” piece, Tedd segued to the subject of buildings: specifically, that when it comes to CO2 emissions, buildings are among the biggest culprits in their consumption of fossil fuels and overall contribution to global warming—and how this need not be the case. He pointed out that today, low energy and net zero fossil-fuel-free buildings are no longer epic prototype events, but a reality, so they may represent the lowest hanging fruit in meeting the 2030 Challenge.

Next, in showing how U.S. buildings devolved into their troubled state, Tedd discussed biomimicry and fractals: that vast network of complex adaptive systems that self-select into self-similar patterns at every scale. From the veins of a leaf and the branches of a tree, to the rugged mountains and meandering seashore, to the patterns of our suburban tract homes (from 30,000 feet), complex systems always reveal what they are at their essence: what he calls the “Prime Fractal Rule.” But, as Tedd explained, in contrast to the beauty of fractals in our natural environment, the poor state of our residential built landscape is simply the natural outcome of our (misplaced) values, processes, habits, technology, skills, and social/economic priorities. In his words, “Clearly, the complex adaptive system we call the homebuilding industry has some serious evolving to do.”

More than shelter, Tedd spoke of houses as sacred in our lives and critical to human development. Beyond this, he said that the quality and integrity of our homes are essential underlying and definitive elements of civilization. Then, recalling the recent housing meltdown, he emphasized that homes are not things to be plundered and gamed. We build homes to improve the quality of lives and advance civilization. To drive the point home, Tedd paraphrased Winston Churchill, saying the society we have builds our homes; thereafter, our homes build our society.

Backing up 40 years, Tedd now described his own journey from modern timber frame joinery to high-performance building enclosure and systems development— with the help of many associates and expertise from around the world—all while struggling to achieve profitability. In his words, “My optimism was absurdly naïve…I completely misjudged the difficulty and obstacles,” adding, “People often take enormous risks but do not see themselves as risk takers because they operate under the useful delusion that what is being attempted is not risky.”

Tedd described this as the “The Hiding Hand Principle,” a term coined by the late economist, Albert Hirschman. According to Hirschman, “The only way in which we can bring our creative resources fully into play is by misjudging the nature of the task, by presenting it to ourselves as more routine, simple, undemanding of genuine creativity than it will turn out to be.” We are therefore “…more apt to take on and plunge into new endeavors not because we courageously go after big challenges, but because of the erroneously presumed absence of a challenge.”

This theme, woven throughout the speech, becomes the metaphor and hope for the challenges that the building industry faces as it begins to embrace the great breakthroughs in building science: breakthroughs available today that will lead to beautiful, comfortable, healthy, sustainable, and durable living environments while, at the same time, addressing climate change in a serious way.

The Northwest EcoBuilding Guild conference theme, “Building Transformation through Transparency” had three primary goals: 1. to expand the patchwork of green buildings to whole neighborhoods, whole districts and whole communities, 2. to make exceptional green building practices the norm and 3. to ensure that “good building practice” is “green” by definition.

As part of the conference, Tedd participated in the local Green Homes Tour hosted by the Seattle Chapter of the Guild: a bicycling event that combined two of his “greenest” passions: high-performance building and biking.

The annual Northwest EcoBuilding Guild conference addresses the needs of the seventh generation, encouraging inclusive discourse with the goal of working to improve the relationship between our communities and our built environment. Learn more about this exciting field by browsing their green building resources, articles, project spotlights and more. See more at: http://www.ecobuilding.org/green-building#sthash.pVSicMhX.dpuf

 

 

 

Unity Homes Celebrates 2nd Anniversary

“The typical American home is a performance dinosaur, and is too much of a long-term burden for homeowners and society. Unity Homes aims to help make this species extinct.”     

Tedd Benson

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New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan (standing, center) visiting the Unity Homes production facility in October 2013.

On October 9, 2012, Bensonwood launched Unity Homes with the goal of making ultra-efficient, off-site-built homes affordable for the average home buyer. To date, Unity Homes have been built along the East Coast as far south as Asheville, NC and as far north as Montpelier, VT, and have been praised as possibly the “greenest prefabs on the market” by TreeHugger’s Lloyd Alter.

Designed to consume 50 to 75 percent less energy than standard newly-built homes, Unity Homes currently has four distinct 2 to 4 bedroom styles ranging in size from 1,028 to 2,450 sq ft. The home models are the Tradd (a classic tall cape), Xyla (an American bungalow), Värm (a Swedish contemporary) and Zūm (a passive solar optimized modern). All four of the highly-customizable styles have been built.

3 VARM SAMPLES

Three interpretations of the Värm design shown here illustrate the highly-customizable nature of Unity Homes.

