Category Archives: Green Building

building-energy-consumption

Oceans Rise, Energy Efficiency Falls

There were two headlines in the May 12th New York Times that seemed at odds. The big news story of the day was titled “Scientists Warn of Rising Oceans from Polar Melt,” which reported on two new studies indicating that portions of the Antarctic ice sheet is in irreversible retreat, due greatly to the affects of global warming. If the scientists’ predictions are anywhere near correct, there will be no beach sand to stick your head in by the end of the century, with the oceans rising four feet, or even more.

Directly below that article was another one announcing that a potential milestone bipartisan bill was scuttled in the senate, which is hardly news these days, but given the headline story, its appearance on the same front page seemed a story in itself: “Amid Pipeline and Climate Debate, Energy-Efficiency Bill is Derailed.” The defeat of this mild energy efficiency proposal clearly refutes the urgency implied in the lead story, and shouts about our inability to do anything at all in the face of mounting climate change evidence.

I have been watching that bill because its focus is to increase the energy efficiency of buildings, which is a key element of our business. And though the scope of this bill isn’t big, it’s a start, and would bring attention to the idea that we can do a lot to limit CO² atmospheric increases simply by encouraging actions that would make buildings require less energy. I’ve also been cheering because I’m proud that this sensible bill is the work of our own senator, Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, who co-sponsored it with Republican Senator Rob Portman. With so much uncompromising posturing defining politics currently, it looked as if there just might be a glimmer of bipartisan sensibility around the simple notion that it would be good for homeowners, the economy and the environment if we conserved energy by reducing the need for it.

There’s a companion bill in the house that’s even united the very liberal Peter Welch, Democrat from Vermont, and very conservative Eric Cantor, the Republican House majority leader. The idea of that unlikely alliance would seem to be good news for us, suggesting that the core notion of our business crosses political boundaries.

But no such luck. What a shame. The famous Pogo quote applies: “Yep son, We have met the enemy and he is us.” We keep kicking the can down the road, as if time was an ally, not our enemy.

Whatever one’s politics or beliefs about climate change, we ought to be able to agree that buildings should use far less energy. They don’t travel down the highway at 70 mph, nor do they fly through the air, or manufacture stuff. Buildings just sit there on the earth, the very definition of sedentary, and are by far the lowest hanging fruit in our need to reduce fossil fuel consumption. There is some very tough work ahead in the worldwide need to conserve energy and clean up the atmosphere, but buildings are by far the easiest sector and one of the largest. It’s almost as if buildings are begging for those of us who build and renovate them to make them the energy conserving good guys.

Buildings account for nearly half of the energy demand, and are the easiest problem to solve.
Buildings account for nearly half of the energy demand, and are the easiest problem to solve.

If we can put men on the moon in a decade, there’s no reason we can’t meet the goal of the 2030 Challenge, and make buildings carbon neutral in 15 years. We know how to do it, but we do need our industry and all of its supply chain partners to be in alignment. The policies needed to encourage that will take some political will, and that seems to be in short supply.

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From the implementation perspective, there’s a lot of work to do, but there’s not a lot to invent. There’s been a fantastic amount of research and development throughout the world over the last 3 or 4 decades, but especially in the last 10 years. We now have the tools, methods, and science to transform buildings into benign servants instead of demanding masters. We therefore know how to keep the energy requirements of buildings mostly out of the CO² emission problem. Now we just need to make it normal and affordable for all.

Who knows how the climate problems will play out? I hold out hope because it’s all we have, but that hope needs to be tethered to action, and I’m among those who are committed to doing all we can to make the places where we live, and love and dream also places of energy self-sufficiency.

 

 

 

 

Bensonwood “Bath Pods” Land in the Rockies

estes park moutain homeNewsletter Home      Bensonwood Home

Nestled in the front range of the Rocky Mountains, Estes Park sits at an elevation of 7,522 feet, considerably higher than the highest point in New England, the summit of Mt.Washington. But for one Estes Park homebuyer, New Hampshire-based Bensonwood—with its production facilities 7,000 ft closer to sea level and 2,000 miles to the east—was the perfect choice to create a new 10,800+ square foot “Rocky Mountain High” dream timber frame home.

