Living Green: Should I Build New, or Retrofit an Existing Home?

At some point in the decision to buy a home, there comes a critical calculation: Do I build a new house on my own land, or buy an existing one? And if that existing home is poorly constructed or simply outdated, how will that impact me over time?

Aside from the obvious fact that existing buildings are where they are, as opposed to where you’d like them to be, they also come with hidden costs that may not be immediately apparent to the average homebuyer. As one example, getting older existing houses up to current energy code, let alone the stringent standards of today’s high-performance buildings, can involve impossibly long payback periods.

Martin Holladay, in writing for Green Building Advisor, indirectly addressed this issue in his March 2014 article, The High Cost of Deep-Energy Retrofits. In the article, he asks the question, How much does it cost to perform a deep-energy retrofit on a 100-year-old single-family home?”

His findings? Around $100,000.

Mr. Holladay based his finding on a study that was sponsored by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). The program, centered in the Utica, New York area, paid for deep-energy retrofits of four wood-framed buildings.

So, how were the “deep energy retrofits” defined? In a nutshell, the goal was to reduce energy use by 75% by insulating slab floors to R-10, below grade walls to R-20, above-grade walls to at least R-40, upgrading windows by adding either low-e storm windows or new windows to achieve a U-factor of 0.25, achieving an airtightness goal of 0.15 cfm @ 50 pascals per square foot of surface area, and updating to the latest HVAC systems.

Without going into the myriad steps required to achieve the above, the retrofits resulted in impressive levels of energy reduction. Though the goal of a 75% reduction was not met, overall energy usage was reduced by 60-65%.  But while the retrofits resulted in draft-free comfort with new siding, windows, and HVAC systems, the energy savings alone, in Mr. Holladay’s words, “…can’t possible justify the very high costs of this type of retrofit.”

In fact, when factoring in the retrofitting costs to the energy savings, at least on houses built in the early 20th century, the study found that the simple payback period was 139 years, longer than the houses were old!

So, getting back to the original question, how does the green home buyer evaluate building new vs. retrofitting an existing building? It’s a complex subject with many variables, but what becomes immediately apparent is that it can be easier, more efficient, and in some cases, less expensive to build your high-performance home from scratch than to retrofit an existing older home.

That’s not to say that existing homes shouldn’t be updated to improve their performance. There are many who feel that the greenest building is the one that is already built. Some buildings are indeed worth the investment because of the inherent quality and craftsmanship in their original construction. Moreover, with historical and rare buildings, even condition is relative and preservation may trump energy performance.

But some buildings are clearly not worth it for the opposite reason. The embodied energy in an existing building is only part of the energy equation. Operational requirements, especially involving fossil fuels, affect the true cost to the owner as well as the environment. Every energy retrofit should begin with that calculation. Better technology and systems for economically achieving deep energy retrofits need to be developed with an eye towards getting the cost down. There are some very interesting scanning technologies available today that just may be a way to get there.

It’s important to note, however, that most of the homes needed in the next 50 years (because of population growth and demise of existing stock) are yet to be built. The next generation home HAS to be much better in every respect, but especially in the elimination of fossil fuel dependence. Thankfully, the technology and systems for building sustainable, healthy, Net Zero-ready homes (with Passive House levels of air tightness) are available today.

Either way, to achieve the aggressive environmental goals the U.S. has set for the coming decades, all buildings (which account for over 40% of total US energy consumption) will need to do their part in forestalling climate change.

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

By Rheannon DeMond

Bensonwood/ Unity Homes Energy and Sustainability Specialist

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

Technology

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

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

Energy Usage

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

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

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

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

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

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

Environmental Impact

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

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

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

Feasibility

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

Installation Costs and Return on Investment

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

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

 Cold Climate Operation

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

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

Other Types of Heat Pumps

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Aquatic Dreamhouse Required Fluid Construction Strategies

Pool-Centric Vision Posed Technical Challenges

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

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

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

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

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

For more photos, visit our Houzz Page.

Customized Unity Xyla 212 Sits Softly on the Land

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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/