In the two years since its launch, Unity Homes has developed ways to raise the quality and performance of sustainably built homes while continuously trimming cost to make them ever more affordable. The company has already reached its original goal of trimming the typical build time to 30-35 working days for most projects and expects to get it down to around 20 working days in the future.

History

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Although Unity Homes first appeared in 2012, the seeds of the idea began much earlier. In 1991, Bensonwood began the long-term process of standardizing home production using computer-assisted design (CAD) software to optimize floor plans.

“I have long believed that the average American home should have a much higher standard of build quality, durability and energy performance,” Tedd Benson said in a 2012 Green Building Advisor article about the Unity Homes launch. After years of building a reputation for higher-end timber frame projects, Benson and the Bensonwood team wanted to bring his building innovations to the market-rate factory-built world.

There was also a philosophical element to Benson’s plan, describing the typical American home as a performance dinosaur, and too much of a long-term burden for homeowners and society. Then, as now, he wants to make that species extinct and transform the industry by offering an affordable home at a higher standard of efficiency.

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The LEED Platinum-certified, Net-Zero Energy president’s home at Unity College in Maine.

In 2008, Bensonwood received critical acclaim for its roles in fabricating the LEED Platinum-certified Unity House, a net-zero energy residence built on the campus of Unity College in Maine for the college president and his family.

The project was important, not only because the building was designed to maximize energy performance, but because it highlighted the Passive House standard for airtightness—the most cost-effective and easily achievable aspect of the Passive House standard.

Inspired by the project’s success and what the company learned from it, four years later Bensonwood launched a separate company producing high-performance prefab houses. The company was dubbed Unity Homes because it was thought the perfect name to express the democratic, egalitarian nature of these homes designed for the average American family.

Despite being in the throes of the worst housing crisis since the Great Depression, Benson realized that the company’s Bensonwood’s Open-Built® “operating system” capabilities and production capacity were being underutilized and warranted expansion. Tedd Benson also wanted to avoid reducing staff and a new division would allow the company to weather the housing downturn.

A 40-Year-Old Startup

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Building system team members assembling wall sections for an early Unity Home.

Unity Homes’ strategic vision began with a seemingly simple premise. “What if building only took 30 working days, all costs were known, the house quality was above anything the buyer had previously experienced, and the home could be net-zero-energy forever?”

For nearly a year, the entire Bensonwood team worked together to design and engineer the Unity Homes offerings and develop all the information, renderings and floor plans.

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An early Net-Zero Unity House planning session.

With no outside funding and many long hours, the company created a “40 year old start up,” Tedd Benson quipped at the time. In the end, Unity Homes was able to achieve both energy performance and price point goals with its high-precision panelized construction methods, keeping 60% of construction inside its production facility. Each home is organized into easily accessible “layers,” making for easier future upgrades and repairs.

By the time Benson announced the new company’s launch in an October 9 post on his blog site,The New House Rules,” Unity’s first two homes were already in production.

Montage: A Streamlined Process

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In Montage Building, pre-designed, high-performance elements can be easily reordered to fit homeowner budget, lifestyle or location.

The Unity Homes team sees these houses as more than another entry into the green prefab market, but rather as a complete rethinking of how houses are built. Many people in North America buy houses that might not last as long as they do; Unity houses, like the custom Bensonwood homes, are designed to last for generations.

Additionally, instead of prefab or modular, Tedd Benson prefers the term “montage” to describe the homes, which essentially means “assemble” or bring together disparate elements to form an integrated whole. That use of montage refers not only to the building process where panels are assembled at the home site, but also to a unique approach to vernacular design. The homeowner would not incur the cost of hiring an architect, nor would they be choosing from a limited product line as with most modular or prefab houses, but be allowed a range of customization to fit their lifestyle, budget and location.

Produced in Bensonwood’s Walpole, NH “studio,” the panelized wall, floor and roof assemblies are typically ready to ship to site in a few weeks. This work is concurrent with site prep and in parallel with other component fabrication such as the precision-cut beams and millwork.

The onsite assembly of the weathertight shell is usually accomplished in one to three days, depending on complexity and garage options. From there, Unity Homes can be finished quickly because of the open layout and packaging of systems, such as pre-assembled HVAC modules. While a standard new home takes 150 days to build, Unity Homes can now shave the building cycle down to as little as 30-35 days.

The Unity Homeowner Experience: “Rewarding and Fun”

Tedd Benson has always stressed the importance of owner involvement in the homebuilding process, but J.C. and Nancy Woodward of Fitzwilliam, NH, took it to another level. J.C. and Nancy initially came to Bensonwood looking for a custom home, but after several discussions with associates, architect Chris Adams suggested they consider one of the new Unity Homes about to be launched. The Woodwards were intrigued and chose the Värm style—J.C. also chose to act as general contractor to cut cost.

