Unity Homes Style Series: The Versatile Värm

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All Unity Homes have been optimized for health, comfort, energy efficiency and durability. But among the four Unity platforms, Värm™, with its full two stories, has special attributes when it comes to the range of style and configuration possibilities.

In Sweden, the word “lagom” has deep cultural significance. It doesn’t translate directly in English, but it roughly means “just enough,” or “just right.” Perhaps most notably, it also means “in balance”—not too much, but not too little either. Tedd Benson’s family hails from the central farming region of Sweden known as Värmland and it is from these roots, and from this concept, that Tedd and the Unity Homes design team created Värm.

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With its simple core volume, library of Open-Built® components, and variety of available finishes, any number of architectural styles can be achieved without the high cost normally associated with custom design. Whether your tastes run towards the classic colonial, the country farmhouse, the barn style, the Adirondack/mountain style or the clean lines of modernist architecture, the Värm core volume is a great place to launch your dreams.

The Värm platform, with its simple, yet spacious volume, is especially suited for clients looking to custom design the look of their three or four-bedroom homes. To emphasize the architectural versatility of the platform, here are exterior views of four very different Värms we’ve built recently…and plans for a fifth we will erect in Greenwich, CT in the spring.

The first, shown here, is a farmhouse style home in southern New Hampshire with a wraparound, screened-in-porch, a connector with an open-timbered porch, and a barn-style garage. The full, two-story home, with its optimized footprint and understated elegance, nestles lightly on the land, perfectly complementing its country setting.

The second Värm in Arlington, MA, has been finished as a barn-style home, with vertical, red-stained, rough-sawn boards, large windows, and louvered sunscreen overhangs, giving the home a simple clean look that is at the same time, both rustic and contemporary. A connector and traditional garage round out the home’s exterior.

As a third Värm example, this mountain-style ski home in Bethel, Maine, offers a robust look with its vertical board and shingle siding. Timber frame elements that support deep shed overhangs announce both the home’s aesthetic and function. The connector, with open-timbered porch entryway, joins the house and garage.

This fourth example is a custom Bensonwood home inspired by the Värm platform, but includes a hip roof, emphasizing its verticality and giving it a majestic quality within a relatively small footprint.

These elevations and floor plan of a home to be built in Connecticut in 2015 demonstrate even more creative possibilities for the Värm.

Regardless of your style preferences, the Unity Homes Värm platform optimizes its function in three different ways. First, with its full-height second floor, Värm maximizes the living space, making it perfectly suited for families with older children, where separation and privacy are often desirable. Second, the Värm maximizes its square footage relative to its footprint on the property, leaving more land for recreation—while its second story can offer more distant views. Perhaps most importantly, Värm maximizes square foot cost by factoring the most expensive elements, the roof and foundation, over greater living space.

Lastly, these Zero Net Energy-ready homes have ample roof surface for photovoltaics (PVs) and, as with all four families of Unity Homes, their energy requirements are minuscule, offering the possibility of true fossil-fuel-free comfort year-round, and a new standard for low energy, high comfort and lagom values.

 

 

Featured Project: A High-Performance Vermont Farmhouse 

An Interview with Bensonwood Client Stephen Ferber

Moving from a cherished mid-nineteenth century farmhouse, why did you decide to build new?
For the past 37 years my wife and I had been living in a 150-year-old Greek revival farmhouse on 40 acres. Retired now and in my mid-sixties, I wanted to downsize somewhat but wasn’t willing to compromise on what I had. Ultimately, three or four things came together in making the decision: First, I wanted to downsize to make it easier on myself. Secondly, I had made a deadline to retire from my job. Third, we wanted to move closer to family and my wife’s work: she works at Lyndon State College. Lastly, I wanted the new energy-efficient home to be a reward for all our hard work.

Why did you decide not to renovate your old house?
Our drafty old house cost $2,400 a year to heat, but that wasn’t the main consideration for building new. I had an energy audit done by the Efficiency Vermont folks, which showed us where the problems were, but I wasn’t willing to compromise the architecture by adding layers of insulating material over architectural features. I didn’t want to see beautiful Vermont granite block covered by insulating board.

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I know you were anxious to get into your new home as soon as possible. Did that affect your decision in choosing Bensonwood?
To be honest, I would have preferred the overall quicker turn-around that the pre-designed Unity Homes plans offer. We didn’t necessarily need a custom house designed from scratch, but we wanted more customization than Unity Homes could provide, so we went with Bensonwood. During the planning stages, we gave quick answers to questions posed by your architect Chris Adams and project manager Tony Poanessa in order to move the process along. We didn’t want one day lost.

Our old house had sold in four days, much quicker than we thought, but that meant we needed to rent while our new home was being built. Our old 40-acre property was deemed organic, which made it of special interest and why it sold so fast. The Jasper Hill Farm cheese people bought the home and property. Among the many renowned cheeses they produce is the organic Bayley Hazen Blue cheese you find featured on high-end restaurant menus.

