Unity Home Pioneers: Part of a Greater Movement

Unity Homes TraddFor those wondering if the green movement in homebuilding is on track to address personal and environmental needs, that train has already left the station. New-home buyers wanting to be part of the larger movement towards low-impact, healthy living while at the same time moving towards F3 (fossil-fuel-free) energy independence, have taken a hard look at Unity Homes’ family of high-performance, customizable homes—and decided to invest in the future.

In the two years since launching in 2012, Net-Zero-ready Unity homes have sprouted up in three regions of the country (the northeast, southeast, and mid-Atlantic). Moreover, their owners, green home pioneers and early adopters of the new homebuilding technologies, have selected homes from all four of Unity’s design platforms—Tradd, Xyla, Värm and Zūm: an architecturally diverse collection of homes—customizing them to their personal lifestyle preferences.

So, who’s buying these highly versatile, architecturally diverse homes, and what’s motivating them to invest in a low impact, high-performance lifestyle? To answer that question, let’s visit a few recent Unity homebuyers, all of whom coincidentally (or possibly not) are related to the health and wellness industry.

Downsizing in Southern Vermont: A Nurse/ Midwife Customizes a Xyla 212

Unity Homes Xyla elevationsHow did Laurie Coursin, a Certified Nurse/Midwife and mother of an Antioch University student and pottery maker, come to discover Unity Homes? In her words, “The stars just all lined up.”

Elaborating, Laurie continued: “ For the past 14 years, I’ve been living in a timber frame home Tedd Benson built 30 years ago in Gilsum, New Hampshire. I am actually the second owner, so I had had no direct experience building my own home, or working with Bensonwood. I’ve loved the quality of the home and wish I could keep it, but I needed to downsize and wanted to be mindful of the latest advances in sustainable, energy efficient living. So, I wanted to build a mini-version of my home, but the whole process seemed overwhelming to me.”

Then, a bit of serendipity happened, according to Laurie: “It was at this time, that a pediatrician in the Keene, NH area told me about Unity Homes, so I gave them a call, and from that time on, it seemed like it was meant to be. From the start, I met with Unity sales person, John Dunbar. As it turned out, I had helped deliver one of his babies! So, from the outset, the Unity folks felt like a family to me—so supportive—and they’ve made the process so hassle-free. Beyond that, John showed me how high-performance homes like Unity were the wave of the future.”

And in order to live as lightly on the land as possible, Laurie also wanted the perfect location for her new high-performance home. Again, in her words: “I had become interested in an intentional community, Putney Commons, just across the Connecticut River in Putney, VT, and found an 11-acre parcel of land, with 6 existing homes (mine would be the 7th of 9 planned) that would be perfect for me. In addition to investing in sound land stewardship, I would be able to walk to the Quaker meeting house I frequent, as well as to the co-op and the library. And I’d be part of a like-minded community!”

UNITY HOMES XYLA FLOOR PLANAs for green energy, Laurie plans to buy into a solar farm (Soveren Solar’s Vermont Community Solar program), to power her home’s high tech HVAC system, with Air Source Heat Pump and HRV (Heat Recovery Ventilation). And since the intentional community doesn’t permit wood burning, she plans to use a small, gas-fired Yodul stove to replace her old fireplace, for the warmth and ambiance it provides.

Regarding the ability to customize her Xyla 212 plan, Laurie was able to extend the garage to add a special pottery-making room.  “I wanted to build a pottery studio for my son while he’s away at college;” Laurie said, adding, tongue-in-cheek, “It may be the only way I’ll get to see him.” Her design also includes a custom connector between the house and garage that incorporates a bath, laundry and entry. To further illustrate the flexibility of the Unity Homes platforms, when it was determined that the original site would have some site preparation challenges—leading to higher than anticipated costs—an alternate lot was selected and the original floor plan was modified to fit the new site without significant changes to the shell components.

Summing it all up, Laurie took a longer view: “At the end of the day, I want to be a responsible home buyer and citizen, so I can have some impact on the world my son, and his children, will inherit.”