bath pods in shopIn addition to the home’s panelized assemblies, Bensonwood fabricated seven bathroom pods complete with decorative tile work and fixtures all pre-plumbed and wired for craning into place on site. Why bathroom pods? Fabricating the pods under the warm, controlled conditions of our Blackjack facilities allowed for greater control over the design (through better tile detail and setting), while reducing overall construction time on site.

bath podsAs part of our “Montage Building” process, the bathroom pods, panelized wall, roof, and floor assemblies, and millwork were then trucked atop flatbed tractor trailers to the lofty build site where the home’s weather-tight shell will be fully assembled in approximately four weeks. When finished, the robust, energy-efficient home will weather the elements with minimal maintenance and operational costs.

prefab bath pod vanity

bath pod shower

 

 

It Takes A Village: Bensonwood Chosen to Build Southface Village at Okemo

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When it comes to sustainable development, “it takes a village” to build a village. Years in the planning, South Face Village, a ski-on/ ski-off community at Okemo Mountain will rise in Ludlow, Vermont. Since 2010, a community of Bensonwood associates, including architects, engineers, project managers and planners has been working closely with the developer, Timber Creek at Okemo, not only to design the sustainable, four-season, mountainside resort community, but to successfully negotiate the strict state and town permitting processes as well.

As a result of that effort, last September Vermont state officials granted the developer an Act 250 permit to build the resort. The project is expected to break ground in a year’s time. Clearing for the first ski trails and lift line have been completed this past winter.

south face village townhouse drawing
Preliminary rendering of the South Face Village Townhouse.

Over a 10-year build cycle, the plan is for Bensonwood to construct the South Face Village townhouses, duplexes, single-family homes and clubhouse—all in our distinctive mountain-style architecture, known for its robust, carbon-sequestering wood construction and energy-efficient design. The buildings will be fabricated in panelized assemblies at Bensonwood’s Walpole, NH facilities and rapidly assembled on the mountain, ensuring minimal disruption to the delicate ecology of the development site.

south face clubhouse drawing
Preliminary rendering of the South Face Village Clubhouse.

According to Bensonwood architect, Randall Walter, “It truly does take a dedicated group of professionals and years of planning to realize a sustainable, 21st century community.” And he added, noting the lengthy permitting and planning process of a project this size, “For any developer looking to begin a large scale environmentally-responsible development in the next 3-4 years, the time to start talking is now.”

Visit the South Face Village Facebook page for ongoing construction photos.

 

SMALL Builder002

Seriously?

In my last post, I vented a little about the cover of the largest professional homebuilding magazine (Byline, “Smart Building Starts Here”) depicting a construction site that might have been exceptional 100 years ago, but today should be an industry embarrassment, not a magazine cover. Finding that the photo proudly displayed on the cover was only part of the reason for my dismay.

The home under construction was to be the “New American Home,” the featured model home at the International Builders Show.  Its purpose is to show off the latest process and products our industry has to offer.

For a refresher, here is that magazine cover with story about the model project under construction, apparently a paragon image of 21st century homebuilding. The reality is building materials in the dirt, guys cutting and shaping each and every piece that goes into the building (awkwardly, with small tools), and no organization that systematically improves quality or achieves better efficiency.

What we really see is the lurch into yet another century of homebuilding evolution, still  unimpeded by progress.

SMALL Builder002“The New American Home” that was the outcome of that site construction was also 7,000 square feet, and that represents the other side of the American problem in homebuilding. Big is more important than good.  My intent was to address the building process problem, but readers were more repulsed by the size. After all, as a model intended to be an exemplar, we can probably keep building in inefficient ways, and we can keep giving the American public less housing quality  than they need and deserve, but we can’t keep building that big. So I get it.

Nevertheless, I’m surprised that people take for granted the inherent anachronism of the typical homebuilding process.  Yet its stasis in the context of contemporary technology and worldwide manufacturing advancement is so pervasive that its lack of progress is invisible, and its inefficient and ineffective reality is widely accepted, and sometimes even lauded as evidence of craft. I see an emperor with no clothes; others say he’s always been naked and that’s what makes him so kingly.

Here are two homes I recently saw under construction in the mid-west.