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An early Värm in New Hampshire was finished by the owners to reduce cost.

The site was prepped in late 2012, production began in February 2013, and by April the crew arrived with the home’s shell, which Woodward would finish out himself with help from some local subcontractors. Having built another house 25 years prior, he expected the typical chaotic construction scene with a host of endless problems to address. Because of the obvious attention to detail and quality, Woodward says, any problems that arose were small ones and easily solved.

J.C. was there from 7 a.m. until evening every day and was stunned at how quickly and smoothly the home came together. He was also impressed by how, “every person on the Unity team deeply cared about my project’s success.” From architect Chris Adams “wringing function from every square inch” to make the house feel a lot bigger than its 1,700 SF footprint, to project manager Tony Poanessa repeatedly “going the extra mile” to make the project run smoothly, Woodward describes the experience as rewarding and fun. In fact, he was so inspired he is now taking a CAD drafting course at Keene State College and hopes to work as a project manager himself someday.

High-Performance

The airtight homes possess many of the standards of passive house: optional triple-pane windows, high levels of dense-pack cellulose insulation (R35  OBPlus Walls® and R44 roof), buttoned-up building shells with a Passive House level of airtightness to 0.6 ACH @ 50 Pascals or better, energy recovery ventilators, air-source heat pumps and more to reduce energy use by 50% to 75% compared to standard new houses. The homes’ operational efficiencies with low energy loads mean less power use and smaller HVAC systems. They’re also capable of achieving net-zero energy if the owner decides to add a modest solar electric system.

Health & Comfort

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Stressing health and comfort as much as energy efficiency, Unity Homes are well-lit, quiet, draft free and moisture controlled.

In addition to the energy-saving features, standard specifications of the two- to four-bedroom homes include low-VOC paints and finishes, all-electric water heaters, Moen fixtures, EPA WaterSense toilets from Kohler, and high-quality woodworking and cabinetry.

In addition, they’re comfortable, light-filled and spacious, have great air quality and are fitted with high-quality materials, finishes and fixtures. Another less-considered element is that they are quiet—something too often missing in our homes. Silence is a feature increasingly accepted as vital to health and emotional well-being; and with doors and windows closed there are no traffic sounds from the street, airplanes overhead, barking dogs or noisy neighbors. Tedd Benson often refers to these as providing vital “sanctuaries or “sacred spaces” for family.

Adaptability

Heavily influenced by the thinking of John Habraken and Stewart Brand, Benson and associates developed the Open-Built platform to allow simple modification of structures as occupant needs change. The central idea behind Open-Built is to “disentangle” the building’s interior and exterior systems into separate, functional layers, which improves the efficiency of the construction process. That disentanglement also allows for long-term access, meaning homeowners and professionals can accomplish changes, upgrades and renovations with less demolition and rework.

All systems within the Unity Homes will be continually scalable, with most mechanical and space upgrades able to be accomplished by the homeowners.

Cost

3D FLOOR PLAN MODELING

The ultimate goal of all green prefab manufacturers is to get the quality control and efficiencies possible in a factory at an affordable price. A common complaint is that Unity Homes and its peers are not affordable when compared to conventional stick-built housing, despite the fact that these are not conventional houses.

In truth, cost for this “beyond code” design and performance is competitive with current on-site, building-code-based construction when all factors are considered. These include: resale value, energy bills, maintenance and repairs, health effects and remodeling cost.

Nevertheless, driving down cost is a top priority in the Unity Homes mission. Unity plans to broaden the market for their homes by continually reducing cost to match the cost of conventional building, which varies widely between geographical regions. The company has already achieved this in many areas of the Northeast.

Eventually, Benson says, as more builders use and demand high-performance products, competition will increase among manufacturers, creating a virtuous cycle of improved performance and lower costs. He is emphatic, “Americans deserve better homes, and the industry has the capacity to build them, we’re just not doing it on a consistent basis. If this type of building was industry wide, the costs would drop for everyone.”

Future

OPTI_MEIR-AUER-5June-2013-001Tedd Benson is pretty clear about his future plans for Unity Homes: expanded production facilities across the country to lower shipping costs, continual improvement in the production process, and lower cost.

Eventually, Unity Homes wants to merge its current panelization process with modules that would allow Unity to complete mechanical rooms, bathrooms and kitchens at its facility, and leave only 20% of the building process for on-site construction.

Last, but not least, he wants Unity Homes to stand as a sustainable model for the industry, and with that to change how Americans view homebuilding from something to be dreaded and endured to something that is rewarding and even fun. In the end that will be a source of healing not only for future homeowners but for the planet.