 A Unity Tradd Rises in Central Vermont for a Young Doctor’s Family

Unity Homes TraddWhen Kimberly White, a homemaker and mother of two children, now aged 4 and 6, and her husband, Joshua, a medical doctor moved east from Minneapolis, Minnesota, they bought a plot of land in picturesque Barnard, Vermont and rented a basement apartment in a commercial building while researching high-performance home builders.

In Kimberly’s words: “We really wanted to be self-sufficient, and build a beautiful, healthy, solid house—and one that’s also good for the environment.”

They had learned from experience, Kimberly indicated: “I was pregnant with our second child at the time we came east. We had moved from an 80+ year-old stucco house in Minneapolis, with drafty windows and doors and gas heating, to a dank apartment with few windows—a space that was hard to keep warm enough for two small children—so building a tight, energy-efficient home was at the top of our list as we began looking for high-quality, green home builders.”

Regarding their insistence on quality, Kimberly offered: “My husband is very forward thinking. After we had done a lot of soul searching, at one point he said, ‘This is going to be our home—our life!  Where our kids will grow up. It needs to be a healthy, comfortable environment. And with the way the economy is going, the price of energy is going to be a major factor when considering a home’s design.’”

vermont xyla unity homesOn how they found Unity Homes, Kimberly said: “My husband is an avid researcher. He began looking into quality builders in the area and Bensonwood and Unity kept coming up. So we visited their New Hampshire facilities, and then took a tour of a nearby Unity home. What really struck us besides the overall quality,” Kimberly said, “was the tightness and even temperature of the home. The homeowners said that they often had to crack a window when they used the fireplace. That really spoke volumes about the quality and tightness of the house,” Kimberly noted.

The White’s bucolic wooded property, up a steep, winding road, has a couple of ponds and nice views, the perfect setting for their new Tradd 123, a 3,084 SF classic tall cape with 3 bedrooms, and 2.5 baths, plus a walkout basement that will be living space in the near future. The home will be rapidly raised and finished this fall, in time for the holidays.

The home’s standard open living plan has exposed timbers and the first floor includes the living, dining and kitchen areas, a powder room and a laundry room. Upstairs are the master with bath, and two additional bedrooms with shared bath. An unfinished walkout level rounds out the space plan. Because Unity floor plans are highly customizable, the second floor was flipped so that the master bedroom could take advantage of the views. Lastly, for outdoor living enjoyment, the home has a 287 SF porch and deck. An elongated, freestanding, 581 SF 2-car garage will accommodate their tractor.

Besides the reconfigured floor plan, the Whites opted for several upgrades, including an ERV (Energy Recovery Ventilator) air handling system to complement the standard air source heat pump.

In concluding, Kimberly re-emphasized: “It was really important to us that the home not only be healthy for our family, but healthy for the environment as well.”

A Retired Doctor & Teacher Retire to a Unity Xyla in Southern Connecticut

Unity Homes Xyla RenderingWhen Nikki and Joanna were contacted for the purpose of this interview, they were flush with excitement and anticipation after having just viewed their completed weather-tight Xyla 212 shell rise as if by magic, within a week’s time, in the coastal Connecticut town of Guilford.  Nikki, a retired family doctor, and her partner, Joanna, a retired teacher and practicing artist, were drawn to Unity Homes for a variety of health, environmental, and aesthetic reasons, but seeing the home materialize so quickly was a real thrill.

Not long before, the two weren’t sure a high-performance home was even achievable within their means. As Nikki explained, “Though we were familiar with the passive solar standards out there, and wanted to live lightly on the land, we didn’t think we could afford an environmentally-advanced home.”

Unity Homes XylaThen, describing how they discovered Unity, Nikki continued, “We were originally involved with a co-housing group in Bethany, Connecticut, but we were concerned that things were moving slowly and that, at our age—in our early sixties—getting a truly sustainable home was going to take too long. Sensing our frustration, a builder who had previously recommended Unity Homes to the co-housing group, directed us to the company website.”

