A White Mountains Contemporary

Q&A with Owner/Builder Jeff Gilbert

smallMBR Glass Porch_1

How did you learn about us?

“I am Vice-Chair of the board of the non-profit New Hampshire Preservation Alliance and last fall we attended a retreat which toured  Southwestern NH, stopping at the Bensonwood Woodworking Shop in Alstead. While there, Tedd Benson showed up and gave an engaging talk on Bensonwood’s blend of craft and technology to build better houses. That eventually led to continued discussions with Tedd and (Bensonwood architect) Randall Walter on a home project I was working on in the White Mountains.”

What about Bensonwood resonated with you?

“I had a generic interest in utilizing computer technology in the integration of design and systems. The flexibility implicit in Bensonwood’s design and fabrication appealed to me. I was especially interested in Bensonwood’s approach to building systems: craftsmen-created with superior fit and finish, all leading to energy-efficient and environmentally friendly homes. The whole concept of applying technology to the home to make a better product interested me.”

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How did you get interested in building science?

“For a while, after law school in 1971, I moonlighted for Emil Hanslin & Tony Hanslin of Yankee Barn, selling lots at the Eastman Four Season recreational community in Grantham, NH, when I wasn’t doing my day job as a lawyer. I became interesting in building systems and off-site fabrication, as a better approach to building homes.”

“Later I became interested in the fabrication of homes and followed Acorn Deck House and others.”

How did you arrive at the distinctive design for your home?

“I had been working with an architect to design a contemporary home, but was looking for a more  overtly contemporary and distinctive design. Working with Randall Walter and Tim Olson, we were able to achieve this through the use of  dramatic shed roofs  and glass curtain walls.”

How interested were you in energy performance”

smallGilbert_7“In one of my conversations with Tedd, he mentioned that Bensonwood homes, properly sited, could maintain 42 degrees F in the dead of a northern New England winter—with the heat turned off! This appealed to me because we’ll only live part of the year in our White Mountain home. Also, with the low load of the building envelope, I can use a relatively small forced air HVAC system.”

Tell me about the property and the siting of your house.

“The house is sited south and east to take advantage of the spectacular 180 degree view overlooking the jewel of the state park system: Franconia Notch and Ridge, Mt. Lafayette, Mt. Liberty, Haystack Mountain, and Cannon Mountain ski area and, further to the east, Mount Washington and the Presidential Range. This southeast exposure will also take advantage of passive solar.”

smallMBR Glass Porch_2“My wife, who had grown up in the Littleton area and I  bought the property from a next door neighbor, who happened to be her choir teacher in school. The land abuts a two-acre conservation parcel that is a lupin field.”

How have you found working with Bensonwood so far?

“It’s been a collaborative experience: working harmoniously to develop the design. And as far as flexibility goes, being a developer, I like that I could get the high quality shell from Bensonwood, and then general contract the job myself. That really made sense for me.”

 

jeffrey-gilbertJeff Gilbert is a businessman who graduated from Dartmouth College and the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He practiced law for 14 years, and thereafter spent a number of years as an investment banker. Currently, he is one of the two principals of W.J.P. Development, LLC that owns and manages three community shopping centers in New Hampshire. Since 2000, Mr. Gilbert has been active in politics, serving as a NH State Representative until 2005. From 2002 to 2004, he was Vice Chairman of the Ways & Means Committee of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, Chairman of the State Revenue Estimating Panel, Chairman of the Joint House and Senate Economic Development Study Committee, and a member of the joint House and Senate Higher Education Oversight Committee. Mr. Gilbert presently serves the State as Treasurer of the Port Advisory Council and as a member of the State Parks System Advisory Council. He is Chairman of the Board of Trustees of New Hampshire Public Broadcasting and President of the Board of Trustees of The Housing Partnership, a local organization providing affordable and workforce housing in the seacoast region. He is also Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors of The New Hampshire Preservation Alliance and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Portsmouth Athenaeum. Mr. Gilbert has three grown children and resides with his wife in Rye, New Hampshire.

 

Bensonwood Featured in History Channel Special

Bensonwood is proud to have been featured on a new two-hour H2 special: “Hidden History In Your House,” which premiered May 22nd. Host  Kevin O’Connor traveled the country uncovering the house as a technological time 1012574_401779406626551_5193879631165858028_ncapsule centuries in the making. Kevin peels back the houses we live in to reveal the surprising ways that the story of America and the history of the world are hidden inside.

