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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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.

“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.”

 

Bensonwood Associate’s Visionary Design on Display at Boston Society of Architects Exhibit

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Urban Timber: From Seed to City,” a new exhibit at the Boston Society of Architects’ Gallery Space, celebrates wood as a natural and sensible building material for cities, while highlighting wood’s adaptability, versatility and extraordinary technical qualities. It also highlights some innovative thinking going on at Bensonwood.

Included on display at the BSA Space — and the result of an open competition — are four winning projects proposed by emerging architects featuring innovative structural uses of timber.

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Bensonwood Designer Tim Olson assembling his Coopered Column. Photo by Ethan Lacy.

The winners collaborated with mentor architects, engineers and material suppliers to develop and realize their installations in the gallery. Each piece in the exhibit is an art project — and would look right at home in any modern art gallery — but is trying to prove a design theory.

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Aaron Forrest inside of his “Four Corners.” Photo by © Winnie Man | QtMousie Studios

Two of the four design installations in the exhibition involve Bensonwood associates. The first, “Four Corners” by Yasmin Vobis and Aaron Forrest, enlisted Bensonwood chief structural engineer Chris Carbone as a mentor. The Four Corners installation turns the traditional timberframed New England barn inside out using cross-laminated timber.

The second, Bensonwood Designer  Tim Olson’s dynamic “Coopered Column,” weighs about 3,000 pounds and consists of 118 timber pieces and over 250 screws. Titled “coopered” because it borrows from the design of a barrel; the interlocking timbers act like staves, and a belt of screws holding it together mimic the metal hoop of a barrel or other wooden vessel made by craftsmen known as coopers.

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Bensonwood Designer Tim Olson with his award-winning “Coopered Column” installation.

Olson’s bowl-like installation is called a column because a cylindrical support was his original design, a wooden structure that could handle the weight of a skyscraper. He flattened the column into a bowl shape to demonstrate how the design could handle stresses necessary to support a building. You can listen to a recent NHPR story on Tim’s installation.

The exhibit also explores how using wood in mid-rise buildings can combat climate change and underscores wood’s potential as the need for high-performance, low environmental impact structures continues to increase in our urban centers.

P1000928In addition to exploring wood technology and recent innovations in the array of engineered timber available to architects and engineers, the Urban Timber exhibit dispels common myths associated with building in timber, such as the notion that heavy timber is not sufficiently fire resistant. In some instances, engineered wood retains its integrity even better than steel. Cross Laminated Timber (CLT), for example, has a higher resistance to fire because of its thickness since the outer layers, when charred, protect the inner layers, just as a large-diameter tree does in a forest fire.

While the perception of wood in America as a lesser building material endures, Yugon Kim, founding owner/partner of IKD and co-curator of the BSA exhibit,  believes that Urban Timber: From Seed to City will show that the use of timber as the primary structure in mid-rise building construction in Europe proves there is a new future for wood buildings.

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Tim Olson’s Coopered Column under construction. Click to see architect Ethan Lacy’s time-lapse video of it being built.

Urban use of heavy timber has long been an interest here at Bensonwood. In 2007, Bensonwood and Unity Homes founder Tedd Benson was a leader of the UMass Amherst Wood Structures Symposium that explored technological advances in green buildings, as well as digital fabrication with wood and engineered wood products. Organized by the university’s Building Materials and Wood Technology program, the event highlighted new advances in contemporary wood architecture and presaged the current interest in building high-rises with wood. Currently, the tallest wooden buildings are only around 100 feet tall, but constructing much taller timber buildings is now a realistic idea.

In recent years, the technical advances that Bensonwood and Unity Homes have helped develop have given rise to a broad range of process innovations, such as CNC milling and off-site assembly, as well as engineered-wood products with superior performance qualities, such as the glulams (glued, laminated timber) and CLTs used in nearly all of our projects for their strength, flexibility and reliability.

Thanks to novel composites and engineered wood products, such as glulam beams and CLTs, several multistory buildings have already been erected around the world with timber skeletons, and plans for taller buildings are in the works.

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Image: “Four Corners” by Yasmin Vobis and Aaron Forrest. Photograph © Winnie Man | QtMousie Studios.

Urban timber proponents have been making a larger argument to the building industry and to policy makers that to build cities with a lower environmental impact, wood is not just promising but necessary. It’s a plentiful resource that grows back relatively quickly, and even pulls carbon out of the atmosphere during its life cycle.

Architect Michael Green, a passionate advocate for building wood high-rises,said in a recent TED Talk, “Steel represents about three percent of man’s greenhouse emissions, and concrete is over five percent.” He estimates that every 20-story building made out of wood instead of steel or concrete saves around 4,300 tons of carbon, equal to around 900 cars removed from the road in a year.

There are still some major environmental issues to tackle, of course, such as how greatly increased timber harvesting would affect our ecosystem. However, the USDA recently announced a major initiative to promote innovative, sustainable wood building materials for environmental protection and job creation.

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The exhibition was curated and designed by Yugon Kim and Tomomi Itakura, principals of the Boston-based architecture firm IKD.

The Urban Timber show will remain on display in the BSA Space at 290 Congress Street in Boston through September 30. Admission is free and open to the public. The public program includes a series of collaborative public workshops and lectures to provide extra platforms for dialogue and knowledge-sharing between key players in the industry. For more information on the Urban Timber exhibit, visit the BSA website.