Tedd Benson Keynotes Northwest EcoBuilding Guild Conference

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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.

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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

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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.

Bensonwood Earns FSC Certification

FSC LOGOBensonwood is proud to announce that we have received Chain of Custody certification from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). FSC Chain of Custody certification provides customers with independent assurance that a product supports responsible forest management. It can also be used to verify that a product is from post-consumer recycled sources.

We have long sought the most sustainable products and building methods over the past 40 years, but this an important further step in demonstrating our commitment to responsible forestry practises.

The FSC is the global leader in responsible forest management. As a member led organization with economic, social and environmental interests sharing equal authority, FSC represents a consensus voice of forest stewardship, affording forest stakeholders a seat at the table. As a nonprofit, FSC sets high standards that ensure forestry is practiced in an environmentally responsible, socially beneficial, and economically prosperous way.

Landowners and companies that sell forest products seek FSC certification as a way to verify to consumers that their products are sourced from well-managed forests consistent with FSC standards. Thanks in part to the recognition of the FSC in the Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) program of the U.S. Green Building Council, there has been a surge in the use of FSC certified wood in green building projects.

Many green homebuilding programs and the nation’s largest DIY retailers, along with many local lumberyards, recognize FSC as the best guarantee of responsible sourcing of wood building products. FSC-certified building products include a wide array of lumber, sheet goods, flooring, millwork, doors, windows, paneling and decking.

For more information on the Forest Stewardship Council visit their website.

Our Building Systems Flawless in 3rd Party Inspection

2014.01.16_Panel shop (25) - Copy Four times a year, TR Arnold, a respected third-party “in-plant inspection agency,” or IPIA, is authorized by us to conduct unannounced inspections at our Blackjack Crossing production facilities. In voluntarily submitting to TR Arnold’s findings, our intention is to ensure that construction standards (state & local code, as well as our own stringent standards) are consistently adhered to.TR Arnold

Essentially, TRA inspectors go through each of our work stations inspecting up to 120 certification elements. As part of this quality control process, TRA inspectors are authorized to, “…reject non-compliant units, to withhold labels and to inspect all finished units produced and labeled prior to a unit found deficient and subsequent to the last unit inspected at the station where the deficiency occurred.”

One such audit has just concluded, and we’re pleased to report that of the many assemblies inspected, no non-conformance issues were discovered and we were found to be in complete compliance.

According to Building Systems specialist, Scott Bosworth, “This is really a big deal because of our building techniques compared to other, very different kinds of prefab home builders. For example, with “Double-Wide” manufactured homes that travel down the highway in halves, there are only two certificates required: one for the left side of the house, and one for the right side. With our many panelized assemblies (that are later raised at the build site), there are 120 or more certification elements that can be inspected prior their leaving our production facilities.”2014.02.07_Panel shop (8)

As Scott elaborates, “And because of the kind of closed-panel, or closed-cavity assemblies we fabricate offsite, building inspectors at the home site appreciate seeing certifications created by independent, in-plant inspectors who have seen the panels come together at the point of manufacture. Therefore, getting a full compliance report from a third-party administrator is huge,” adding, “A perfect score from a company like TR Arnold not only helps affirm our own quality control efforts, but in some cases, having the certificate can also help reassure a local on-site building inspector regarding enclosed areas he or she cannot readily see into.”
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According to Bensonwood/Unity Homes production head, Kevin Bittenbender, who is in charge of compliance control and was instrumental in setting up independent plant oversight, “We’ve been building to the highest quality standards for years. It’s just what we do. It wasn’t much of a change in our process, or product, to meet TR Arnold’s standards. We simply had to clearly explain and document our product, and how we work. Our standards are higher than what is needed for code, and receiving positive results from their inspections is a nice confirmation that we are successfully building to the highest standards in the industry.”