According to Joanna, “One of the primary reasons we came to Unity was how well the homes were constructed, with large sections finished in the factory, unexposed to the damaging effects of weather. Our present home is a 50-year old house, with drafty windows and doors and a gas furnace. We thought of retrofitting it for energy efficiency, but it was totally impractical, if not impossible. With our new home, we want to reach Net -Zero energy, so we plan to add PV (photovoltaic) panels to our Xyla.”

The couple wanted a large master bedroom, a yoga studio, and a home office/studio. To achieve this within the Xyla 212 platform, a master bump-out was added to the plan and interior partitions were reconfigured—all while retaining the core volume and window configuration.

On the ease of achieving their wish list, Nikki had this to say: “The Unity model was a great combo, where the design is already set, but the space plan had the flexibility to meet our needs. For example, we wanted a larger master bedroom, so they put the whole team on it—you know, in-house designers, engineers. They ended up taking a master bedroom from a larger Xyla and added it to the Xyla 212 plan. We also really liked having many of the design decisions pre-set, while at the same time, having the flexibility to change the floor plan.”

unity xyla barnard vermontIn addition to the master bump-out, they did specify a number of finish choices to make the home uniquely theirs, like a special Japanese Shoji screen pocket door, a screen porch and cedar siding on the exterior to better weather the shore climate.

On the style of their Xyla 212, Joanna had this to say: “We really love the design. We find it organic and aesthetically pleasing, and we love the post and beam, the exposed timbers. We also really like the low profile—it being built low to the ground, which will make for easy, single-floor living as we get older.”

Summing up, Nikki spoke of the growing movement towards green living: ”It seems like everyone we’ve talked with in this area, even people overhearing our conversations and joining in—a waitress, a real estate agent, a cop—they were all interested in environmental building…in what we’re building. They all wanted to know what we were doing.”

Nikki then added, “We get the sense there’s a real movement building towards green living, and for Joanna and me, it feels really good to be out ahead in that movement.”

 

 

Tedd Benson “In the House” on PBS with Ken Burns and Kevin O’Connor

Burns-Benson-PBSOn In the House, a three-part series now available on the PBS website, award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns and Bensonwood’s Tedd Benson, join This Old House host Kevin O’Connor, to discuss Burns’ timber frame barn that combines the unique spiritual feel of 19th century New England with modern-day functionality and comfort.

In a conversation with O’Connor, two stewards of American history, Burns and Benson, offer their shared perspective on the values, teamwork and community behind their two very different yet related American trades. Using Burns’ recently completed Bensonwood barn as the central focus of the film, they discuss the practical, spiritual and community values behind these agrarian cathedrals.

In their discussion, Burns and Benson laud American barn architecture for its elemental simplicity, honesty and truthfulness; where there are no tricks, nothing is hidden, and its magnificent structure remains permanently on display for centuries. Through this lens, the barn becomes a metaphor for the democratic values and commitment that built this country.

In Part 1, the men delve deep into the artistic and collaborative process, and the philosophy of filmmaking through the lens of building.

In Part 2, Benson and Ken Burns describe the thrilling ceremony of raising the barn’s structure, bringing together Burns’ friends, family and local community members. Benson paints a vivid picture of the ancient ceremonial nature, and Burns notes the special day reminded him of a bigger idea: “We are not alone, we require a community.”

In Part 3, Tedd Benson presents the distinct American timber barn history and Burns highlights the practical and spiritual dimensions of those spaces, calling them “the most powerful of art forms.” Burns demonstrates his depth of understanding of Benson’s craft and his dedication to honoring the building through humility and teamwork. Tedd and Ken talk about the emotion and joy that comes with a good old fashion American barn raising.

