Category Archives: homebuilding

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Homes Matter

I wrote the following article for a local magazine, Business Monadnock. I’m republishing here.

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Tedd Benson in his Walpole, NH facility.

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”  Winston Churchill

Many years ago, when we pulled our company associates together to try to draft a collective mission statement for our homebuilding company, we came to an unexpected conclusion. As we kept asking questions about why we do what we do, and why clients engage us for what is usually the biggest investment of their lives, we came to understand there’s an important ideal beyond the simple execution of our craft for the straight-forward purpose of building good quality homes. We realized that everyone undertaking the effort and expense of building a new home is doing so to improve the quality of their lives, and so that bigger objective became the core principle of our mission: “Through process and products, to improve the quality of lives.”

Why else would people from all over the country find us in this quiet corner of New Hampshire? And isn’t a focus on making a difference in peoples’ lives more worthy of the total investment of our own life’s energy?

We’ve tried to remain on that higher path since, and that nobler focus has made an incalculable difference in how we think, act and what we build. It raises the stakes, and has raised us in the process, but it has also been humbling. There’s no clear pinnacle of achievement for such a mission. There’s only, “try harder, get better.” With peoples’ lives as our focus, there’s no such thing as “good enough;” there’s always something that we can improve.

Luckily, the physical aspects of every building are like  truth mirrors, and give us immediate feedback about how we did. The quality of the work is mostly an evident, objective reality, and its attributes (and of course the flaws) easily determined. When we can see it and touch it, we can measure our work in a variety of ways, and know with some certainty what to improve. In a sense, that’s the easy side of continual improvement.

But the “improving the quality of lives” objective is intangible, subjective, and offers no easy evaluation of success or failure. Building homes that are plumb, level, square, strong and energy-efficient is relatively easy, but making deeper impacts in the occupants’ lives is a high, elusive and difficult goal.

Is all that striving for lofty ideals and a life of “healthy discontent” worth it for the simple task of homebuilding? I think so, and here’s why. We all know that homes matter immensely. Along with food, shelter is elemental to the human condition. No society advances without a broad provision of healthy food and secure shelter. Food is an obvious daily requirement for life, and gets daily attention. But the importance of quality housing in our lives is more nuanced, yet anthropologists and historians have often pointed out that stable, durable dwellings that offer some respite from life’s struggles are practically the root and stalk of civilization. Societies seem to develop in direct relation to advancements in the general quality of domestic life.

For all of its obvious value, we can’t analyze the life-improving attributes of our homes by measuring the equivalent of proteins, carbohydrates and vitamins in food, and so if it passes the basic shelter-against-the-elements test, most people accept housing as it is, decorate to taste, and get on with life. People today tend to know about cars, food and clothes rather intimately, and can even discern how the subtle distinctions—that added spice in the meal; the car’s suspension in turns; those perfectly fitted shoes—make them feel, but the fundamental qualities of homes are too often just a bland canvas for the amenities, paint and furniture. We literally live with homes as they are, and then their impacts live in us,  and subtly affect our character, as Churchill so famously suggested.

Most of the hours of our lives are spent at home. The environment we live in works on us and our closest relationships constantly, and we are better or worse for it. Without a safe and secure personal sanctuary, there’s no opportunity for dreams to flourish; there’s no place for the imagination to soar beyond the moment, and hope itself is dulled.

And that’s why it’s worth striving for homes to rise above their basic physical sheltering requirements and do more. We need to do our best to make housing worthy of its inhabitants’ lives, a therefore long-term asset for our society. I know from so many personal stories, including my own, that a home can become a sacred personal place, and a family’s special haven for the bonds of our most intimate relationships; a safe harbor in life’s storms. At best, housing and the functional act of dwelling it supports can provide its own kind of daily bread, and feed a higher sense of well being.

These high ideals for home have been the subject of builders, poets, philosophers and architects (not to mention common people with dreams) for hundreds or even thousands of years. It is also the theme of local author, Howard Mansfield’s important new book: Dwelling in Possibility: Searching for the Soul of Shelter. To make his point that homes should do more for people than provide mere protection from the elements, he quotes the famed social architect, Samuel Mockbee: “Everyone, rich or poor, deserves a shelter for the soul.”  Mansfield goes on to say:

We have shelter from the rain and snow and sun, but our houses aren’t sheltering our souls. They aren’t nourishing. We treat houses as investments or as social policy problems, as in the statistical Sahara of ‘the housing problem.’ The soul starves—we’re in our house, but not at home. Our dream houses lack room for us to dream.   … We build thousands of houses, but only a 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?

And later he adds: “The housing we are building today is starving our imagination, and without a well-fed imagination, it may be impossible to build a better world….If the house is diminished, we are diminished.”

