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.

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.”

 

 

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.

A Classic Barn for a Classic Car Enthusiast

elevation of classic car garageAre you one of those people who owns a classic car and longs for an appropriate place to keep your dream machine? That was the impetus behind one car enthusiast’s desire to physically connect his passion for collectible automobiles to his existing 1930s Delaware residence. The owner, who has an existing garage for his family cars, tools around in a ‘76 Triumph TR6 and hopes to acquire more vintage cars once his new timber frame car barn is completed next month. The result will be an architecturally true barn and connector addition that can drive home, literally, his automotive passion.

The barn and connector were designed by Patrick McDonough, of John Milner Architects, to integrate and reflect the style of the existing main house while adding to the majesty and proportion of the façade.

classic car garage elevationBensonwood was hired by the owner/builder, a repeat client, to fabricate and raise the free-standing timber frame barn shell. The lengthy connector joining the house with the barn will be site-built by Dewson Construction Company, a Delaware-based general contractor and construction management firm.

The car barn, with four bays and an epoxy-painted concrete floor to showcase the vehicles, will be a traditional design, with a single, 28-foot-long glulam girder to achieve a post-free opening to the shed bump at the rear of the building. Roof trusses on either end of the barn will have straight bottom chords, with three arched glulam bottom chords on the trusses in between, defining the vaulted space. The structure includes a central king post with decorative and structural steel reinforcement plate custom fabricated by Bob Taylor of Alstead, NH. A multi-purpose loft with ladder at one end of the structure will add useful square footage to the plan.classic car garage interior rendering

CAD DRAWING vintage auto barnTo integrate the architectural style of the barn with the main house, an eight-sided “lantern” cupola will be stick-built atop the barn by a local company to match the cupola on the main house. In addition to its unifying aesthetic, the copula will allow in natural light to illuminate the timber frame interior and future car collection. Dewson Construction will then finish the barn with a brick exterior to match the main house.

The classic car barn, currently in fabrication at our Blackjack Crossing facilities in Walpole, NH, is slotted for a September 15 raising, with the complete weather-tight shell installed within a week’s time.