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.

 

 

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.

early unity college planning session

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.

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.

Bensonwood Featured in “The New Net Zero” by William Maclay

the new net zeroThe New Net Zero: Leading-Edge Design and Construction of Homes and Buildings for a Renewable Energy Future

Bensonwood is featured prominently in a new book on Net Zero building by renowned architect William Maclay. We collaborated with Maclay Architects as a member of the team which designed and built the award-winning net-zero Bosarge Family Education Center at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. The LEED Platinum-certified center was Maine’s first net-zero institutional building.

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WILLIAM T. MACLAY, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP

The new threshold for green building is not just low energy, it is net-zero energy, and in The New Net Zero, sustainable architect William Maclay charts the path for designers and builders interested in exploring green design’s new frontier—net-zero energy structures generating as much energy as they use while remaining carbon neutral.

Since traditional American buildings account for roughly 40 percent of our total fossil energy use, the significance of net-zero building is growing increasingly important—among designers interested in addressing climate change as well as homeowners concerned about energy efficiency and long-term savings.

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The Bosarge Family Education Center at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. Photo by Robert Benson

Maclay, an award-winning net-zero designer whose buildings have achieved high-performance goals at affordable costs, makes the case for a net-zero future; explains net-zero building metrics, integrated design practices, and renewable energy options; and shares his lessons learned on net-zero teambuilding with like-minded companies such as Bensonwood.

The comprehensive overview is accompanied by several case studies, which include institutional buildings such as the Bosarge Family Education Center, commercial projects, and residences.  Both new-building and renovation projects are covered in detail. Unity Homes is profiled in the book, as is our multi-layered Open-Built® system.

The New Net Zero is geared toward professionals studying net-zero design, but is also suitable for laypersons seeking inspiration and strategies for beautiful and renewably powered net-zero options.

Passive House: The House of the Future | Sheri Koones

Passive House: The House of the Future | Sheri Koones

smaller_version_400x400Posted: 05/08/2014

From our old friend Sheri Koones in the Huffington Post yesterday. We appeared in prefabulousher popular 2012 book Prefabulous + Almost Off the Grid: Your Path to Building an Energy-Independent Home.

The Passive House (or Passivhaus) (PH) was first established in Germany and is quickly becoming a standard in many parts of the world, including the United States. Whereas other important standards, such as LEED), focus on many environmentally friendly aspects of the home, such as site location, sustainability, materials, water efficiency and so on, Passive House only focuses on energy and ventilation.

Passive House Wins Award for “Best Energy-Efficient Project”

Steven and Barbara Landau’s Norwich, Vermont, Passive House won The Builders and Remodelers Association of Greater Boston (BRAGB) Prism Gold Award for “Best Energy-Efficient Project.” Bensonwood, who designed the prefabricated insulated panels and constructed the timberframe shell, was honored as part of a highly-skilled green building team that included energy modeling and mechanical consultantsZeroEnergy Design, consulting architect Paul R. Bilgen, general contractor Estes and Gallup, and custom window and door maker, Architectural Openings. The innovative, sustainable home previously won the 2012 Efficiency Vermont “Best of the Best in Residential New Construction” Honor Award.

The 17-inch recycled foam sheet insulation provides R-75 value and a vapor barrier below the slab. All hot water is provided by two rooftop, flat-plate solar collectors with an electric on-demand water heater for backup. One kilowatt heating mats located under floor tiles in the bathrooms supply radiant heating, and air exchange is managed by a Heat Recovery Ventilator whose operation automatically adjusts, depending on temperature, humidity, and occupancy. In the kitchen/living room a sealed combustion chamber wood stove serves both as cooktop and bake oven, as well as a source of supplemental heat. The eco-friendly 2,457 square foot home also earned 41 Home Energy Rating index points, meaning it is 59% more efficient than a standard new home.

BRAGB, a trade association affiliated with the National Association of Home Builders and Home Builders Association of Massachusetts, has represented the building industry since 1944 and is one of the leading trade associations in New England.