Project Update: A Sustainable Family Lake House

OPTI_Brtltt-(5) This energy-efficient lakeside home is designed for an extended family who has been vacationing in New England for generations. The home combines the rustic charm of a New Hampshire cottage with cutting-edge building technology and sustainability.

At around 3,100 sf, the design requirements were to blend in with the existing Lake House vernacular of the neighborhood and the heavily wooded lot, frame views of the surroundings from inside the house, and fit into the lakeside cottage community in scale, proportion and style. Nestled into trees (carefully preserved during construction), the wood shingle home has a roomy screened-in porch and built-in BBQ—a lake retreat must. The colors and textures of materials reflect the laid-back community and surroundings.

lake house elevations The home’s vaulted timber frame and prominent stone fireplace lend a rustic lodge feel, yet remains intimate and cozy. The building has an advanced thermal envelope using prefabricated structural panels, sealed with gasket and tape technology for superior airtightness, moisture control and indoor air quality.

OPTI_BRTLTA2A folding glass wall opens the main living areas to the screened in porch, with lake views and an outdoor gas fireplace and cooking/dining area. One of the three, second-floor bedrooms is a spacious bunkroom accommodating eight or more—all are open to the living/dining area below via a shuttered gallery, retaining the theme of an open gathering space. The kitchen, dining, alcove seating area and great room all have views of the gas-burning, fieldstone fireplace.

Sustainable Building Features:
-Programmable bath fans.
-Multi-zone radiant heating.
-High-efficiency Low E windows.
-Eco-friendly dense-pack cellulose insulation providing R-Values of 35 in the walls and R-44 in the roof.
-No mechanical air conditioning—ceiling fans, window placement and stack effect design provide natural cooling.
-A timber frame constructed of sustainably harvested timbers salvaged from fire or insect-damaged forests.

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Featured Project: A High-Performance Vermont Farmhouse 

An Interview with Bensonwood Client Stephen Ferber

Moving from a cherished mid-nineteenth century farmhouse, why did you decide to build new?
For the past 37 years my wife and I had been living in a 150-year-old Greek revival farmhouse on 40 acres. Retired now and in my mid-sixties, I wanted to downsize somewhat but wasn’t willing to compromise on what I had. Ultimately, three or four things came together in making the decision: First, I wanted to downsize to make it easier on myself. Secondly, I had made a deadline to retire from my job. Third, we wanted to move closer to family and my wife’s work: she works at Lyndon State College. Lastly, I wanted the new energy-efficient home to be a reward for all our hard work.

Why did you decide not to renovate your old house?
Our drafty old house cost $2,400 a year to heat, but that wasn’t the main consideration for building new. I had an energy audit done by the Efficiency Vermont folks, which showed us where the problems were, but I wasn’t willing to compromise the architecture by adding layers of insulating material over architectural features. I didn’t want to see beautiful Vermont granite block covered by insulating board.

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I know you were anxious to get into your new home as soon as possible. Did that affect your decision in choosing Bensonwood?
To be honest, I would have preferred the overall quicker turn-around that the pre-designed Unity Homes plans offer. We didn’t necessarily need a custom house designed from scratch, but we wanted more customization than Unity Homes could provide, so we went with Bensonwood. During the planning stages, we gave quick answers to questions posed by your architect Chris Adams and project manager Tony Poanessa in order to move the process along. We didn’t want one day lost.

Our old house had sold in four days, much quicker than we thought, but that meant we needed to rent while our new home was being built. Our old 40-acre property was deemed organic, which made it of special interest and why it sold so fast. The Jasper Hill Farm cheese people bought the home and property. Among the many renowned cheeses they produce is the organic Bayley Hazen Blue cheese you find featured on high-end restaurant menus.

So while the design process turned out to take a bit longer than we expected, the construction is going quickly and we should be in by the holidays.

What were your design considerations?
I wanted to start with a clean sheet of paper. I basically wanted to repeat my setup by building a farmhouse with a garage that looked like a barn. In my old house we had a four-bay garage and a large woodworking area. And while I wanted to recapture some of this space, I didn’t want my new house to look like a McMansion, with an enormous looking four-bay garage, that would stick out like a sore thumb in its rural Vermont setting. So we wanted the garage to look like a barn, with red-stained, rough-sawn, vertical siding—to make it look like two buildings with a connector.

