Unity Home Pioneers: Part of a Greater Movement

Unity Homes TraddFor those wondering if the green movement in homebuilding is on track to address personal and environmental needs, that train has already left the station. New-home buyers wanting to be part of the larger movement towards low-impact, healthy living while at the same time moving towards F3 (fossil-fuel-free) energy independence, have taken a hard look at Unity Homes’ family of high-performance, customizable homes—and decided to invest in the future.

In the two years since launching in 2012, Net-Zero-ready Unity homes have sprouted up in three regions of the country (the northeast, southeast, and mid-Atlantic). Moreover, their owners, green home pioneers and early adopters of the new homebuilding technologies, have selected homes from all four of Unity’s design platforms—Tradd, Xyla, Värm and Zūm: an architecturally diverse collection of homes—customizing them to their personal lifestyle preferences.

So, who’s buying these highly versatile, architecturally diverse homes, and what’s motivating them to invest in a low impact, high-performance lifestyle? To answer that question, let’s visit a few recent Unity homebuyers, all of whom coincidentally (or possibly not) are related to the health and wellness industry.

Downsizing in Southern Vermont: A Nurse/ Midwife Customizes a Xyla 212

Unity Homes Xyla elevationsHow did Laurie Coursin, a Certified Nurse/Midwife and mother of an Antioch University student and pottery maker, come to discover Unity Homes? In her words, “The stars just all lined up.”

Elaborating, Laurie continued: “ For the past 14 years, I’ve been living in a timber frame home Tedd Benson built 30 years ago in Gilsum, New Hampshire. I am actually the second owner, so I had had no direct experience building my own home, or working with Bensonwood. I’ve loved the quality of the home and wish I could keep it, but I needed to downsize and wanted to be mindful of the latest advances in sustainable, energy efficient living. So, I wanted to build a mini-version of my home, but the whole process seemed overwhelming to me.”

Then, a bit of serendipity happened, according to Laurie: “It was at this time, that a pediatrician in the Keene, NH area told me about Unity Homes, so I gave them a call, and from that time on, it seemed like it was meant to be. From the start, I met with Unity sales person, John Dunbar. As it turned out, I had helped deliver one of his babies! So, from the outset, the Unity folks felt like a family to me—so supportive—and they’ve made the process so hassle-free. Beyond that, John showed me how high-performance homes like Unity were the wave of the future.”

And in order to live as lightly on the land as possible, Laurie also wanted the perfect location for her new high-performance home. Again, in her words: “I had become interested in an intentional community, Putney Commons, just across the Connecticut River in Putney, VT, and found an 11-acre parcel of land, with 6 existing homes (mine would be the 7th of 9 planned) that would be perfect for me. In addition to investing in sound land stewardship, I would be able to walk to the Quaker meeting house I frequent, as well as to the co-op and the library. And I’d be part of a like-minded community!”

UNITY HOMES XYLA FLOOR PLANAs for green energy, Laurie plans to buy into a solar farm (Soveren Solar’s Vermont Community Solar program), to power her home’s high tech HVAC system, with Air Source Heat Pump and HRV (Heat Recovery Ventilation). And since the intentional community doesn’t permit wood burning, she plans to use a small, gas-fired Yodul stove to replace her old fireplace, for the warmth and ambiance it provides.

Regarding the ability to customize her Xyla 212 plan, Laurie was able to extend the garage to add a special pottery-making room.  “I wanted to build a pottery studio for my son while he’s away at college;” Laurie said, adding, tongue-in-cheek, “It may be the only way I’ll get to see him.” Her design also includes a custom connector between the house and garage that incorporates a bath, laundry and entry. To further illustrate the flexibility of the Unity Homes platforms, when it was determined that the original site would have some site preparation challenges—leading to higher than anticipated costs—an alternate lot was selected and the original floor plan was modified to fit the new site without significant changes to the shell components.

Summing it all up, Laurie took a longer view: “At the end of the day, I want to be a responsible home buyer and citizen, so I can have some impact on the world my son, and his children, will inherit.”

 A Unity Tradd Rises in Central Vermont for a Young Doctor’s Family

Unity Homes TraddWhen Kimberly White, a homemaker and mother of two children, now aged 4 and 6, and her husband, Joshua, a medical doctor moved east from Minneapolis, Minnesota, they bought a plot of land in picturesque Barnard, Vermont and rented a basement apartment in a commercial building while researching high-performance home builders.

In Kimberly’s words: “We really wanted to be self-sufficient, and build a beautiful, healthy, solid house—and one that’s also good for the environment.”

They had learned from experience, Kimberly indicated: “I was pregnant with our second child at the time we came east. We had moved from an 80+ year-old stucco house in Minneapolis, with drafty windows and doors and gas heating, to a dank apartment with few windows—a space that was hard to keep warm enough for two small children—so building a tight, energy-efficient home was at the top of our list as we began looking for high-quality, green home builders.”