The This Old House crew spent a very long, but very fun day here with Tedd and associates talking timber frame history, from harvesting the forests of the eastern woodlands to finishing and raising the timbers of a colonial home. It was also a wonderful opportunity for us to reunite with our old TOH  friends including director Thomas Draudt, cinematographer Jay Maurer and Kevin O’Connor. It’s hard to believe it has been six years since our Weston House project for the 2008 season, a new prefab, eco-friendly home reminiscent of barns built centuries ago.

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Homes Matter by Tedd Benson

Courtesy: The Keene Sentinel. From the latest issue of Business Monadnock 

We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” – Winston Churchill

Screenshot 2014-05-16 13.08.55Many years ago, when we pulled our company associates together to try to draft a collective mission statement for our homebuilding company, we came to an unexpected conclusion. As we kept asking questions about why we do what we do, and why clients engage us for what is usually the biggest investment of their lives, we came to understand there’s an important ideal beyond the simple execution of our crafts for the straight-forward purpose. READ MORE

Passive House: The House of the Future | Sheri Koones

Passive House: The House of the Future | Sheri Koones

smaller_version_400x400Posted: 05/08/2014

From our old friend Sheri Koones in the Huffington Post yesterday. We appeared in prefabulousher popular 2012 book Prefabulous + Almost Off the Grid: Your Path to Building an Energy-Independent Home.

The Passive House (or Passivhaus) (PH) was first established in Germany and is quickly becoming a standard in many parts of the world, including the United States. Whereas other important standards, such as LEED), focus on many environmentally friendly aspects of the home, such as site location, sustainability, materials, water efficiency and so on, Passive House only focuses on energy and ventilation.

Inspiring and Building the Next Generation of Residential Energy Professionals

DOE STUDENT CHALLENGE DESIGN AWARDSThe Challenge Home Student Design Competition seeks to inspire the next generation of architects, engineers, construction managers, and entrepreneurs to design homes that meet requirements for zero energy ready performance that are affordable and market-ready. In turn, the competition provides students with skills and experience for careers in clean energy.

This week, the U.S. Department of Energy announced today the winners of the first competition. The winning teams produced market-ready, state of the art design solutions for high-performance homes that are energy efficient, comfortable and durable. The designs are for zero energy ready homes, meaning their high performance features sharply reduce energy use and all or most of the remaining energy use can be offset with renewable energy.

MONTAGE DESIGN TEAM WINNERSWe are honored that one of the winning teams, Montage Builders – Northern Forest, thanked Tedd Benson and Bensonwood Head of Engineering Chris Carbone for inspiration and support. Tedd and Chris met team members and SUNY – ESF students Michelle Tinner and Peter LiCongo recently at the NY Green Building Conference where he was a keynote speaker and Carbone led a session on “Designing and Building with Heavy Timber.”

Montage Builders – Northern Forest student team leader Michelle Tinner describes her team and their influences this way:

“We were very inspired by Tedd’s use of the word montage. Here is how we define the term as it relates to our team name: Montage Builders – Northern Forest. Montage, a combination of different elements that forms a unified whole, references our teams diverse multi-cultural and multi-generational aggregation of perspectives and experiences, which is the key for the success of our design.

Northern Forest acknowledges the importance of regionally specific design and the default (pre-development) landscape of our region – used for accurate site ecosystem service assessment.

Our team was unique in that we brought together students and faculty from three different educational institutions – all other teams represented just one. We also integrated may different disciplines which supported our holistic approach. We have communications designers, interior designers, architects, landscape architects, environmental scientists, engineers, and construction managers on our team.

An important parallel between Tedd Benson’s approach and our’s is the use of natural materials, the reliance on traditional ecological knowledge, and the reference to historically relevant architecture. We used American Craftsman style architecture which was popularized by a local designer Gustav Stickley. The style is inherently honest and promotes the use natural materials like wood, which is locally available and environmentally preferred, it discourages functionless additions such as fake dormers (the McMansion’s failed attempt at not looking silly), and can be found throughout Syracuse’s neighborhood ensuring that our design would fit the local pattern language. Many of the other designs at the competition were modern.

We were all delighted to have Tedd attend our presentation at the New York State Green Building Conference. He smiled at us the entire time we were up there presenting – probably because he was pleasantly surprised that we were using his favorite word. Having his support and that of Chris Carbone, who got us a timber framed pergola quote at the 11th hour was encouraging and meant a lot to us.”

DOE CHALLENGE HOME LOGOThe team was led by three faculty advisors: Paul Crovella, Ken Bobis and Kevin Stack.