In the broader sense, I have a real sense of place. We very much wanted to blend into the local vernacular. The home needed to look like an old New England farmhouse, not Adirondack style with orange stained siding—or modern looking, which might look fine in a lake or mountain setting, but not where we wanted to build. It had to look right in its farm setting. We didn’t want our new neighbors to be upset by what we built.

Given Vermont winters, what were your energy considerations?
Our new house, situated on 23 acres with a nice view, is in the middle of a field, with no trees so there are no shadows. We sited the garage due south, so putting PVs (photovoltaics, aka solar panels) on just one side of its roof will be more than adequate to supply all of the home’s electrical needs. We’re using a heat pump system for space heating and cooling and for hot water, with an ERV (Energy Recovery Ventilator) to recapture energy. I think the whole PV system cost $15,000 after tax credits. We had radiant heat tubing put in, just in case, but I don’t think we’ll really need it. The house, designed for Net Zero performance, is all electric—with the exception of a gas cook top.

What could Bensonwood have done better to improve your experience?
We felt we were flying half blind, not being able to walk through a Bensonwood home at the time, in order to say we like this room in this house, and that room in that house. We were shown many plans and pictures, so we knew the quality, but that’s not the same as actually standing in the home and getting a sense of what it’s like. I’m sure not everyone wants people traipsing through their homes. And I guess it’s not practical to have a model home near your facilities, but that might have helped.

On a related subject, how would you feel about your home being used as an example of state-of-the-art energy efficiency?
Situated where we are, within a mile of Lyndon College, with its degrees in Environmental Science and Sustainability Studies, and our proximity to the Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium, with its meteorological focus (they provide Vermont Public Radio’s Eye on the Sky weather forecasts)—I know there’s going to be a lot of interest in our high-performance home.

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.

Contemporary Polynesian Pool House on the Charles

polynesian pool house

Photo by John Linden

A young couple with children asked Charles Rose Architects to design a “contemporary Polynesian hut” for their property southwest of Boston on the Charles River.

timberframe pool house roof

The design called for indoor and outdoor sitting and dining areas; kitchenette; stainless steel outdoor shower; bath/changing area; 1,500 SF deck with in-ground hot tub; and a fire pit with built-in seating. The architect carved out one corner, creating a covered, but open and airy, outdoor lounging area.

Everyone agreed that the new pool house should be wood construction — primarily to match the look and feel of an earlier project the architects designed for the clients, a wood-clad “play barn” with two large rooms, divided by an outdoor space framing views of an adjacent pond. That’s where Bensonwood came in.

pool house interiors

Photo by John Linden

pool house timberframeOur timbered Douglas fir frame supports an asymmetric hip roof whose peak is pulled off-center so that the pool house subtly connects with the geometry of the existing play barn. Our timberframer C.J. Brehio was the job captain, and did a masterful job executing complex compound joinery. Custom concealed steel connections were also used throughout the building. Western red cedar lends rich, warm hues from exposed beams, custom doors and millwork.

complex compound joineryThe stainless steel shower structure was was a built by Alstead, NH welder and metal sculptor Bob Taylor and has a unique sand blasted finish and unique hardware such as flush mounted tapered screws and a big piano hinge for the door.

Other wood used includes: mahogany for the windows; ipe (pronounced “ee-pay,” aka Brazilian walnut); and bamboo. See more photos on our Houzz page here.​

charles river pool house

Photo by John Linden

Bensonwood Associate’s Visionary Design on Display at Boston Society of Architects Exhibit

urban timber logo

Urban Timber: From Seed to City,” a new exhibit at the Boston Society of Architects’ Gallery Space, celebrates wood as a natural and sensible building material for cities, while highlighting wood’s adaptability, versatility and extraordinary technical qualities. It also highlights some innovative thinking going on at Bensonwood.

Included on display at the BSA Space — and the result of an open competition — are four winning projects proposed by emerging architects featuring innovative structural uses of timber.

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Bensonwood Designer Tim Olson assembling his Coopered Column. Photo by Ethan Lacy.

The winners collaborated with mentor architects, engineers and material suppliers to develop and realize their installations in the gallery. Each piece in the exhibit is an art project — and would look right at home in any modern art gallery — but is trying to prove a design theory.

four corners exhibit urban timber

Aaron Forrest inside of his “Four Corners.” Photo by © Winnie Man | QtMousie Studios

Two of the four design installations in the exhibition involve Bensonwood associates. The first, “Four Corners” by Yasmin Vobis and Aaron Forrest, enlisted Bensonwood chief structural engineer Chris Carbone as a mentor. The Four Corners installation turns the traditional timberframed New England barn inside out using cross-laminated timber.

