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.

Tedd Benson “In the House” on PBS with Ken Burns and Kevin O’Connor

Burns-Benson-PBSOn In the House, a three-part series now available on the PBS website, award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns and Bensonwood’s Tedd Benson, join This Old House host Kevin O’Connor, to discuss Burns’ timber frame barn that combines the unique spiritual feel of 19th century New England with modern-day functionality and comfort.

In a conversation with O’Connor, two stewards of American history, Burns and Benson, offer their shared perspective on the values, teamwork and community behind their two very different yet related American trades. Using Burns’ recently completed Bensonwood barn as the central focus of the film, they discuss the practical, spiritual and community values behind these agrarian cathedrals.

In their discussion, Burns and Benson laud American barn architecture for its elemental simplicity, honesty and truthfulness; where there are no tricks, nothing is hidden, and its magnificent structure remains permanently on display for centuries. Through this lens, the barn becomes a metaphor for the democratic values and commitment that built this country.

In Part 1, the men delve deep into the artistic and collaborative process, and the philosophy of filmmaking through the lens of building.

In Part 2, Benson and Ken Burns describe the thrilling ceremony of raising the barn’s structure, bringing together Burns’ friends, family and local community members. Benson paints a vivid picture of the ancient ceremonial nature, and Burns notes the special day reminded him of a bigger idea: “We are not alone, we require a community.”

In Part 3, Tedd Benson presents the distinct American timber barn history and Burns highlights the practical and spiritual dimensions of those spaces, calling them “the most powerful of art forms.” Burns demonstrates his depth of understanding of Benson’s craft and his dedication to honoring the building through humility and teamwork. Tedd and Ken talk about the emotion and joy that comes with a good old fashion American barn raising.

“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.”

 

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

ken burns and tedd benson

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

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

ken burns barn raising film

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

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

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

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

Timber framers guild display

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

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

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

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

bensonwood crew at TFG conference 2014

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

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

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

ken burns TFG film presentation