Energy Analyst Rheannon DeMond Wins A Kate Goldstein Award

DeMond_DSC6951Congratulations to our Energy & Sustainability Specialist, Rheannon DeMond, on being selected as one of three award recipients of the Kate Goldstein Fund for Emerging Professionals by the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA). To date, the Kate Goldstein Fund has raised almost $33,000 to honor Kate’s legacy of support for the next generation of sustainable/ renewable energy professionals.

hans-RD--WEDS

Bensonwood and Unity Homes energy analysis and modeling consultant Rheannon DeMond (center) explaining the OBPlus Wall system at the 2013 Greenbuild conference in Philadelphia.

NESEA established the Kate Goldstein Fund for Emerging Professionals in Sustainable Energy in memory of Kate and the wonderful example she set for how NESEA wants their organization to support young members. This award supports recent graduates, enabling them to fully participate in, and benefit from NESEA programs. Rheannon says she had the opportunity to meet Goldstein when she visited Bensonwood a few years ago to give a talk and was very impressed with her knowledge and her passion for sustainable energy.

Rheannon will receive a pass to the BuildingEnergy Conference in Boston, plus hotel stay, and will be an honored guest at NESEA Night, the organization’s annual membership celebration, on March 4, 2015, where there will be a ceremony recognizing the award applicants and winners.

Founded in 1974, NESEA is the region’s leading membership organization promoting sustainable energy practices in the built environment.

Rheannon provides Unity Homes and Bensonwood clients with the following energy-related services:

  • Building Envelope Consultation and Analysis
  • Mechanical Consultation and Analysis – Renewable Energy Consultation and Analysis
  • Environmental Consultation and Analysis
  • Local, State and Federal Incentive Consulting
  • Appliance and Lighting Recommendations.

Annual Bensonwood Fundraiser Benefits Fall Mountain Food Shelf

Fall Mountain Food Shelf director, Mary Lou Huffling and Bensonwood events committee members, (L to R) Jeffery Starratt, Kevin Bittenbender, and Erik Walker, next to a carload of donated food.

Fall Mountain Food Shelf director, Mary Lou Huffling and Bensonwood events committee members, (L to R) Jeffery Starratt, Kevin Bittenbender, Huffling and Erik Walker, next to a carload of donated food. Photo by Patrick Ziselberger

With winter fast approaching, the proceeds from Bensonwood’s annual fundraiser could not have come at a better time for the Fall Mountain Food Shelf. The September 13th fundraiser, attended by over 200 people, raised $5,500, a record for the event, which was matched by an anonymous donor, bringing the total to $11,000. In addition, an estimated 40 to 50 bags of groceries were donated.

A much appreciative Mary Lou Huffling, Director of the Fall Mountain Food Shelf, accepted the proceeds, indicating how badly the food and donations are needed, especially now with the colder weather arriving early. “So many people are coming to use the food shelf and we have to buy most of the food ourselves,” said Mary Lou, adding, “This money will buy a lot of food and help a lot of people.”

According to Kevin Bittenbender, Head of Production at Bensonwood, “We have had a fall party for many years (over 10 years), but it was in 2010 when we turned the event into more of a fundraiser for the Fall Mountain Food Shelf.” Then, commenting on Bensonwood’s focus on giving back to the community, Kevin added, “We like to support local organizations where we feel we can really make a difference. The Fall Mountain Food Shelf is the perfect fit for the kind of organization that we like to support.”

The Fall Mountain Food Shelf spends between $2,500 and $3,000 a week on food, so the timing of the Bensonwood event could not have been better. In the fall, their donations are down, just as the needs get greater. Among the recurrent needs that must be addressed at this time of year, the food shelf recently received calls from several individuals who have been laid off for the season and were inquiring about obtaining food.

Many local businesses and individuals contributed products and money to the fundraiser. $1,100 was raised from the event raffle and $3,400 from cash donations, all of which was added to a $1,000 donation from Bensonwood. Without the help of these businesses, friends and neighbors, and especially the anonymous matching donor, the event would not have been such a success.