The second, Bensonwood Designer  Tim Olson’s dynamic “Coopered Column,” weighs about 3,000 pounds and consists of 118 timber pieces and over 250 screws. Titled “coopered” because it borrows from the design of a barrel; the interlocking timbers act like staves, and a belt of screws holding it together mimic the metal hoop of a barrel or other wooden vessel made by craftsmen known as coopers.

tim olson Bensonwood designer

Bensonwood Designer Tim Olson with his award-winning “Coopered Column” installation.

Olson’s bowl-like installation is called a column because a cylindrical support was his original design, a wooden structure that could handle the weight of a skyscraper. He flattened the column into a bowl shape to demonstrate how the design could handle stresses necessary to support a building. You can listen to a recent NHPR story on Tim’s installation.

The exhibit also explores how using wood in mid-rise buildings can combat climate change and underscores wood’s potential as the need for high-performance, low environmental impact structures continues to increase in our urban centers.

P1000928In addition to exploring wood technology and recent innovations in the array of engineered timber available to architects and engineers, the Urban Timber exhibit dispels common myths associated with building in timber, such as the notion that heavy timber is not sufficiently fire resistant. In some instances, engineered wood retains its integrity even better than steel. Cross Laminated Timber (CLT), for example, has a higher resistance to fire because of its thickness since the outer layers, when charred, protect the inner layers, just as a large-diameter tree does in a forest fire.

While the perception of wood in America as a lesser building material endures, Yugon Kim, founding owner/partner of IKD and co-curator of the BSA exhibit,  believes that Urban Timber: From Seed to City will show that the use of timber as the primary structure in mid-rise building construction in Europe proves there is a new future for wood buildings.

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Tim Olson’s Coopered Column under construction. Click to see architect Ethan Lacy’s time-lapse video of it being built.

Urban use of heavy timber has long been an interest here at Bensonwood. In 2007, Bensonwood and Unity Homes founder Tedd Benson was a leader of the UMass Amherst Wood Structures Symposium that explored technological advances in green buildings, as well as digital fabrication with wood and engineered wood products. Organized by the university’s Building Materials and Wood Technology program, the event highlighted new advances in contemporary wood architecture and presaged the current interest in building high-rises with wood. Currently, the tallest wooden buildings are only around 100 feet tall, but constructing much taller timber buildings is now a realistic idea.

In recent years, the technical advances that Bensonwood and Unity Homes have helped develop have given rise to a broad range of process innovations, such as CNC milling and off-site assembly, as well as engineered-wood products with superior performance qualities, such as the glulams (glued, laminated timber) and CLTs used in nearly all of our projects for their strength, flexibility and reliability.

Thanks to novel composites and engineered wood products, such as glulam beams and CLTs, several multistory buildings have already been erected around the world with timber skeletons, and plans for taller buildings are in the works.

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Image: “Four Corners” by Yasmin Vobis and Aaron Forrest. Photograph © Winnie Man | QtMousie Studios.

Urban timber proponents have been making a larger argument to the building industry and to policy makers that to build cities with a lower environmental impact, wood is not just promising but necessary. It’s a plentiful resource that grows back relatively quickly, and even pulls carbon out of the atmosphere during its life cycle.

Architect Michael Green, a passionate advocate for building wood high-rises,said in a recent TED Talk, “Steel represents about three percent of man’s greenhouse emissions, and concrete is over five percent.” He estimates that every 20-story building made out of wood instead of steel or concrete saves around 4,300 tons of carbon, equal to around 900 cars removed from the road in a year.

There are still some major environmental issues to tackle, of course, such as how greatly increased timber harvesting would affect our ecosystem. However, the USDA recently announced a major initiative to promote innovative, sustainable wood building materials for environmental protection and job creation.

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The exhibition was curated and designed by Yugon Kim and Tomomi Itakura, principals of the Boston-based architecture firm IKD.

The Urban Timber show will remain on display in the BSA Space at 290 Congress Street in Boston through September 30. Admission is free and open to the public. The public program includes a series of collaborative public workshops and lectures to provide extra platforms for dialogue and knowledge-sharing between key players in the industry. For more information on the Urban Timber exhibit, visit the BSA website.