Homes are not commodities, even if housing tries to be. Life happens there, and peoples’ lives can’t be defined by the “widget” they inhabit. No matter what we homebuilders intend or achieve in building “the product,” people will do their best to make more of it. There’s no dull real estate for the occupants, who always want their home to be special and meaningful. Howard Mansfield quotes geographer/philosopher, J.B. Jackson: “The dwelling is the primary effort of man to create heaven on earth.”

Mansfield also profiles and quotes the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, whose book The Poetics of Space is one of the seminal writings about the higher values we can find in house and home: “They give us the shelter to enlarge ourselves. They are the vessel in which we go forth into the universe. A good house is a good daydreaming space. It is the universe.”

Over the years, we’ve had enough feedback from our clients to give us an indication that sometimes we succeed in our higher mission. So we know it’s possible, even if how and why add up to a simple, daunting notion: Everything Matters.

The belief in the idea that buildings can also serve higher emotional, psychological and spiritual needs of people is the first requirement of the commitment to try, as Howard Mansfield admits: “To build soulful places, first we need to believe that it is possible.”

And he answers that question with a quote from famed architect Christopher Alexander, whose book, The Pattern Language, is the basically an instructional manual for how we can design and build homes that also touch the human spirit. Alexander therefore deserves the last word: “But it is possible. If we try our best to make all the places in our contemporary world with a vivid depth of feeling, surely then something will happen that changes our lives.”

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

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Building History Next Door

rebuild For a number of reasons, in the past few months I’ve been pulled into thinking again about historical timber frame construction and the evolution to light wood framing in the 19th century.  It’s an incredibly interesting topic in any event, but even more so as our contemporary wood building systems continue to evolve—now, as they did 200 years ago—continually responding to changes in technology, economics and cultural expectations. Building history seems to be in the air. I have recently accepted speaking engagements at the Weare, New Hampshire Public Library in May and another for the Monadnock Center for History and Culture in July. Both will be talks about timber frame building, past and present, and the sponsors have an interest in referencing the historical timber framing in their towns. With these engagements coming up, I’ve been doing some research about the history of a few towns in this part of New Hampshire, particularly Weare and Peterborough. P1030301 (Medium)Staying with the history theme, we are also currently working on a timberframe project that requires the use of reclaimed hand-hewn timbers. We are purchasing these timbers from salvage contractors who dismantle old, out-of-use barns that are often a tax and maintenance liability for the owners. This is a rather sad story, as America is quickly losing one of the most beautiful and enduring parts of our architectural heritage. Yet without programs to support the costs borne by the property owners, the demise of barns will continue. We wish we could save them all, but a second best alternative is to try to save the timbers when we can, and this project will do that well, and celebrate their rugged hand made beauty in a building that should stand for another few hundred years.

The timing of that project turned out to be serendipity when the producers of a new TV show  called to ask if I could help narrate a short segment with them to give a little insight about traditional timber frame building methods. I agreed to do it, knowing that the authentic hand-hewn timbers we had on hand would make it easy to explain the fundamentals of the traditional process using the visible hand-tooling evidence as the best explanation of the work involved. The timbers we used to describe early timber framing in the short film segment are remarkable. They’re mostly white oak and chestnut, with sizes up to 14” x 14” and up to 40’ long. To understand the task, you have to understand that each of the timbers was a tree growing in a primeval forest we can’t imagine today, and every one of them was worked with both skills and toil most of us can’t fathom. Wresting timbers from trees was accomplished, as many things were back then, “by dint of severe effort.” Looking at these timbers now, you can know a lot of truth about the men who labored over them 200 years ago. The marks of their axe, adze, scribe, chisel and handsaw are right there, as if made yesterday, and they reveal patience, perseverance and pride. It’s quite a story.

colonial era pit saw
A two-man colonial pit saw. Courtesy Plimouth Plantation

But that work only resulted in a timber frame. For this kind of structure, it was still necessary to have boards for sheathing, cladding, flooring and various millwork. As towns were sprouting up in the expanding new world in the 18th century, it was usually just too much effort for most people to make all of those materials by hand. The traditional method for making boards was to use a two-man saw over a pit, with one person on top the log and another below, making up and down strokes through the log length. That work was brutal, even by the work standards then. Therefore, as soon as watermills became possible, they almost simultaneously became a requirement of colonization. The agreement to establish a settlement in Weare, NH was based on the condition that a mill would be in place. That took a few years, and therefore, “House construction in the early settlement was primitive. Logs were used to build houses, and were hewn flat for flooring, ” according to the town history. By this method, they nearly eliminated the need for boards and the massive amount of handwork needed to make them.