So while the design process turned out to take a bit longer than we expected, the construction is going quickly and we should be in by the holidays.

What were your design considerations?
I wanted to start with a clean sheet of paper. I basically wanted to repeat my setup by building a farmhouse with a garage that looked like a barn. In my old house we had a four-bay garage and a large woodworking area. And while I wanted to recapture some of this space, I didn’t want my new house to look like a McMansion, with an enormous looking four-bay garage, that would stick out like a sore thumb in its rural Vermont setting. So we wanted the garage to look like a barn, with red-stained, rough-sawn, vertical siding—to make it look like two buildings with a connector.

In the broader sense, I have a real sense of place. We very much wanted to blend into the local vernacular. The home needed to look like an old New England farmhouse, not Adirondack style with orange stained siding—or modern looking, which might look fine in a lake or mountain setting, but not where we wanted to build. It had to look right in its farm setting. We didn’t want our new neighbors to be upset by what we built.

Given Vermont winters, what were your energy considerations?
Our new house, situated on 23 acres with a nice view, is in the middle of a field, with no trees so there are no shadows. We sited the garage due south, so putting PVs (photovoltaics, aka solar panels) on just one side of its roof will be more than adequate to supply all of the home’s electrical needs. We’re using a heat pump system for space heating and cooling and for hot water, with an ERV (Energy Recovery Ventilator) to recapture energy. I think the whole PV system cost $15,000 after tax credits. We had radiant heat tubing put in, just in case, but I don’t think we’ll really need it. The house, designed for Net Zero performance, is all electric—with the exception of a gas cook top.

What could Bensonwood have done better to improve your experience?
We felt we were flying half blind, not being able to walk through a Bensonwood home at the time, in order to say we like this room in this house, and that room in that house. We were shown many plans and pictures, so we knew the quality, but that’s not the same as actually standing in the home and getting a sense of what it’s like. I’m sure not everyone wants people traipsing through their homes. And I guess it’s not practical to have a model home near your facilities, but that might have helped.

On a related subject, how would you feel about your home being used as an example of state-of-the-art energy efficiency?
Situated where we are, within a mile of Lyndon College, with its degrees in Environmental Science and Sustainability Studies, and our proximity to the Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium, with its meteorological focus (they provide Vermont Public Radio’s Eye on the Sky weather forecasts)—I know there’s going to be a lot of interest in our high-performance home.

Tedd Benson 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.

Unity Homes’ Air Source Heat Pumps: Pulling Energy Out of Thin Air

By Rheannon DeMond

Bensonwood/ Unity Homes Energy and Sustainability Specialist

ASHP DIAGRAMHeat pump technology has been around for over a century, and even though the technology has advanced, the principles are still the same. There are some who are still critical about Air Source Heat Pump (ASHP) technology, but we at Bensonwood and Unity Homes prefer to use them whenever possible as they’re especially well suited for highly- insulated, airtight homes with very low heating and cooling loads. In fact, our building envelopes are so energy efficient that our smaller, open floor plan homes can often be comfortably heated and cooled with one central unit. Regardless of home size, however, Air Source Heat Pumps are an extraordinarily efficient and feasible option for our homes, and this article will cover why we think this technology is the best all-around choice.

Technology

Unlike combustion-based systems that produce heat at around 80-95% efficiency, ASHPs move heat from one location to another using the energy drive from the refrigeration cycle. This process is very similar to how a household refrigerator works.  The increased energy drive allows a heat pump to produce 100 kWh of heating and cooling energy using only 20-40 kWh of electricity, resulting in efficiencies of 200-350%.

ASHP IMAGEHow much electricity is consumed is dependent on the temperature differential between the outdoor and indoor air. In fact, a common reason people have shied away from using ASHPs in the past is because the efficiencies drop in cold temperatures, making these units not as ideal for cooler climates. However, recent advances in the inverter technology of these systems now allow ASHPs to operate down to -17°F, and produce heat at 100% of its capacity and efficiency down to 0°F.

Energy Usage

ASHP technology is efficient and here is a real life example to put it a little more in perspective:

For a 1,780 SF northern Vermont home that requires around 57.1 million Btus per year to heat:

Heating with #2 fuel oil would cost around $1,600 a year at current rates.

  • Heating with a propane-fired system would cost around $2,000 a year.
  • Heating with wood would be the least expensive option at around $850 per year (but the effectiveness is highly dependent on the user, stove design and kind of wood being burned.)

It should be noted that all of the aforementioned options use combustion, which we know is bad for the environment.

  • Electric resistance heat would cost around $2,500 per year and the impact that would have on the environment would be dependent on the source of electricity.
  • Air Source Heat Pumps can generate the same amount of heat for only $1,090 per year, and they can provide efficient cooling in the summer!

Environmental Impact

If the electricity used to operate an Air Source Heat Pump is generated by a renewable energy source, then the system has little to no impact on the environment. Oil, gas and wood-fired systems create heat using combustion. Combustion creates carbon dioxide, which is harmful to the environment and is a leading cause of unsafe emissions released into the atmosphere every day.