Texas Prefab Lake House

austin texas lake house 1 An admitted This Old House fanatic, Matt Risinger had grown up watching the PBS television series when, in 1989, a program aired that would change his life. The Wickwire Barn Series—the second time Bensonwood had appeared on the long running home improvement program— featured Tedd Benson and an old barn being converted to a new house: a project Matt had dreamed of building for himself someday. It became the seminal moment in his decision to become the best builder he could be.

Mette Aamodt AIA and Andrew Plumb AIA

Mette Aamodt, AIA & Andrew Plumb, AIA

Fast forward nearly two-and-a-half decades, and architect Andrew Plumb of award-winning Aamodt / Plumb Architects in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is looking for a builder to help assemble and finish out a highly custom modern timberframe ranch home he designed for a special client he has known for years. The lakeside projectTEXAS PREFAB, expected to approach near Passive House standards, would have an aggressive build schedule of one year, and it needed to come in at a fixed budget—so Andrew knew it had to be done right. His first thought was to call Bensonwood for its expertise in the sustainable fabrication of high performance homes, and his second thought was to call green builder, Matt Risinger, now of Risinger Homes, to say Tedd Benson’s company would be fabricating and installing the home’s shell. With the name “Benson” still fresh in his mind after a quarter century, Matt jumped at the opportunity. The home plan, viewable on the Aamodt / Plumb website, is a interpretation of the Texas Ranch vernacular, with two gabled buildings joined by a light-filled entry hall. Designed for a young family, this prefab home strives to create a relaxed, contemporary feel through the use of natural and reclaimed materials, ample daylighting and a thoughtful relationship to the site.

MATT RISINGER

Austin, Texas green builder Matt Risinger

“We sought to create a warm modern atmosphere through the interplay of simple forms, materials and natural light,” says Plumb. The play of the modern and rustic is achieved through material choices and elemental forms. Japanese (Shou Sugi Ban style) charred wood siding, mesquite and ash flooring, and an oversized FireRock masonry chimney and fireplace add a dramatic touch both inside and out. texas green prefab architects renderingThe light-filled open interior, with its elegant but simple timberframe, richly-finished flooring and high-end fixtures, perfectly complements the striking exterior while framing the surrounding views. Matt Risinger asserts that, “The most sustainable house is a pretty one. Architect-designed houses will be loved and cared for because they are beautiful. Ugly houses will fall into disrepair and be torn down eventually.” fireplaceBeyond the aesthetics, this house was designed to coast through the hot parts of the day with little need for air conditioning. This is achieved through rigorous attention to air sealing and our panelization process using super-insulated walls. All the exterior claddings are installed over a rain-screen air gap. The roof, wood siding and even stucco have an air gap behind them so that the potential for water intrusion over the life of the building is minimized. Risinger installed super-efficient mechanical equipment to make the best possible use of the resources consumed. 95%+ efficiency gas equipment, super high-efficiency AC, Ultra-Aire Split Dehumidifier prevents mold and allows the owners to keep thermostat settings high when the building is unoccupied.YOUTUBE TIMELAPSE IMAGE You can watch Matt Risinger’s YouTube video of the home being assembled here. Once the project is completed and finish photos become available, we will revisit this home to detail its space plan. Stay tuned.

Sunday River Ski Retreat: The Best of All Worlds

Tedford ElevationSome ski homes high on the mountain have beautiful views down the valley. Others near the base lodge typically have great views up the slopes. This timberframe home at The Glades at Ridge Run, a new slopeside residential neighborhood at Sunday River Resort in Newry, Maine, captures both.

Situated in the western mountains of Maine just three hours from Boston, Sunday River Resort has long been one of New England’s most popular four-season playgrounds, but what is so special about the property that owners Meredith and Jamie found here is that it sits uniquely midway up the mountain with expansive views above and below.

Though Meredith and Jamie had just completed an extensive renovation on another home and weren’t anxious to begin a new construction, this was the first time a ski-on, ski-off home opportunity was available at Sunday River, so the couple knew they had to jump on it. They were also motivated to replace an old beloved, but small, ski lodge they had outgrown. Sensitive to the feeling of transplanting their relatives away from a getaway that had been in the family for years, they wanted an open concept floor plan with the feel of a true home. They also wanted to maximize family interaction, and minimize the size of the house to facilitate that function—as well as for aesthetic and environmental impact motives.

sunday river family ski lodge renderingPast renovations had taught Meredith and Jamie to be flexible but decisive, which helped in this first new house project. They also knew from experience that “design by committee” was something to be avoided, rather it was better to create a team dynamic between client and architect that respected roles and responsibilities, but also valued input from all parties. The mutual trust that developed allowed changes to be made fluidly and without conflict.

