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

unity homes varm modern

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