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.”

 

 

A Classic Barn for a Classic Car Enthusiast

elevation of classic car garageAre you one of those people who owns a classic car and longs for an appropriate place to keep your dream machine? That was the impetus behind one car enthusiast’s desire to physically connect his passion for collectible automobiles to his existing 1930s Delaware residence. The owner, who has an existing garage for his family cars, tools around in a ‘76 Triumph TR6 and hopes to acquire more vintage cars once his new timber frame car barn is completed next month. The result will be an architecturally true barn and connector addition that can drive home, literally, his automotive passion.

The barn and connector were designed by Patrick McDonough, of John Milner Architects, to integrate and reflect the style of the existing main house while adding to the majesty and proportion of the façade.

classic car garage elevationBensonwood was hired by the owner/builder, a repeat client, to fabricate and raise the free-standing timber frame barn shell. The lengthy connector joining the house with the barn will be site-built by Dewson Construction Company, a Delaware-based general contractor and construction management firm.

The car barn, with four bays and an epoxy-painted concrete floor to showcase the vehicles, will be a traditional design, with a single, 28-foot-long glulam girder to achieve a post-free opening to the shed bump at the rear of the building. Roof trusses on either end of the barn will have straight bottom chords, with three arched glulam bottom chords on the trusses in between, defining the vaulted space. The structure includes a central king post with decorative and structural steel reinforcement plate custom fabricated by Bob Taylor of Alstead, NH. A multi-purpose loft with ladder at one end of the structure will add useful square footage to the plan.classic car garage interior rendering

CAD DRAWING vintage auto barnTo integrate the architectural style of the barn with the main house, an eight-sided “lantern” cupola will be stick-built atop the barn by a local company to match the cupola on the main house. In addition to its unifying aesthetic, the copula will allow in natural light to illuminate the timber frame interior and future car collection. Dewson Construction will then finish the barn with a brick exterior to match the main house.

The classic car barn, currently in fabrication at our Blackjack Crossing facilities in Walpole, NH, is slotted for a September 15 raising, with the complete weather-tight shell installed within a week’s time.

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.

On the Boards: Cape Cod Pool House

cape cod pool house

In keeping with this month’s “Everyone into the Pool” theme, here is a charming little pool house we are helping fabricate on Cape Cod.

Designed by Rebecca Elsy Ribeiro of D. Michael Collins, Architects, the energy-efficient building features classic colonial carriage house styling with cupola and a sheltered overhang.

Bensonwood is crafting the timberframe, insulated wall and roof panels, and installing the Marvin Ultimate windows and a Marvin outswing bifold door. The timberframe consists of Douglas fir glulam timbers for the main structure and for the exterior timbers​.

Kenneth Vona Construction, a company that very much shares Bensonwood’s values, will be the builder. KVC is not only one of New England’s oldest and most respected custom builders, it is also one of the greenest.

pool house elevationsTheir ideal six-sided building envelope is one that breathes, insulates against losses, sheds water away for sustainability and remains energy efficient and reusable. Like Bensonwood, KVC believes a commitment to environmental responsibility results in immediate payback and comfort.

timber frame design for cape cod pool houseD. Michael Collins, Architects is a small, but high-quality design firm established in Natick, Massachusetts, in 1987. They specialize in new custom homes, additions and renovations, small scale commercial, institutional and historic restoration projects.

Most of the firm’s projects are located in Massachusetts, but they also have projects in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Colorado, Florida and the Caribbean.

We’ll profile more design-build collaborations with D. Michael Collins, Architects and Kenneth Vona Construction in the months ahead.

Our Building Systems Flawless in 3rd Party Inspection

2014.01.16_Panel shop (25) - Copy Four times a year, TR Arnold, a respected third-party “in-plant inspection agency,” or IPIA, is authorized by us to conduct unannounced inspections at our Blackjack Crossing production facilities. In voluntarily submitting to TR Arnold’s findings, our intention is to ensure that construction standards (state & local code, as well as our own stringent standards) are consistently adhered to.TR Arnold

Essentially, TRA inspectors go through each of our work stations inspecting up to 120 certification elements. As part of this quality control process, TRA inspectors are authorized to, “…reject non-compliant units, to withhold labels and to inspect all finished units produced and labeled prior to a unit found deficient and subsequent to the last unit inspected at the station where the deficiency occurred.”

One such audit has just concluded, and we’re pleased to report that of the many assemblies inspected, no non-conformance issues were discovered and we were found to be in complete compliance.

According to Building Systems specialist, Scott Bosworth, “This is really a big deal because of our building techniques compared to other, very different kinds of prefab home builders. For example, with “Double-Wide” manufactured homes that travel down the highway in halves, there are only two certificates required: one for the left side of the house, and one for the right side. With our many panelized assemblies (that are later raised at the build site), there are 120 or more certification elements that can be inspected prior their leaving our production facilities.”2014.02.07_Panel shop (8)

As Scott elaborates, “And because of the kind of closed-panel, or closed-cavity assemblies we fabricate offsite, building inspectors at the home site appreciate seeing certifications created by independent, in-plant inspectors who have seen the panels come together at the point of manufacture. Therefore, getting a full compliance report from a third-party administrator is huge,” adding, “A perfect score from a company like TR Arnold not only helps affirm our own quality control efforts, but in some cases, having the certificate can also help reassure a local on-site building inspector regarding enclosed areas he or she cannot readily see into.”
2014.02.07_Panel shop (2) - Copy
According to Bensonwood/Unity Homes production head, Kevin Bittenbender, who is in charge of compliance control and was instrumental in setting up independent plant oversight, “We’ve been building to the highest quality standards for years. It’s just what we do. It wasn’t much of a change in our process, or product, to meet TR Arnold’s standards. We simply had to clearly explain and document our product, and how we work. Our standards are higher than what is needed for code, and receiving positive results from their inspections is a nice confirmation that we are successfully building to the highest standards in the industry.”

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.”

 

What One Modern House Tells Us About the Future of Urban Building – Next City

via What One Modern House Tells Us About the Future of Urban Building – Next City.

On a Tuesday morning not long ago, I entered a half-assembled house tucked into a quiet corner of Somerville, Mass. In much of this small city, adjacent to Cambridge, you can no longer walk down the block without passing a yoga studio or an artisanal butcher. But this residential street still felt more like the blue-collar town of a previous generation. Outside, a yellow crane lifted a floor deck high overhead. A few men wearing hard hats and tool belts busied themselves inserting screws and climbing ladders. MORE