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.”

 

 

“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.”

 

Contemporary Polynesian Pool House on the Charles

polynesian pool house

Photo by John Linden

A young couple with children asked Charles Rose Architects to design a “contemporary Polynesian hut” for their property southwest of Boston on the Charles River.

timberframe pool house roof

The design called for indoor and outdoor sitting and dining areas; kitchenette; stainless steel outdoor shower; bath/changing area; 1,500 SF deck with in-ground hot tub; and a fire pit with built-in seating. The architect carved out one corner, creating a covered, but open and airy, outdoor lounging area.

Everyone agreed that the new pool house should be wood construction — primarily to match the look and feel of an earlier project the architects designed for the clients, a wood-clad “play barn” with two large rooms, divided by an outdoor space framing views of an adjacent pond. That’s where Bensonwood came in.

pool house interiors

Photo by John Linden

pool house timberframeOur timbered Douglas fir frame supports an asymmetric hip roof whose peak is pulled off-center so that the pool house subtly connects with the geometry of the existing play barn. Our timberframer C.J. Brehio was the job captain, and did a masterful job executing complex compound joinery. Custom concealed steel connections were also used throughout the building. Western red cedar lends rich, warm hues from exposed beams, custom doors and millwork.

complex compound joineryThe stainless steel shower structure was was a built by Alstead, NH welder and metal sculptor Bob Taylor and has a unique sand blasted finish and unique hardware such as flush mounted tapered screws and a big piano hinge for the door.

Other wood used includes: mahogany for the windows; ipe (pronounced “ee-pay,” aka Brazilian walnut); and bamboo. See more photos on our Houzz page here.​

charles river pool house

Photo by John Linden

Customized Unity Xyla 212 Sits Softly on the Land

xyla 212

Artist’s rendering of our standard Unity Homes Xyla 212.

Dan Farrell and Melora Kennedy have long been interested in nature conservation. So when they wanted to build a healthy, comfortable, energy-efficient home — close enough to town that he could walk or bicycle to work—a friend, builder and energy consultant, Mark Snyder, suggested they call Unity Homes. Dan works for the Vermont Chapter of the Nature Conservancy as their Conservation Information Manager/GIS Analyst. Melora teaches preschool and kindergarten. The “GIS” in Dan’s title stands for Geographic Information Systems: a science which lets us visualize, question, analyze, interpret and understand data to reveal relationships, patterns, and trends. In the conservation context, GIS would come in handy in evaluating the impact his new home would have on his sloped, 8.9 acre parcel of land, with its old field species and natural plantings — some edible — as well as diverse wildlife crossings.Screenshot 2014-06-23 10.06.14 Unity’s low-waste off-site fabrication and rapid on-site assembly — coupled with its natural materials, extraordinary energy efficiency, and energy-sipping mechanical systems — will all help to reduce the carbon footprint on the sensitive landscape. Their Xyla 212, customized for a walkout, is heated and cooled with an air source heat pump and an optional ERV (Energy Recovery Ventilator) to condition air with minimal energy loss. Both HRV (Heat Recovery Ventilator) and ERV systems are vastly more energy efficient than plain ventilation systems or exhaust-only systems with no heat or energy recovery. Despite its higher up-front cost, Dan chose an ERV system for its edge in operating efficiencies, air filtration, degree of comfort (through greater humidification/dehumidification control) and environmental impact.

air pohoda ashp

The Air Pohoda ERV used in the Farrell home in a special housing devised by our Building Systems team.

Unity’s standard HRV system is designed to recover approx 80% of the heat in the air that is being exhausted from the house, while the ERV (Energy Recovery Ventilation system) is expected to recover over 90%. Given the ERV’s added efficiency, there would be a relatively short payback period on its premium cost over the standard HRV system. In comparing the ventilation systems, the ERV units are expected to save about 1315 kWh per year over the HRV system. At $0.15/ kWh, that comes to almost $200 per year at the current electric rate, with those savings continuing to rise as electricity rates increase. The Return On Investment calculator projects an 11-year payback on the $3,000 additional investment over the cost of a comparable HRV system.  (Source: EPA Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator.) IMGP7792But for Dan and Melora, it wasn’t just a matter of dollars and cents. Framing it more in conservation terms, the 1,315 kWh per year saved by their ERV over the HRV, is equivalent to 102 gallons of gas, 97 lbs. of coal or 21 barrels of oil. Saving that energy would be the carbon equivalent of 23 tree seedlings grown for 10 years or 0.75 Acres of forest grown in one year. The 2-bedroom, 1-bath Unity Xyla, with its super-efficient 1,028 SF first floor space plan and optional 939 SF walkout level, celebrates the lagom values at the heart of all Unity Homes. Roughly translated, lagom is a Swedish word meaning “not too much, not too little —  appropriately balanced.” The home is neither too big nor too small, but just right perched lightly on its steeply sloped site and in-balance with its surroundings. work in progress Xyla 212Entry is from the up-slope side (and future patio) directly into the living area, which is open to the eat-in kitchen and second bedroom. Down a short hallway and adjacent to bedroom two is the master bedroom and common bath. Dan and Melora plan to leave the ground floor, with its separate down-slope entry, unfinished for the time being, but it will eventually have a rec room and second bath. With the home fabricated off-site and assembled on-site over late spring/early summer, the Farrells expect to be in their home by mid August.