The business donors for the fundraising event included: Bingham Lumber, C & S Grocers, Canmar LLC, Cleary Millwork, Diamond Pizza, Duncan Gowdy, Foard Panel, Harpoon Brewery, HHOMG Inc, Hooper Golf Club, Kapiloff Insurance Agency, LaValley’s Building Supply, Morrison & Tyson Communications, Murray’s Restaurant, Perkins Home Center, Pete’s Farm Stand, Raven Workshop, Real to Reel, Russell Supply Corp., Shaw’s of Walpole, Taylor’s Welding, The Bread Shed, The Village Blooms, Tractor Supply of Walpole, Vermont Custom Cabinetry, Walpole Village Salon and the Walpole Village Tavern.

 

 

“Montage Building” Helps Lake Home Project Meet Deadline

lake house shellWith time running out and their prospective home site building permit deadline fast approaching, a couple from Iowa was in a race against time. The 3,000 SF custom home they wanted to build on a steep, challenging site on a southern Vermont lake had to be designed and substantially completed by mid October 2014—and it was already late February.

To make matters worse, without the building documents in hand the prospects wouldn’t be able to combine their (higher-rate) construction loan with their (lower-rate) mortgage to shorten the former and avoid two closing costs—and besides, they could not close without knowing if they could complete their home before the existing build permit expired.

site prepWith just a little over seven months remaining to build, the couple turned to Bensonwood. They were familiar with another home we built on the same lake, and as long-time fans of the PBS television series, This Old House, they had seen Bensonwood featured on the program and thought our processes might hold the key to streamlining the process.

After two visits to our facilities, the husband put his cards on the table:

“If you can build me the house, I’ll buy the land next week!”

We accepted the challenge. Within a few days the Schematic Design contract was drawn up. Next, architect Randall Walter, landscape designer Tim Calabrese and the owner all met to walk the build site in snowshoes. The landscaper was brought so early because setbacks on the property were so tight, and the property so steep, site work and landscaping would need to be completed first as there would be no room to bring in heavy earth moving equipment once the home was up.

From there, the Bensonwood design and engineering teams finalized plans for the custom home in a few months and detailed construction documents were presented to the lender, who was then able to approve a combined construction and mortgage loan.

wall panel raisingThe home was fabricated off site into panelized assemblies and timber elements concurrent with site prep. Simultaneously with work by our in-house interior designer, Jenny Fulton, project manager Tony Poanessa coordinated the in-house teams, on-site sub contractors and just-in-time deliveries.

With all the pieces in place, the home’s shell was erected within a week’s time in August by our raising crew, headed by job captain Iver Bowen, and site supervisor Mark Williston. The completed home will be ready by October—a little over seven months after the client first visited Bensonwood.Wdnss_cropped_01

Randall Walter summarized, “Normally this process would take 12 to 18 months, but in this case, the stars aligned with the clients, their banks, the subcontractors, our suppliers, our schedule and the weather, so we were able to get everything done remarkably quickly.”

 

A Passive House Design (with a Few Curves Thrown In)

passive house designUnlike many panelized home builders who enclose their home shells using standard XPS and EPS foam core SIPs exclusively, Bensonwood builds many of its own structural, insulated wall and roof panels to realize the visions of its in-house design team and outside architects alike, while reducing waste by eliminating cutouts for doors and windows, which are not recyclable and end up in landfills.

Our walls feature dense-pack cellulose for insulation (a renewable, recycled product), and can be easily upgraded to extreme R-Value and air tightness for Passive House levels of performance. They also incorporate our Open-Built® chases for easy access to wiring and plumbing.

passive house curvesPerhaps best of all, our custom panels can accommodate curved walls and join complex, compound roof pitches to realize the contemporary designs of even the most innovative architects. One such Passive House design, by Jonathan Knowles and Laura Briggs of Briggs Knowles Architecture + Design, is a strategically sited home on a wooded lot in the Hudson River Valley of New York. Passive House is a rapidly emerging standard requiring that buildings use extremely small amounts of energy for heating and cooling.