KSjobsite1

Ksjobsite2

Take a minute. Study those photos, as if you were managing the efficiency and quality of a process that matters immensely to the life and economics of our society. Just look at those two sites! Look at the guys sorting through the “pick-up-sticks” in the upper photo. What could they possibly be doing, and who’s paying for it? What do you think about their care of the materials? In the second photo, the dumpster size speaks volumes, and we have more sticks in the dirt, and a guy carrying a single framing member over his shoulder. Why is any of this so accepted in 2014? In any other industry where quality and efficiency matters a company employing this sort of manufacturing standard would be out of business in a nano-second.

As a builder who has spent his professional life trying to improve building quality, I find all of the above examples rather alarming, as I do the home quality standard that usually is the process outcome.  But I guess I’m in the minority.

The final photo is even more revealing. My co-worker, Hans Porschitz, was looking for a photo of the standard building process to add to a  presentations he is doing. In his Google search, he found an article from the Wall Street Journal from 2012, titled: Housing Starts Surge as Confidence Grows. The point of the article was that home construction was starting to come back strong and that all was beginning to look good for building construction. Great news, which at the time people like me read with deep interest, hoping the long recession malaise would finally end. But here’s the kicker: look at the photo that illustrated that positive news about homebuilding:

Our Homebuilding Standard

Seriously? I don’t know where to start, but apparently the editors at the WSJ thought this was an appropriate iconic photo to illustrate the positive bustle of an industry coming out of the doldrums and now thriving again. Aren’t you glad? Would you want to own that house? Is this how much our homes matter to us? How long will we accept these wooden tents adorned with facades of drywall and garnished with amenities? A few things come to me:

  • There’s not a legal labor rate low enough to justify the methods.
  • They don’t care about the construction materials at all.
  • Waste is no problem.
  • There is no pride with anyone there or it would look different.
  • None of these people care anything about OSHA safety regulations, much less their own safety.
  • What else do you see?

Honestly, I just don’t understand it, but this IS the American way of building and we as a society apparently take it for granted that this is as it should be.  There’s an industry and cultural assumption that it’s the best we can do, I guess. The first photo is from the number one homebuilding industry trade magazine, and the last one is from our number one business newspaper. Our country, therefore, obviously thinks our homebuilding process is just hunky-dory.

But when you think about it, is it any wonder that: building construction has become the last refuge of the otherwise unemployable, and certainly doesn’t make any list of desirable careers for young people? …that natural disasters lay whole communities flat? …that the typical American home is an energy sieve? ..and a maintenance nightmare? …that there is typically at least a 15% defect rate (structure, safety, health, not cosmetic) when other industries are chasing fractions of 1%?

Homes DO matter. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, our culture creates our homes, thereafter our homes create our culture. The need for urgency is far more important than only energy and sustainability; it’s about the soul of who we are.

We CAN and therefore must do better. Much better. There are many of us working “in the trenches” to bring a better destiny to American homebuilding, and that includes all my associates at Bensonwood and Unity Homes, who have dedicated our professional lives to that proposition.

Though the enemy–a recalcitrant, misaligned industry–is strong, we will prevail. Better homebuilding is coming to America.

 

 

 

 

 

Catherine Houghton Arts Center Opens

Catherine Houghton Arts Center at night

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In an update to an earlier story, the Catherine Houghton Arts Center, the 5,000 square foot arts center for The White Mountain School, an independent boarding and day school for grades 9-12 in Bethlehem, New Hampshire, is now open for classes.

Bensonwood prefabricated the building and acted as general contractor. We worked in collaboration with the award-winning architectural firm, Ruhl Walker Architects. The multi-use academic building incorporates many of the latest advances in 21st century construction, including prefabrication of panelized assemblies, energy-efficient design and rapid onsite assembly.

Catherine Houghton Arts Center Dance StudioThe ArtsCenter is named after Catherine “Kitty” Houghton, a school trustee who was killed in 2013. The Center has two dance studios, a music studio with a recording studio, an art studio that opens to the outdoors, a recessed outdoor performing arts stage and a ceramics kiln. A bridge to its second floor connects the Center to the main campus.

Designed for Net-Zero performance, the new arts center has a super-efficient geothermal heat pump system, with the electrical power supplied by rooftop solar photovoltaics. The rooftop PV will generate more power than the arts center needs, with the excess being used to power a portion of the other academic buildings.

