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.

 

 

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.

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.”

 

 

Customized Unity Xyla 212 Sits Softly on the Land

xyla 212

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

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

air pohoda ashp

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

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

Unity Homes: Indoor Air Quality and Comfort

unity homes kitchenYou can live 21 days without food, 7 days without water, but only a few minutes without air. Every day we take 21,600 breaths; that’s nearly 8 million breaths of air a year. By weight, we take in more air than food: 4,500 times our own weight in an average lifetime.*

On average, we spend 90% of our lives indoors, and approximately 2/3 of that time is spent at home. Today’s health conscious consumers will pay a premium for healthy, natural foods, but often give less thought to indoor air quality or overall healthiness of their homes. A recent McGraw Hill Construction report, “The Drive Toward Healthier Buildings,” finds that most homeowners turn to family, friends or coworkers for advice on home products and practices, with few requesting advice from the builders, remodelers and architects who know most about how these decisions might affect occupant health.

However, homebuyers are increasingly concerned about the Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) of their homes. Pollutants like mold, radon, carbon monoxide and toxic chemicals are receiving greater attention than ever as poor IAQ is linked to a multitude of health issues. Some pollutants cause health problems such as sore eyes, burning in the nose and throat, headaches or fatigue. Other pollutants cause or worsen allergies, respiratory illnesses, heart disease, cancer, and other severe long-term health issues. At high concentrations, pollutants such as carbon monoxide, can be fatal.

Given how important air is to life, let’s examine perhaps the most important attribute of Unity Homes, and properly built high-performance homes in general, which is how they can help you breathe easier and live healthier.

air pohoda ERV

Air Pohoda’s Ultima 240E i-ERV uses an Enthalpy heat exchange core

To start, only low VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) materials and finishes are used in the construction of Unity highly-insulated, tightly-sealed, energy-efficient homes, resulting in exceptional levels of indoor air quality. Because of their extraordinary air-tightness, the indoor air is continuously replenished with fresh and conditioned air, reducing the energy losses that typically come from whole house ventilation. This is accomplished by the use of a standard Heat Recovery Ventilator (HRV) or optional Energy Recovery Ventilator (ERV) with adjustable humidification and dehumidification controls. 

Regardless of which ventilation system is chosen, Unity homes come standard with air-source heat pumps (for heating and cooling). When properly installed, an air-source heat pump can deliver one-and-a-half to three times more heat energy to a home than the electrical energy it consumes, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.  This technology loses less humidity in the winter than with forced hot air/furnace systems that scorch the air at high temperature—driving off its moisture—making an outboard humidifier consume more energy to replenish it. Finally through filtration, allergens and other pollutants can be removed, making indoor air considerably healthier than outside air.

Why build tight houses that require sophisticated ventilation systems, you ask? There are many myths held by the public (and by many builders as well) surrounding the false notion that houses need to breathe. This bogus theory holds that houses can be too tight and that air leakage or “natural ventilation” dries everything out and keeps the air quality healthy. But as Green Building Advisor.com points out, “…air leaks mean you’ve lost control of air movement…air and moisture can be forced into wall and ceiling cavities where water vapor condenses and fosters the growth of mold.”

Additionally, according to Green Building Advisor.com,

“Warm air exiting the top of the house can draw in cold air to replace it, wasting heat and energy. In many ways, uncontrolled air movement wastes energy and increases the risk of long-term damage to building components. Effective air and moisture barriers reduce those problems, but they come with a few caveats: Tight houses need mechanical ventilation to ensure a supply of fresh air to keep people healthy.”

a Unity Homes Xyla 212

Artist’s rendering of a Xyla 212.

And while we’re on the subject, what exactly is “fresh air?” Most would assume outside air is fresh air, but whether you live in the city or the country, outdoor air carries pollutants in the form of gasses, droplets, and particles. This includes pollution from cars, trucks, airplanes, industry, tractors plowing fields, wood and crop fires, ground level ozone, and allergens like pollen. Indoor air, too, can contain a host of pollutants from combustion sources like stoves and furnaces, to high VOC building materials and furnishings, to household cleaning products and radon, to name a few. All of these pollution sources can cause health problems if not mitigated through green building practices and sophisticated air handling technology.