Regarding their insistence on quality, Kimberly offered: “My husband is very forward thinking. After we had done a lot of soul searching, at one point he said, ‘This is going to be our home—our life!  Where our kids will grow up. It needs to be a healthy, comfortable environment. And with the way the economy is going, the price of energy is going to be a major factor when considering a home’s design.’”

vermont xyla unity homesOn how they found Unity Homes, Kimberly said: “My husband is an avid researcher. He began looking into quality builders in the area and Bensonwood and Unity kept coming up. So we visited their New Hampshire facilities, and then took a tour of a nearby Unity home. What really struck us besides the overall quality,” Kimberly said, “was the tightness and even temperature of the home. The homeowners said that they often had to crack a window when they used the fireplace. That really spoke volumes about the quality and tightness of the house,” Kimberly noted.

The White’s bucolic wooded property, up a steep, winding road, has a couple of ponds and nice views, the perfect setting for their new Tradd 123, a 3,084 SF classic tall cape with 3 bedrooms, and 2.5 baths, plus a walkout basement that will be living space in the near future. The home will be rapidly raised and finished this fall, in time for the holidays.

The home’s standard open living plan has exposed timbers and the first floor includes the living, dining and kitchen areas, a powder room and a laundry room. Upstairs are the master with bath, and two additional bedrooms with shared bath. An unfinished walkout level rounds out the space plan. Because Unity floor plans are highly customizable, the second floor was flipped so that the master bedroom could take advantage of the views. Lastly, for outdoor living enjoyment, the home has a 287 SF porch and deck. An elongated, freestanding, 581 SF 2-car garage will accommodate their tractor.

Besides the reconfigured floor plan, the Whites opted for several upgrades, including an ERV (Energy Recovery Ventilator) air handling system to complement the standard air source heat pump.

In concluding, Kimberly re-emphasized: “It was really important to us that the home not only be healthy for our family, but healthy for the environment as well.”

A Retired Doctor & Teacher Retire to a Unity Xyla in Southern Connecticut

Unity Homes Xyla RenderingWhen Nikki and Joanna were contacted for the purpose of this interview, they were flush with excitement and anticipation after having just viewed their completed weather-tight Xyla 212 shell rise as if by magic, within a week’s time, in the coastal Connecticut town of Guilford.  Nikki, a retired family doctor, and her partner, Joanna, a retired teacher and practicing artist, were drawn to Unity Homes for a variety of health, environmental, and aesthetic reasons, but seeing the home materialize so quickly was a real thrill.

Not long before, the two weren’t sure a high-performance home was even achievable within their means. As Nikki explained, “Though we were familiar with the passive solar standards out there, and wanted to live lightly on the land, we didn’t think we could afford an environmentally-advanced home.”

Unity Homes XylaThen, describing how they discovered Unity, Nikki continued, “We were originally involved with a co-housing group in Bethany, Connecticut, but we were concerned that things were moving slowly and that, at our age—in our early sixties—getting a truly sustainable home was going to take too long. Sensing our frustration, a builder who had previously recommended Unity Homes to the co-housing group, directed us to the company website.”

According to Joanna, “One of the primary reasons we came to Unity was how well the homes were constructed, with large sections finished in the factory, unexposed to the damaging effects of weather. Our present home is a 50-year old house, with drafty windows and doors and a gas furnace. We thought of retrofitting it for energy efficiency, but it was totally impractical, if not impossible. With our new home, we want to reach Net -Zero energy, so we plan to add PV (photovoltaic) panels to our Xyla.”

The couple wanted a large master bedroom, a yoga studio, and a home office/studio. To achieve this within the Xyla 212 platform, a master bump-out was added to the plan and interior partitions were reconfigured—all while retaining the core volume and window configuration.

On the ease of achieving their wish list, Nikki had this to say: “The Unity model was a great combo, where the design is already set, but the space plan had the flexibility to meet our needs. For example, we wanted a larger master bedroom, so they put the whole team on it—you know, in-house designers, engineers. They ended up taking a master bedroom from a larger Xyla and added it to the Xyla 212 plan. We also really liked having many of the design decisions pre-set, while at the same time, having the flexibility to change the floor plan.”

unity xyla barnard vermontIn addition to the master bump-out, they did specify a number of finish choices to make the home uniquely theirs, like a special Japanese Shoji screen pocket door, a screen porch and cedar siding on the exterior to better weather the shore climate.

On the style of their Xyla 212, Joanna had this to say: “We really love the design. We find it organic and aesthetically pleasing, and we love the post and beam, the exposed timbers. We also really like the low profile—it being built low to the ground, which will make for easy, single-floor living as we get older.”

Summing up, Nikki spoke of the growing movement towards green living: ”It seems like everyone we’ve talked with in this area, even people overhearing our conversations and joining in—a waitress, a real estate agent, a cop—they were all interested in environmental building…in what we’re building. They all wanted to know what we were doing.”

Nikki then added, “We get the sense there’s a real movement building towards green living, and for Joanna and me, it feels really good to be out ahead in that movement.”

 

 

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.