1st evoDOMUS – Bensonwood Project Underway

evodomus rendering

Architect’s Rendering by Alexander Kolbe

When husband and wife architects Alexander and Michelle Kolbe, co-founders of evoDOMUS, a Cleveland-based firm, wanted to design and build high-quality, sustainable homes in the U.S., they went looking for a manufacturing partner who could match the quality of homes they built in Alexander’s native country of Germany.

They sought a montage homebuilding company of the caliber of the venerable Huf Haus and Baufritz, Germany’s leading off-site building companies, which helped establish off-site panelized building as the primary construction methodology throughout Europe. Both companies are more than a century old and, like Bensonwood Unity Homes, combine timber framing influences with advanced design and high-performance building.

However, the Kolbes wanted a more personal connection to the client through the entire process—the level of attention a smaller company could provide—to reduce the stress homeowners often associate with a custom house project, such as designers not tuned-in to their clients’ needs, unreliable contractors, as well as schedule and budget overruns. After thoroughly researching high-quality panelized builders, fabricators and timberframers, the names Tedd Benson and Bensonwood kept popping up. So Alexander got on the phone and, much to his astonishment, Tedd picked up.

Upon hearing of the Kolbes’ high standards and montage building interest, Tedd replied, “That’s exactly what we’re doing!” A meeting with Tedd and project manager Hans Porschitz followed and it was soon apparent that the synergies and shared values of the two companies were aligned. A relationship was established: Bensonwood would fabricate the evoDOMUS home shells.

Now, the first joint project between evoDOMUS and Bensonwood is underway in Fairfield County Connecticut: a 5,000+ SF 4-bedroom Bauhaus-inspired modernist home in the “Cloud” Series of evoDOMUS homes. Strikingly original and family-friendly, Cloud is also inspired by current Mexican and Spanish interpretations of modern residential architecture. Customized to their clients’ needs, the home’s clean lines, contemporary materials and use of advanced building science are all characteristic of evoDOMUS home designs.

evodomus elevation

East & West Elevations

Designing the home for its two-acre site had its challenges; its wooded setting with wetlands, an awkward slope and rock ledges all needed careful  consideration. In addition, the home had to incorporate passive as well as active solar design, requiring precise siting along with design elements such as a south-facing second floor loggia to shade the first floor in summer months.

The Kolbes’ strong focus on sustainability prompted the use of triple-glazed Loewen windows and a Zender Energy Recovery Ventilator, which recovers up to 90% of the energy of the extract air to warm the incoming fresh air, saving on heating costs. The air distribution system then channels the optimally tempered fresh air to individual rooms as needed. The exterior is clad in Resysta siding made of rice husks, common salt and mineral oil, which makes it both environmentally friendly as well as extremely weather resistant against sun, rain, snow or salt water. Resysta siding also requires minimal care and offers the look and feel of wood and can be painted.
evodomus logo

The home has 4,100 SF of living space with 2 stories above grade and a 900 SF finished basement and 924 SF garage. Off the garage are a mud room, a half bath and a yoga fitness room. The first floor has an open great room with living and dining areas adjoining another open space with a kitchen and family room. Rounding out the first floor is a bedroom/study with adjacent bath. The second floor plan includes the master bedroom, three additional bedrooms (each open to a long balcony), a family bath, a study and a laundry room.

evodomus floor plan

First Floor Plan

EvoDOMUS uses low or no VOC paints and finishes in their homes and only formaldehyde-free materials. Material selections consist primarily of products with high-recycle content, as well as FSC certified woods and bamboo.

Alexander and Michelle Kolbe wanted to offer their customers not only the highest quality, sustainable homes available, but an excellent experience as well. By partnering with Bensonwood, evoDOMUS could put its resources into delivering superior design, customer service and care, rather than making investment in fabrication facilities, with financial partners and the loss of control and client interaction that would imply.

By maintaining that control, evoDOMUS is able to fulfill its mission of making homes as beautifully designed and high quality as German cars—with a customer experience to match.