Using the same northern Vermont home as an example, the difference in electrical usage between electric resistance heat and the heat produced from an ASHP is around 9,500 kWh per year. A great way to look at those savings is how it will reduce the impact on the environment, as well as your wallet.

This EPA website allows one to input estimated energy offsets and see how those savings will reduce the impact on the environment. A savings of 9,500 kWhrs is the equivalent to eliminating the CO2 Emissions from 737 gallons of consumed gasoline, or 7,037 pounds of coal burned or 15.5 barrels of oil consumed. And that is just one year. Imagine what the environmental savings would be over 30 years.

Feasibility

Air Source Heat Pumps can be ducted, centrally located or zoned with multiple head units.  The system uses small copper refrigeration lines for connections, which minimizes required mechanical space and makes zoning much simpler. They offer a variety of head units that fit easily in both new and existing construction projects, and with their low operating loads these systems can be easily powered by a small renewable energy source.

Installation Costs and Return on Investment

We’ve already discussed how Air Source Heat Pump systems can save money on annual utility bills, but for something so efficient one would think it has to cost more money than conventional systems, right?  Wrong. These systems are very cost competitive with most other systems, and remember, they provide whole house cooling and heating, so they may even end up being less expensive.

So what is the return on investment on a system that will not cost the consumer any additional money? It is immediate, but on average this system will pay for itself in energy savings in less than six years!

 Cold Climate Operation

The one downfall to these systems is that at around -17°F there is a chance these systems will shut down and stop producing heat, which is what scares some people away. What these people do not understand though is how infrequently the temperature drops below minus 17°F in most of the United States. Even in the coldest climates this is not a common occurrence, so not using a system that is as efficient as this one because of that one fact is not the right approach.

A simple back up source of heat can be installed for use in these rare occurrences. In our homes we use electric resistance for back up heat, because it is inexpensive and can also serve as zone heating. There are also systems available with electric resistance back up heaters that will continue to operate into these low temperatures.

Other Types of Heat Pumps

After heating and cooling, domestic hot water consumes the most household energy, but luckily they also make a heat pump for that. Heat pump water heaters operate at high efficiencies, and have settings to ensure a steady rate of hot water.  When compared to electric resistance, oil and propane powered systems, these units will see a return on investment in less than three years. The only catch is that how efficiently they operate is dependent on the ambient air around the system, so installing a unit in a cold basement would not be ideal, but if you have a continuous source of heat to pull from, these units are a great and affordable solution.

Geothermal or Ground and Water Source Heat Pumps (GSHPs) operate using the same heat pump technology as air source, except they move heat using the consistently warmer temperatures of the earth and ground water.  Because of this they can operate at efficiencies of 300-600%. These systems are very popular in European countries with very strict guidelines for energy usage.

GSHPs are growing more popular in the cold climates of the United States, but they have high upfront installation costs and a small pool of qualified installers. Like most emerging and efficient technologies, it may take some time before these systems are offered at prices that offer an attractive return on investment.

Conclusion

Buildings are responsible for around 40% of the carbon emissions released into the atmosphere every day, and with the fluctuating cost and availability of fossil fuels, and threat of irreversible climate change, another solution is very necessary. With the advancements in heat pump technology and decreasing costs of renewable solar energy, achieving net zero energy consumption is not just feasible, but a great investment as well.

Aquatic Dreamhouse Required Fluid Construction Strategies

Pool-Centric Vision Posed Technical Challenges

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Faced with a significant technical challenge, Alfandre Architecture, PC and its construction company, EcoBuilders Inc., teamed up with Bensonwood to fabricate and install the large-span glulam timbers and insulated shell of this spectacular 6,000 SF timbered dream house — all built around a large 2,000 SF indoor pool — for their client, a retired couple in Putnam County, NY.

pool house living areaThe challenges included engineering the long timber spans of the pool room, humidity control and the sensitivity of the rocky build site, to name a few. Here, Bensonwood’s expertise in timber engineering, off-site fabrication of panelized assemblies and rapid on-site installation was instrumental in realizing the ambitious project with minimal disruption to the ecology of the home site.

The house, recessed into the bedrock of its 15-acre site, was designed by architect Rick Alfandre to complement its natural setting, with the pool room both anchoring the design and providing the homeowners with the physical, social and emotional benefits of their daily one-hour swim. To add to the ambiance, the light-drenched, four-bedroom, five-bath home has over 70 triple-glazed windows to draw the surrounding landscape into its interior.

pool in upstate ny dream houseGC and local construction company, EcoBuilders Inc. (owned and operated by Rick Alfandre) completed the foundation and walkout walls, first floor system, infill, window installation, mechanical systems, and finishes.

From this project, Bensonwood went on to contribute the timberframe and roof panels for Alfandre Architecture’s offices across the Hudson River in New Paltz, NY, for which Alfandre is seeking LEED Gold certification.

For more photos, visit our Houzz Page.