CHAC Art Studio

MIT Architecture Dean Adèle Santos Tours Bensonwood to See Her New Home

Adele Naudee Santos and Tedd Benson

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Adèle Naudeé Santos, internationally-renowned urban design authority and dean of MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning (SA+P), recently toured Bensonwood’s facilities with Tedd Benson and some of our associates to see her custom, high-performance green home being fabricated.

2nd.SantosBensonwood has been fortunate to work with many prominent design professionals, including architects as owner-builders or as advocates for their clients, but we were especially honored that someone of Ms. Santos’s stature in the architecture field would choose us to build her Somerville, Massachusetts home. Her academic career includes professorships at the University of California-Berkeley, Harvard University, Rice University and the University of Pennsylvania, where she also served as the Department Architecture Chair. She was also the founding dean of the School of Architecture at UC San Diego.

SANTOS.1Additionally, Santos is principal architect in the San Francisco-based firm, Santos, Prescott and Associates (SPA). Her architectural and planning projects include housing and institutional buildings in Africa, affordable housing in California and Japan, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, the Center for the Arts at Albright College and the Yerba Buena Gardens Children’s Center in San Francisco. She is currently working in Guatemala on a children’s center and has several projects under construction in China.

SANTOS.4Bensonwood has had a long, fruitful collaboration with MIT beginning with the partnership on the Open Prototype Initiative, whose goal is developing affordable, flexible, high-performance houses with disentangled and highly-adaptable mechanical systems. In another MIT connection, our sister company, Unity Homes, served as a business case study at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Bensonwood also has MIT graduates in our design and engineering departments.

Interestingly, Ms. Santos has another connection to Bensonwood in Steve Kieran, owner and architect of the Loblolly House, the acclaimed Maryland shore home we engineered, fabricated and assembled in 2006 for his firm, KieranTimberlake. Ms. Santos gave Kieran his first teaching position when she was the Architecture Chair at Penn.

SANTOS.5SANTOS.11The custom home was designed by SPA architect Ethan Lacy, who joined Ms. Santos on the tour. Bensonwood engineers Chris Carbone and Elizabeth Beauregard, project manager Tom Olson, job captain John McElroy and builder Tobey Wandzy were also on hand for the visit, explaining our building systems and processes and their roles in her project. A week later the  green prefab home’s shell was delivered to the site and raised in just three days, a benefit of what we call our “Montage Building” process.

Seeing the precision fabrication of a healthy house can be an informative and rewarding experience, and creates a stronger connection to the sustainable building for the homeowner—and is something we always encourage our clients to do. For more information on Bensonwood tours, click here.

The New (but Still Outdated) American Home

I have to build this up a little to make a point, so bear with me while I set the stage.

The Big Event:

The International Builders Show (IBS), happening now in Las Vegas. It’s a pretty big deal in the industry. It’s organized by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and is the largest annual residential housing construction trade event for manufacturers and suppliers of home construction products and services.  According to Wikipedia, “It is the only event of its kind, focusing specifically on the needs, concerns, and opportunities that face builders.”  There are about 1,700 exhibiting companies there, all displaying their coolest products and latest innovations. It’s intended to be a veritable festival of homebuilding advancement, creating promise and excitement about all things new and better for both builders and homeowners.

The Biggest Exhibit at the Big Event:

The New American Home (TNAH). This is a complete show home built specifically for display for the thousands of IBS attendees. It is proclaimed on their website as “America’s premier show home and construction technology laboratory, The New American Home serves as the official showcase house of the annual International Builders Show.” Further, from their website: “The show home demonstrates ‘Builders’ Best Practices’: concepts, materials, designs and construction techniques that can be replicated – in whole or in part – in housing built any place and in any price range.” (The italics are all mine in this piece.)

You’ll get an inkling of what to expect from this year’s New American Home from this description: “The 2014 New American Home will display the innovative elevation design of the future of home building and incorporate in this family-style design a relevance to the way we live today and how we will live in the future. Coming in at right around 6,700 square feet, the New American Home will be comfortably spacious and inviting with warm interiors seamlessly integrating between indoors and out.”

TNAH1-27-2014

The Voice of the NAHB:

Builder MagazineAll you need to know for my little build-up is the magazine’s tagline: “Smart Building Starts Here.”  The preview of The New American Home has been exclusively featured in Builder Magazine.