Right now, there’s a need to develop cost-effective designs that are at least 40-50% more efficient that a standard new home. These homes are so energy efficient they offset all or most annual energy consumption with a renewable energy system, such as solar.

To support this increased demand, the Energy Department’s Building Technologies Office is helping to develop a strong workforce with core competencies in building science, including direct entry workers, recent college graduates, and those in continuing education through a number of high-impact initiatives and programs, such as the Guidelines for Home Energy Professionals, Solar Decathlon, and the Energy Department’s Challenge Home Student Design Competition.

What One Modern House Tells Us About the Future of Urban Building – Next City

via What One Modern House Tells Us About the Future of Urban Building – Next City.

On a Tuesday morning not long ago, I entered a half-assembled house tucked into a quiet corner of Somerville, Mass. In much of this small city, adjacent to Cambridge, you can no longer walk down the block without passing a yoga studio or an artisanal butcher. But this residential street still felt more like the blue-collar town of a previous generation. Outside, a yellow crane lifted a floor deck high overhead. A few men wearing hard hats and tool belts busied themselves inserting screws and climbing ladders. MORE

Why We Use Dense-Packed Cellulose Insulation

Bensonwood's proprietary OBPlus Wall

A cross-section of Bensonwood’s cellulose-filled OBPlus Wall®.

Many have asked us why we use dense-packed cellulose insulation in our OBPlus Wall® panels, roofs and some ceilings and floors. Here are some of the cellulose advantages in our “Montage Building” system:

  • Our cellulose insulation is made from recycled newspapers treated with a natural mineral borate to give it a Class A fire rating as well as resistance to mold and pests.
  • The dry cellulose is blown into all the framing cavities at a settle-proof density (dense-packed), filling any shape with a continuous thermal insulation layer. The blowing process compresses the cellulose to a density of between 3 and 4 lbs/cu.ft. In addition to preventing any settling of the material, the dense-packed cellulose also cuts down convection that can occur around batt type insulation and in low-density blown fiberglass, particularly in colder temperatures.
ob plus wall with dense packed cellulose

Cellulose being blown into a Bensonwood wall panel.

  • Dense-packed cellulose blocks air movement better than fiberglass batts. While sprayfoam also seals the enclosure against air infiltration well, its rigid consistency when cured may allow it to crack as framing members around the insulation dry and move over time. Cellulose has the flexibility to allow for such movement without resulting gaps.
  • Similar to wood fiber, paper cellulose fiber manages moisture well, taking in and releasing the moisture effectively. As a result, indoor relative humidity is much more even due to the hygroscopic buffering capabilities of the cellulose insulation. This is in contrast to the hydrophobic characteristics of fiberglass and foam insulations, which lack this capability and can cause a home’s interior to experience significant swings in humidity when weather changes. So, with its tremendous insulating and moisture management characteristics, cellulose helps to buffer temperature and humidity extremes.
  • While foam insulation has a slightly higher R-Value per inch, cellulose takes less energy to manufacture than any other insulation material. This embodied energy includes the total energy required to transport the raw materials, then manufacture and distribute the finished product. Fiberglass has up to 10 times more embodied energy than cellulose and foam products have as much as 64 times more.
  • Cellulose insulation is one of the greenest building products, having the highest level of recycled content in the insulation industry—as much as 85%. Fiberglass has a maximum of 40% recycled content and foam products little or none.
  • Cellulose sequesters carbon in a building’s components instead of releasing it into the environment. Cellulose insulation is made from recycled paper that might otherwise end up in landfills, releasing methane as it decomposes, or be burned, releasing CO2. This sequestration results in a positive carbon balance which helps the efforts to lower the material’s impact on climate change.
  • Cellulose insulation is produced regionally, employing local recycling programs and independent recyclers.
  • While all insulation provides sound reduction, cellulose has approximately three times the density of fiberglass as well as fibrous consistency, delivering enhanced sound dampening.

For more details on cellulose insulation, visit http://www.nationalfiber.com/cel-Pak.htm or http://cellulose.org/GreenestInsulation/.

What dense-packed cellulose looks like inside a wall.

What dense-packed cellulose looks like inside a wall.

Seriously? | Tedd Benson on Homebuilding

The New House Rules | Tedd Benson on Homebuilding.

In my last post, I vented a little about the cover of the largest professional homebuilding magazine (Byline, “Smart Building Starts Here”) depicting a construction site that might have been exceptional 100 years ago, but today should be an industry embarrassment, not a magazine cover. Finding that the photo proudly displayed on the cover was only part of the reason for my dismay.

