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

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

Industry Insider: Tedd Benson – Timber Home Living

Industry Insider: Tedd Benson – Timber Home Living.

One of the most celebrated homebuilders in America, Tedd Benson is a true champion of the traditional timber-frame home — with a modern twist. 

Tedd Benson, Founding Owner, Bensonwood

Tedd Benson, Founding Owner, Bensonwood & Unity Homes

Ask any member of the timber-frame community who has had a major impact on reviving the art of traditional timber framing in recent years, and you’ll most likely hear the same response time and time again: Tedd Benson. READ MORE

Slideshow: 5 Modern American Farmhouses | Dwell

Slideshow: 5 Modern American Farmhouses | Dwell. “A pitched roof doesn’t necessarily mean a home is stuck in the dark ages of the American architectural vernacular. In fact, the following modern farmhouses—which either underwent a transformation or were built with the style in mind—prove that gables and porches can be very modern indeed.” We couldn’t agree more! In fact, Tedd Benson has been saying this for years, but we’re glad the world is catching on…. tradd2-r1tradd3-r1tradd1-p2-ttradd1-p1-tvarm3-r1varm2-r1

Solar Unity Home, Contract to Complete in 20 Weeks

A year ago when Carol and Ed Reardon wanted to build a healthy, energy-efficient, year-round residence on a lake, they knew whom to call.Bensonwood had recently launched its sister company, Unity Homes, which offers healthy, high-performance, more affordable homes.  Here was their chance to own a high-quality Bensonwood home on a budget they could afford. Best of all, they discovered they would be living in the home in only five months’ time.

The home, a Xyla 132, is the first Unity home to feature solar electric panels, which power the HVAC system, including an air source heat pump for both heating and cooling, and heat recovery ventilation. Because of the extremely low energy demands of the Unity building shell (the highly-insulated homes meet or exceed Passive House levels of air tightness), and with the state and federal incentives, the solar panels by Solar Source made sense financially.

Unity Homes Xyla Floor PlanThe home site, on a picture-perfect lake in southern New Hampshire, had been in Carol’s family for decades, so she became the driving force behind the project. The first step was to remove the old camp sitting on the land with serious rot and mold in the crawl space and above the ceilings.

Unity Homes Xyla open floor planCarol was particularly interested in the health aspects of Unity homes. Living with allergies, she wanted cabinets and vanities with low VOCs (volatile organic compounds), wood construction and a sophisticated ventilation system. All Unity homes share these health benefits, along with solid, light-filled, quiet spaces that promote a sense of well-being.

Carol says, “Unity came along at the right time for us. We have downsized to a beautiful new home where we can enjoy our retirement years in a place we love.” Ed Reardon adds, “Bensonwood and Unity people have been a pleasure to work with throughout this process. Special praise goes to Unity project manager Ryan Lawler who couldn’t have been more helpful, responsive and encouraging.”

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.