So, in review:

  • IBS is the annual extravaganza of the NAHB and America’s homebuilding industry. It breathlessly presents residential building state-of-the-art.
  • TNAH is the premier exhibit at the show, demonstrating the very latest as the “construction technology laboratory” and “Builders’ Best Practices.”
  • Builder Magazine is about “smart building” and is the voice of the NAHB and the herald of IBS.

Now that your expectations are prepared about purpose and hype about the New American Home for 2014, let me briefly take you back in history.

Here’s a painting depicting construction practice in the 1700s:

1700's Building

And here’s a photo of construction practice just about 100 years ago.

1915home

With all of this as context, just imagine my reaction when I saw the cover of Builder with a photo of The New American Home under construction. Drum roll….

SMALL Builder002

Really? This is a construction technology laboratory in the 21st century? Does smart building start here? A demonstration of builders’ best practices? The future of homebuilding? Incredible.  I’m seeing lumber dumped in the dirt, strewn about like Pick-Up-Sticks; a guy bent over like Gumby, working on framing lumber with some small tool; another one on a step ladder doing something; and a third guy apparently watching. Is this where we are in 2014? This photo shows the essence of the actual building, and this is how it was made, which is not very different from the way buildings were made 300 years ago. The main difference between the 1700s building depiction and the Builder Magazine cover photo is the guys in the former would ride horses home (or walk), and the guys in the cover photo will likely drive pickup trucks manufactured with the world class precision and efficiency.

Homebuilding in the 21st century
The New American Home:  “construction technology laboratory”? 

The article goes on to tell the story of the project. It got terribly behind schedule (easy to see why) and crews (hopefully more than 3) were working 17 hour days to try to catch up. In addition, the weather turned wet and harsh (for Las Vegas), construction was further delayed, materials got wet (and muddy, I imagine) and they even lost 350 sheets of drywall to water damage, presumably because it took so long to make the building weathertight.

I do sympathize with the heroic effort of the builders to battle weather, time and labor shortages to get the project done on time. We builders thrive on challenges. It’s in our DNA. But the big challenge we should all be taking up is to build stronger and more energy efficient buildings with the same quality standard as the appliances and fixtures that will be used in the home, not just surviving the poor planning and communication embedded in our industry’s process, and its habitual devotion to outdated building methods.

The finished New American Home will reveal none of this. According to all descriptions, it has an impressive number of features, clever amenities, the best of plumbing and electrical fixtures, a bunch of green certifications, and is “chock-full of multigenerational, sustainable, and inspirational design ideas.” I don’t doubt that.

Nor do I plan to see it. 6,700 square feet of features and amenities masquerading as real building value are hopefully not the future of American homebuilding.

Really, we can do so much better!

1st Solar-Powered Unity Home Goes from Contract to Complete in 20 Weeks

solar panels on Unity Homes

unity homes kitchen

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A year ago when Carol and Ed Reardon wanted to build a healthy, energy-efficient, year-round residence on a lake, they knew whom to call. Bensonwood had recently launched its sister company, Unity Homes, which offers healthy, high-performance, more affordable homes.  Here was their chance to own a high-quality Bensonwood home on a budget they could afford. Best of all, they discovered they would be living in the home in only five months’ time.

The home, a Xyla 132, is the first Unity home to feature solar electric panels, which power the HVAC system, including an air source heat pump for both heating and cooling, and heat recovery ventilation. Because of the extremely low energy demands of the Unity building shell (the highly-insulated homes meet or exceed Passive House levels of air tightness), and with the state and federal incentives, the solar panels by Solar Source made sense financially.

Unity Homes Xyla Floor PlanThe home site, on a picture-perfect lake in southern New Hampshire, had been in Carol’s family for decades, so she became the driving force behind the project. The first step was to remove the old camp sitting on the land with serious rot and mold in the crawl space and above the ceilings.

Unity Homes Xyla open floor planCarol was particularly interested in the health aspects of Unity homes. Living with allergies, she wanted cabinets and vanities with low VOCs (volatile organic compounds), wood construction and a sophisticated ventilation system. All Unity homes share these health benefits, along with solid, light-filled, quiet spaces that promote a sense of well-being.

Carol says, “Unity came along at the right time for us. We have downsized to a beautiful new home where we can enjoy our retirement years in a place we love.” Ed Reardon adds, “Bensonwood and Unity people have been a pleasure to work with throughout this process. Special praise goes to Unity project manager Ryan Lawler who couldn’t have been more helpful, responsive and encouraging.”