Unity Homes, and other quality high-performance homes, help you breathe easier and live healthier by using only green materials and finishes, by sealing out unwanted moisture, dirt, dust, insects and allergens that can lead to health problems and costly repairs, and by conditioning and filtering incoming air. At the same time, Unity’s well insulated and tight building envelope reduces overall heating and cooling costs, and adds comfort by eliminating drafts and temperature variations.

Moreover, while a Unity Home conditions your indoor air, its low-waste, precision offsite fabrication and super-efficient energy performance thereafter works to lower its impact on the outside air—which we all share—as well.

xyla 212 under construction

A Unity Homes Xyla 212 under construction in Vermont.

Our newest Unity, a Xyla 212 with an ERV in Montpelier, Vermont will be featured in our next newsletter.

Read more about what steps to take both to reduce the risk from existing sources of indoor air pollution and how to prevent new problems from occurring in EPA’s “Care For Your Air: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality.

*Source: http://minkukel.com/visualize-it/every-breath-you-take/

 

 

 

Southern Comfort: A Unity Zūm Rises in Asheville, NC

front 2Zum_Mimken_DD_Page_1Situated 2,000 ft. above sea level in the Appalachian mountains, Asheville, North Carolina has a full range of temperatures with average January lows of 28 degrees F and average July highs of 85 degrees F, making it a prime location for Unity Homes’ energy-stingy houses. In a nutshell, Zūm’s low-load building envelope offers year-round comfort with minimal energy input, making F3 (fossil fuel free) living easily achievable. And when combined with energy rebates and incentives, the Zūm the home was even more affordable.

In addition to financial health, Zūm promotes personal health as well with its green, low-VOC materials throughout, exceptional indoor air quality, minuscule room-to-room and floor-to-ceiling temperature variants, abundance of natural light, and sound dampening shell that keeps outside noises outside.

2013.11.27_Zum_Mimken_DD_Page_2The client for Unity’s first Zūm, Nick Mimken, is a repeat client, having built his first house with Bensonwood back in 2001: an island house on Nantucket. According to Nick: “I had had a very good experience building the timber frame Nantucket house: it proved to be everything you said it would be…and more,” adding that “the Bensonwood architect, Bill Holtz, and the crew had been top notch and worked amazingly well with the local builder.”

On his latest homebuilding project with Unity Homes, Nick continues:

 Fast forward a dozen or so years and this time around I was thinking about downsizing and wanted something smaller and energy efficient when I learned about Bensonwood’s new Unity Homes. Being interested in zero energy design, I visited your headquarters, met with architect Randall Walter and sales person John Dunbar, and as before, I was impressed with the way you use the latest technology. They walked me through the computer modeling and site lines, etc. and I was sold on the process.

IMG_7150Unity Homes provided a “Tempo Offering;” a package including the home’s shell, millwork and mechanicals—ideal for do-it-yourselfers wanting to complete their prefab home in phases, or in this instance, for a client looking to build on a distant site outside our home region of New England—hiring a local builder to finish the home.

MIMKEN ZUMThe builder, Jody Guokas of JAG Construction, is finishing out the home with contemporary cement panels similar to those used on our Unity House college president’s residence in Maine, and on the Catherine Houghton Arts Center in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Again, according to the owner/builder:

 “My local green builder, Jody Guokas, wasn’t interested in the project initially, but when he learned that Bensonwood had designed the home and would be installing the shell, he jumped on it. He wanted to learn from Bensonwood’s processes. One member of Jody’s crew had even worked at Bensonwood for a spell, so the fit was perfect.”

 P1040501The build site is a challenging, heavily-wooded lot, with the home’s footprint coming close to the setbacks on all four sides. This required the crane to precisely pick and set the wall and roof panels to avoid tree limbs, power lines and neighboring houses.IMG_7156

As for project management, Nick added: “Unity’s Ryan Lawler deserves a blue star. He worked tirelessly with me, calmly working out problems.”

Asked to sum up his experience, Nick Mimken said, “For me, it’s a story of good people, good reputation, and good process.” He then offered, “It’s a small world, so this counts.”