The striking 3-bedroom, 2.5-bath house re-imagines the often utilitarian designs of the Passive House vernacular with its own unique curvilinear aesthetic, open space plan and multi-level views.

passive house walls panelThe first-floor plan includes a living area with a wood stove and screened porch, a separate kitchen and dining area, 2 bedrooms, 1.5 baths, a mechanical room, and a polished concrete floor. The dining area and one of the bedrooms are built into the curvature of the outer wall design, creating interesting interior spaces and angled wall partitions.

The second-floor plan has a generous, curved master suite complete with a large walk-in closet, sauna, bamboo wood floor, balcony, and dramatic, cantilevered porch. Rounding out the second floor is a large playroom open on one end to the living area below.

Bensonwood delivered and rapidly raised the home shell in the middle of winter, with R-49 roof panels and R-35 wall panels pre-installed with Zola triple-glazed windows. From there, the on-site builder, John Hommel of Ashley Homes, added additional layers of insulation to easily bring the house up to Passive House levels of performance.

Ken Burns and Bensonwood Featured at the 2014 Timber Framers Guild Conference

ken burns and tedd benson

Bensonwood’s Tedd Benson (left) and filmmaker Ken Burns at the 2014 Timber Framers Guild conference.

The Timber Framers Guild held its annual Conference, August 7-10, at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, NH, in the heart of timber framing country. In keeping with the conference’s historical track, the renowned documentary film director-producer Ken Burns, known for such acclaimed PBS documentaries as The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz, The War, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, and Prohibition, was the featured speaker at the Conference.

ken burns barn raising film

A scene from the short film by Ken Burns and Florentine Films’ Evan Barlow on the raising of Ken’s studio barn.

Friends of Burns, Tedd and Christine Benson encouraged him to participate in the conference. A timber frame enthusiast in his own right, Burns hired Bensonwood to build his Florentine Films studio in 2012.

The design and building of this timber frame barn structure is a new barn made to look old, and is the subject of a short film independently produced by one of Burns’ collaborators at Florentine Films, Evan Barlow, which was shown at the conference.

In the film, Tedd talks of the importance of timber frame architecture throughout American history—with its honest and durable aesthetic—and, by implication, the essential message it holds for todays troubled building industry.

Timber framers guild display

Bensonwood’s visiting French Compagnon, Thomas Beauvillain, (top) helps demonstrate classic timber framing techniques.

Bensonwood architect Bill Holtz also appears on camera to describe the collaborative, creative process of working with filmmaker, Ken and his wife, Julie, to build the studio. In the film, Bill describes the timber frame design, with its open space plan, as anchored in history but not limited by it; a point underscored by the interior scenes where traditional and modern elements blend seamlessly together. At one point, in tying the film studio’s design to its function, Bill compares the play of light through the building’s carefully calibrated catwalk balustrade to an early Zoetrope, the 19th century forerunner of the modern motion picture projector.

1239038_10152340274635820_721251112_n

Bensonwood Timber Frame Captain, Dennis Marcom (right), using a vintage mortise cutting tool at the 2014 TFG conference in August.

Bensonwood, a platinum sponsor of the conference, was well represented at the event with its “Who’s Who” of timber framing. In addition to the Bensons and Mr. Holtz, long-time timber frame department head and safety director, Dennis Marcom, presented a company review slideshow and collaborated with a State Department of Labor OSHA representative regarding safety in the workplace.

bensonwood crew at TFG conference 2014

(Left to right. ) Bensonwood architect Bill Holtz, timber framer Dennis Marcom, former Bensonwood engineer Ben Brungraber and Tedd Benson.

Also on hand, former Bensonwood employee and structural timber engineering maverick Ben Brungraber, PH.D., P.E., now of Fire Tower Engineered Timber, served on the Engineering Council Symposium preceding the conference. Ben worked at Bensonwood from 1986-2007, and was instrumental in elevating our engineered timber frames to new levels, proving to building inspectors unfamiliar at the time with modern timber frame engineering the efficacy of his sophisticated compression and tension joinery.

In 1984 Tedd, along with a small group of timber framers, formed the Timber Framers Guild of North America to establish a forum for learning and standards. Christine is currently on the TFG’s board of directors.

ken burns TFG film presentation