Can We Aim Higher?

Many years ago, in our mid-course correction (another story), we pulled our company associates together to write a mission statement that would reflect our collective values and goals. It turned out to be a much bigger and longer task than we expected, but worth the effort because the exercise forced us to aim higher.

At the time, we were heavily invested in timberframe homebuilding, and it was clearly how we understood ourselves and how we were known in the marketplace. But in the many hours of discussion in analysis of our beliefs and guiding principles, we realized that timberframing may be a part of the means to an ultimate objective, but it wasn’t  sufficient in itself. What we came to understand was this simple point: our clients—like everyone who makes the decision to build—want to create a place that will improve the quality of their lives, period. That’s what homes are for. So the core statement of our company mission is:

Through process and product, to improve people’s lives.

With that much bigger mission in focus, we realized that everything matters, and we’d need to become better designers, engineers, project managers, and master craftspeople with broader skills. It set us on a path that transformed us, and continues to transform us again and again. This path is just a steady climb with an endless series of false peaks, all exciting and rewarding, but never the end. Our mission to improve lives through our work is too big to ever be fully completed.

As I read blogs, discussion groups, and news stories about the slow acceptance of green and energy efficient homes in the marketplace, I’m reminded of our company conclusion, now several decades ago, that we needed to aim higher and put our capabilities in context with our clients’ needs and aspirations. Even a LEED Platinum, zero net energy home can completely fail to deliver on its most important purpose, and even a certified Passive House can be a lousy place to live.

I don’t think I’m bringing new news here, but I also think it’s a topic that’s getting short shrift, and it’s too often leading to a maximized emphasis on particular building attributes, while other critical aspects are being compromised. Surely, this is never intended, but it can be the outcome of designing and building from a tilted perspective. If we can acknowledge this potential “maximize/compromise” liability, and bring some deep internal reflection about all that’s important in our quest to make the world a better place, it could be an important pivotal change for the sustainable homebuilding movement. High performance homebuilding should be “and,” not “or.” There should be more adds than subtracts.

Putting “green and energy efficient” in the larger context of improving people’s lives doesn’t mitigate the urgency to make low-load and zero net energy homes the industry standard. If anything, we absolutely must find ways to scale up sooner for the benefit of the planet and generations of homeowners. I made this point in a speech at the Vision 2020 Sustainability Summit in September, pointing out the huge gap between what we as an industry know and what we actually do. You can see my frustration there, if you’re not reading it here.

We’ve spent the last 20 years developing the know-how and proof that we can build much better performing homes without adding much short-term cost and always subtracting long-term cost, yet most of the industry carries on like it’s 1985. It’s not that different from the medical profession saying, “Sure, we know how to cure that cancer, but it costs a little extra and you’re not asking for it, so we’re not deploying it.”

As our work and our message could become fully focused on the bigger goal of improving homeowners’ lives, it’s very possible we’d also find the key to broader, quicker acceptance. We would automatically be expanding the meaning of sustainable and high performance to include myriad of “soft” health, safety, and security attributes along with the hard calculations of building science.

“Payback” is only an energy savings vs. return on investment calculation. There’s no working formula for the benefit of healthier indoor air quality, or the security of a home built to tolerate extreme storms, and there’s no denying the savings of time and money when homes are built with few or no defects and requiring minimum maintenance. Therefore, if the quality of people’s lives matters most, we should strive equally hard to build homes that are the healthiest and safest places they can be and that don’t eat up the precious days of their lives requiring upkeep and repairs. It would be a lot less hard to market homes that are stronger, healthier, safer and by the way, also extremely energy efficient.

Department of Energy’s Challenge Home program includes most of the added attributes and begins to get to the notion that there should be many facets to the definition of high performance. In addition, recently the U.S. Green Building Council announced that they want to put health “in the front seat,” which is both admirable and somewhat overdue.

But even all of that doesn’t go far enough. It just gets harder to talk about and impossible to measure. It’s where the numbers stop and art and intuition steps in, and it’s work our industry needs to do much, much better. That objective is well expressed by the late Samuel Mockbee, founder of Alabama’s Rural Studio: “Everyone, rich or poor, deserves a shelter for the soul.”