The Bensonwood design team of Randall Walter, Curtis Fanti and Dave Levasseur, all avid skiers in their own right, were excited to create this special place from a perspective of years spent skiing and snowboarding. Their personal insights proved invaluable in informing practical aspects of the design.

The architectural review process at the resort and the corresponding design standards requires development that complements the surrounding natural setting; minimizing the impact on the landscape while allowing for individual freedom of design to suit the needs of each homeowner. A common theme, described as a Northeast Cottage with Adirondack and Shingle Style influences, dictates the use of building materials, colors, landscaping and building style at the resort. The style is best illustrated in Summer Cottages in the White Mountains by Bryant F. Tolles, Jr. (2000), in which the use of native materials blended with natural colors provides an effective link to both the local environment and the great cottage architecture of the early 20th century.

Sunday river ski lodgeWorking closely with the clients, the resort, the civil engineering firm Main-Land Development Consultants, Inc., and the town zoning board, Randall was able to design the energy-efficient home into a challenging site with steep terrain and protected wetlands. He was able to navigate the regulations and arrive at the design—a traditional Adirondack timber lodge style with a modern twist on the gables to accommodate the views—in a way that pleased all the parties involved. In the end, the review board process was easy and the owners got a home that fit their needs and respectfully fit the mountain landscape.

Another welcome test for Bensonwood is the truncated construction timeline. With designs finalized this past spring, the owners wanted to ski from the home this coming winter. Anxious to prove that even a custom 3,900 SF mountain home on an undeveloped site could go up in record time with our Open-Built® systems and offsite fabrication, the Bensonwood team embraced the challenge. Rapid onsite assembly will also help cut build times in half over conventional construction, effectively giving the homeowners an entire extra season to enjoy the resort.

ski deckLike many of Bensonwood’s mountain and shore homes, the house features gable roof lines, with one important distinction: these gables, dormers and bump outs will have asymmetric rooflines that permit both mountain and valley vistas as well as views of arriving and departing skiers. These roof angles, along with the heavy, rough sawn, red cedar clapboards, work to give the exterior its distinctive look: at the same time both traditional and contemporary, while the property’s southern exposure allows for plenty of natural daylighting and passive solar gain.

On the inside every detail of the sanctuary, which will accommodate three generations of family, has been strategically planned. The owners wanted to maximize the use of space, and that included the kids’ space on the ground level, with the fun feel of a ski resort locker area. The ground floor has a rustic lumberjack-inspired kids zone, with a mud room off the garage, an open play area, a game room, a guest bedroom, a bunkroom with three beds, and facing his and hers bathrooms.

The first floor has a large open space plan with cathedral ceiling and a gathering area across from the kitchen/pantry and adjacent to the dining area. The dining room will have a long, farmhouse-style table with benches accommodating 10 or more. The second floor plan has three bedroom suites, each with their own bath, and a balcony open to the gathering area below.

sunday river ski lodge renderingPerhaps the most unique feature of the project, however, is a very innovative ski-on, ski-off deck. The custom deck required Randall to create a multi-functional outdoor living space with views up and down the mountain in a style that also satisfied design review board restrictions. His solution was adjust the roof pitch and angles so skiers on the deck will still be able to enjoy the views, as he had done on the main house.

Mindful of the homeowners’ sensitivities to limiting the home’s size, he placed the deck atop the garage so skiers will have easy to the home’s bathrooms and kitchen on the main floor when they ski home at lunchtime. Unique features include a hot tub—not tucked away in a secluded spot as is often seen—but in the open air on the sheltered ski deck so all guests have ready access. There are also ski and snowboard racks, overhead heating elements, a fireplace and a hot tub on the deck.

FLOORPLANOne of the most creative elements of the home is one the clients devised. Rather than the traditional guest book for visitors to sign, the couple will immortalize them with a round timber into which they can carve their names and the dates they stay, creating a family legacy crafted in wood that will last for generations—just like the home.

Architect Randall Walter predicts that, like many vacation homes Bensonwood has crafted over the past 40 years, this house will be used much more than originally intended, because families often discover they enjoy spending time in them so much more than in their primary residence.