The home under construction was to be the “New American Home,” the featured model home at the International Builders Show.  Its purpose is to show off the latest process and products our industry has to offer.

For a refresher, here is that magazine cover with story about the model project under construction, apparently a paragon image of 21st century homebuilding. The reality is building materials in the dirt, guys cutting and shaping each and every piece that goes into the building (awkwardly, with small tools), and no organization that systematically improves quality or achieves better efficiency.

What we really see is the lurch into yet another century of homebuilding evolution, still  unimpeded by progress.

SMALL Builder002“The New American Home” that was the outcome of that site construction was also 7,000 square feet, and that represents the other side of the American problem in homebuilding. Big is more important than good.  My intent was to address the building process problem, but readers were more repulsed by the size. After all, as a model intended to be an exemplar, we can probably keep building in inefficient ways, and we can keep giving the American public less housing quality  than they need and deserve, but we can’t keep building that big. So I get it.

Nevertheless, I’m surprised that people take for granted the inherent anachronism of the typical homebuilding process.  Yet its stasis in the context of contemporary technology and worldwide manufacturing advancement is so pervasive that its lack of progress is invisible, and its inefficient and ineffective reality is widely accepted, and sometimes even lauded as evidence of craft. I see an emperor with no clothes; others say he’s always been naked and that’s what makes him so kingly.

Here are two homes I recently saw under construction in the mid-west.

KSjobsite1

Ksjobsite2

Take a minute. Study those photos, as if you were managing the efficiency and quality of a process that matters immensely to the life and economics of our society. Just look at those two sites! Look at the guys sorting through the “pick-up-sticks” in the upper photo. What could they possibly be doing, and who’s paying for it? What do you think about their care of the materials? In the second photo, the dumpster size speaks volumes, and we have more sticks in the dirt, and a guy carrying a single framing member over his shoulder. Why is any of this so accepted in 2014? In any other industry where quality and efficiency matters a company employing this sort of manufacturing standard would be out of business in a nano-second.

As a builder who has spent his professional life trying to improve building quality, I find all of the above examples rather alarming, as I do the home quality standard that usually is the process outcome.  But I guess I’m in the minority.

The final photo is even more revealing. My co-worker, Hans Porschitz, was looking for a photo of the standard building process to add to a  presentations he is doing. In his Google search, he found an article from the Wall Street Journal from 2012, titled: Housing Starts Surge as Confidence Grows. The point of the article was that home construction was starting to come back strong and that all was beginning to look good for building construction. Great news, which at the time people like me read with deep interest, hoping the long recession malaise would finally end. But here’s the kicker: look at the photo that illustrated that positive news about homebuilding:

Our Homebuilding Standard

Seriously? I don’t know where to start, but apparently the editors at the WSJ thought this was an appropriate iconic photo to illustrate the positive bustle of an industry coming out of the doldrums and now thriving again. Aren’t you glad? Would you want to own that house? Is this how much our homes matter to us? How long will we accept these wooden tents adorned with facades of drywall and garnished with amenities? A few things come to me:

  • There’s not a legal labor rate low enough to justify the methods.
  • They don’t care about the construction materials at all.
  • Waste is no problem.
  • There is no pride with anyone there or it would look different.
  • None of these people care anything about OSHA safety regulations, much less their own safety.
  • What else do you see?

Honestly, I just don’t understand it, but this IS the American way of building and we as a society apparently take it for granted that this is as it should be.  There’s an industry and cultural assumption that it’s the best we can do, I guess. The first photo is from the number one homebuilding industry trade magazine, and the last one is from our number one business newspaper. Our country, therefore, obviously thinks our homebuilding process is just hunky-dory.

But when you think about it, is it any wonder that: building construction has become the last refuge of the otherwise unemployable, and certainly doesn’t make any list of desirable careers for young people? …that natural disasters lay whole communities flat? …that the typical American home is an energy sieve? ..and a maintenance nightmare? …that there is typically at least a 15% defect rate (structure, safety, health, not cosmetic) when other industries are chasing fractions of 1%?

Homes DO matter. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, our culture creates our homes, thereafter our homes create our culture. The need for urgency is far more important than only energy and sustainability; it’s about the soul of who we are.

We CAN and therefore must do better. Much better. There are many of us working “in the trenches” to bring a better destiny to American homebuilding, and that includes all my associates at Bensonwood and Unity Homes, who have dedicated our professional lives to that proposition.

Though the enemy–a recalcitrant, misaligned industry–is strong, we will prevail. Better homebuilding is coming to America.