Homes that improve people’s lives are also “shelters for the soul,” not just bare shelter against the elements, and they do not rise up to that standard with a low Energy Star rating, or net zero performance alone. The bigger purpose of home is to fuel hopes and dreams, become that place where people know they can find moments of quiet beauty and serenity, where the routine of ordinary and intimate is the essence of one’s personal sanctuary. It’s what is meant by Winston Churchill’s statement that, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” The quality of home matters deeply to people and even to civilization. Homes that do nothing for the human spirit have an immeasurable and unaccounted negative cost. Homes that do achieve this higher standard help to inspire the very best from people and make the world a better place

“We build thousands of houses, but only few homes. With the world’s population projected to double, we will have to build this world all over again. How can we do that and shelter the soul?”       Howard Mansfield, Dwelling in Possibility: Searching for the Soul of Shelter

Can the sustainable building movement also strive for the ineffable, the unmeasurable? Can we aim higher?

A Better Standard

This post continues my interview with Kiva Bottero, freelance writer. The first part was about Open Building. In this part, Kiva wanted to know more about Unity Homes, and how Open Building and some of our objectives would play out with that initiative.

I am grateful for Kiva’s good questions and the opportunity to expand on some important ideas.  Kiva has reported on portions of the interview in Green Building Canada as well as in his blog Green Home Gnome, and most recently in Buildipedia.  TB

Part II

KB: In regards to durability, you state, “We believe there should be a 250 year standard.” Does that mean your homes are built to that standard or you just believe that homes should be built to that standard? If so, can you give me an idea of what building to that standard means… because I don’t imagine you’re planning on living 250 years 😉

TB:In high-performance building, the essence of sustainability is durability. We can’t invest so much resource and material in buildings that aren’t destined to last. That’s too much waste on too big a scale, especially as our buildings contain increasing amounts of insulation and structure to contain and support improved energy efficiency. The commitment to a longer durability standard should include regulation and economic stimulation, but we can’t wait for that to come about; we need to lead toward that outcome.

Here in New England, we are surrounded by buildings that are 250 years old or more. We know the value of that commitment and legacy. And if you’ve been to older parts of the world, particularly Europe, it is evident that in a culture in which good building has long been standard, 250 years is considered young. Clearly, the better standard of 250 years is not pie-in-the-sky or overreaching.

BWChouse1

The obvious parts of the 250 year standard are in the structure. We can’t compromise foundations, or structure, or the skins that protect the building from the elements. The less obvious aspects are in location, siting, and design compatibility, where integration into the public fabric is essential. An even less obvious aspect is in the need to design for long term capacity rather than short term requirements only. Creating an “open” architecture that allows ongoing inhabitant adaptation is conscious professional activity, and extremely important for durability.

KB: You wrote,” Design tends to make the inhabitants lives generic.” What comes to mind for me is the two-car attached garage and how people have adopted a two-car lifestyle. Using this garage example can you tell me what options an Open-Built home would give homeowners if they want to do away with their garage? Would that be easier to do than with a traditionally built home? If so, what options would they have?

TB: What I mean is different. Most residential design isn’t for adaptation, nor is it for specific inhabitant requirements, but rather for a predetermined profile judged by the production builders to meet the requirements of most people. They didn’t design for anybody in particular, but for what they judged to be a large segment of the population in a generic prediction. As the resulting typical American home is hopelessly entangled and therefore inflexible, inhabitants are forced to adapt to the home; it isn’t designed to adapt to them. Their lives are at least partially forced into the pattern of that generic design prediction.

tracthouse1

In the Open-Built philosophy, we are trying to develop and innovate ever-improved ways in which the living environments we create can be affected by their occupants to suit their needs and requirements. We’ve made enormous progress in this regard, but we won’t reach the fully realized vision without the participation of more industry partners, especially as it relates to creating true systems (not aggregated parts and pieces) that are in full control of the occupants.

KB: Your new line of Unity Homes delivers the Passive House standard of air tightness with prefabricated construction. Why did you choose to pair prefab and passive?

TB: It’s not that we’re pairing off-site prefab (I hate that word. We will replace it with a better one.) with passive, but rather that off-site methodology gets us to a higher standard more easily and consistently. We have tremendous control over the all that happens in our facilities. We have the right training, the right tools, the right working conditions, etc. We aren’t shooting for the Passive House standard, but rather for the standard where cost and performance are most optimized. Our philosophy on this is simple. We try not to either compromise or maximize, but to optimize for cost, quality, good design, and good engineering.

KB: Why did you choose to adopt the Passive House standard of air-tightness, but not the other standards that go with Passive House?

TB: This answer continues the one above. The Passive House standard has multiple requirements. Some are more effective than others, and some are more expensive than others. We’re trying to optimize by focusing on controlling cost and leveraging for effectiveness. Thicker walls and more insulation are costly and need to be considered against the value very carefully. We have therefore studied this issue, and our analysis has brought us to the conclusion that after about R30, there are severely diminishing returns with added insulation. At that point, air-tightness is a much more significant factor in the building performance. Luckily, air-tightness is nearly free. It’s just about good workmanship and good work processes. We can achieve the Passive House air-tightness standard on all of our homes consistently, so we focus on that and diminish the PH standard insulation level slightly (R35) to a point where we are getting really good performance, allowing us to use small air-source heat pumps for heating and cooling.

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KB: Can you tell me a little about the Unity homes currently in production? (Features, performance, price, launch date, etc.)

TB: We have two homes being built right now, and a few more under contract and a whole bunch of prospects that are looking very good for spring starts. Unity is on the way!

Our proposition is about a no-compromise home with that has more value than cost. All Unity Homes have a mini-energy demand, which allows us to eliminate fossil fuels and use a air source heat pump to supply all the heating and cooling requirements. With this and many other energy features, these homes can achieve net-zero with a modest solar array (5-7 kwh). In addition, we don’t compromise on the structure, as we assume these homes will serve for 300-500 years.

Oh yes, and they’re comfortable, light filled, spacious, have great air quality, and are filled with great materials, finishes, and fixtures.

The Unity standard is the future of homebuilding. You could put it this way: “Nothing compromised. Nothing maximized. Everything optimized.” Or simply: “Not too little. Not too much. Just right.” The Swedes value this idea so much that they have a word for it. The word is “lagom.” The Unity objective is to seek to be proudly lagom.

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KB: How far can you transport these houses and how economical is it to transport?

TB: We can ship within a few hundred miles efficiently. The consideration is really quite practical: the distance a single driver can make the trip and unload the truck without having to sleep over. We can deliver beyond that, of course, but the costs are higher and need to be more carefully analyzed. Our goal for Unity Homes is to extend our production to be closer to our markets. We expect to begin that expansion this year.

KB: A catch-22 facing prefab builders is that volume needs to increase before costs can drop, but for that to happen prices need to be lower for the average consumer. What do you get for the amount of your homes? (What costs are included, finish, etc.) And what would you say to a home buyer that offers a compelling reason to own a Unity Home?

TB: That’s right. But it’s not such a bad Catch-22 if we’re strategically accurate as we grow. There are plenty of markets in which Unity is cost competitive now, while providing much higher quality in much faster time. As we grow and bring prices down with scale, we can then bring the Unity proposition to markets where costs are currently lower.

KB: Can you tell me a little about the five key attributes of Unity Homes?

TB: I’ll put this in the form of the Unity Homes goals, and indicate where we are today:

  1. Custom home design will be free (currently is)
  2. The typical build time will be 20 working days (currently 30-35)
  3. Living in a home can be free of utility costs and also generate energy for transportation. (currently no fossil fuels, net zero capable)
  4. All systems within the home should be continually alterable and up-gradable, with most of the work accomplished by the homeowners (currently disentangled and reconfigurable within the shell, with easy access to most mechanical systems and all homes designed for unpredicted capacity, not just first space plan)
  5. Cost for this much higher standard design and performance standard is competitive with current on-site, building-code-based standard. (Currently competitive with on lower quality on-site alternative in many markets where building costs are at the national average or higher.)

KB: What advantages does the Open-Built system offer and how does that expand-ability integrate with prefab?

TB: Open-Built improves the efficiency of the construction process by disentangling systems for easier installation. That same disentanglement allows for long-term access, which means homeowners and professionals can accomplish changes, upgrades and renovations with less demolition and rework.

Our buildings are assembled in a logical and practical way. The result is a building in which disassembly replaces demolition, and with a broader Open-Built standard adoption, the parts and elements could be reused at a later time or even sold online to others who had built to the same standard. That’s an important dream that we intend to make real.