When sawmills were finally in place, timber frame buildings became more common in Weare, but nails were scarce and precious, so most of the boards were attached with wooden pins instead. The sawmills solved one big problem, but another remained. It must have been frustrating to be in the midst of a limitless forest resource, but still many man years of work away from turning that raw material into the kinds of buildings they ultimately intended. The buildings we know, use and revere today were the dream of every family, but most early settlers never achieved the dream, and lived instead in crude log houses, or worse. In the Peterborough, NH town history written in 1876, the typical homes of the mid 18th century were described this way:

They were open, cold, and uncomfortable, and it required much hardihood to endure the exposure to which all were subjected in abodes so imperfectly constructed. We can hardly imagine how they could live in such houses, and carry on so much work besides the regular household duties; but they had made up their minds to receive everything in the best spirit, in hopes of better and more prosperous times to come, and thereby they made of their hovels, of their wretched cabins, and half-built houses, homes consecrated to religion, and to all the social and moral virtues.

I like the word “hardihood.” Along with “dint of severe effort,” it kind of says it all. Theirs was a struggle to get out of the hovels and into real homes, and live in civilized villages, and ultimately they did, but it was accomplished the truly old fashioned way. NH-SawmillFor all these reasons, easier was better because it improved the quality of life sooner. Sawmills became more efficient as the mechanical equipment improved, making it much more practical to saw the timbers from the logs as well as the boards. At the same time, manufactured cut nails replaced hand-forged nails, and even later wire nails replaced cut nails. With these advancements, timber frame building evolved to use more sawn lumber, and then sawn lumber parts became smaller, and the connections were made with thousands of nails instead of a few hundred timberframe joints.

Coincidentally, on a bike ride the other day, I happened by a building in the process of being razed and stripped to its structural bones, revealing nearly the whole of the evolutionary history between early timberframing and the light wood framing that eventually completely displaced it. IMAG0335 (Medium) (2)I learned that original building was built in the mid 19th century, possibly before the Civil War. The older part was built with some typical timber frame methods, but most of the timbers were sawn, with tell-tale up-and-down strokes visible. Interestingly though, there are also quite a few hand hewn timbers in the frame that clearly came from an earlier structure with “ghost” mortises and notches suggesting their previous frame position. Clearly, they eschewed hand-hewing as soon as possible, but they still were frugal and respectful enough to reuse the timbers with so much labor invested in them by earlier generations of builders. And you just have to wonder: just how old ARE those timbers?IMAG0337 (Medium) (2) (1)

P1030313he other story in the older part of the building is the number of sawn studs, rafters and joists of smaller 2x dimension that are interacting with the old timberframe. You can almost see these builders getting comfortable with light wood framing replacing heavy timber framing, just step by step.

When they built the larger section of the home a few years later, they took giant leaps toward balloon framing, but still could not quite give up the use of a few timbers. The front wall is like a classic balloon frame with small, vertical studs going from sill to eave plate uninterrupted. But there was still a timber post and girts at the corners and mid-wall to carry the floor joist loads, and maintain the heavy timber asset.P1030310IMAG0333 (Medium) However, there’s no diagonal bracing, leaving the vestiges of the classic timber frame to be very minimal. And if the front wall shows the balloon frame that would soon dominate, the gable end wall is more like platform framing that is ubiquitous today. So there it is: one building, and a 1ooo year wooden frame building history.

Some say balloon framing (light framing) was invented by George Washington Snow in 1832. (From Keene, NH, right next door, by the way.) Some say it was Augustine Taylor in 1833. Some credit others. But I’m with those who say it just evolved, pulled by sawmill efficiency, nail innovation, and a tremendous need for good quality homes to be built with less skill and labor in the growing and expanding country. Thomas Friedman said, “Big breakthroughs happen when what is suddenly possible meets what is desperately necessary.” Big breakthroughs have happened again, including our ability to bring timberframing back with new capabilities and needs, and an ever-evolving, wood-centered construction method that’s getting ever more durable, energy efficient and adaptable.

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

south face logoNewsletter Home      Bensonwood Home

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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

Unity Homes!

My blog has been in hibernation for quite awhile, and I suppose that should be a reason to feel badly, but the reason for less writing was more working, and the reason for more working was to realize a long-held dream which is hitting an important milestone today. Here’s the background story:

Bensonwood was founded nearly 40 years ago. My youthful driving passion at the time was to find a better way to build. As a carpenter, I had come to really like building homes, but to equally dislike some of the prevailing methods that often led to shortcuts and severe compromises. It set me off on what I intended to be a noble mission, but in retrospect I’m sure it was selfishly motivated too, as I wanted to develop a system that had more challenges, more opportunity for creativity, and was, well, just more fun.

And it has been fun. I’ve constantly worked with amazing people in a company that is much better than my leadership has earned. And over the years, we’ve all learned that we can accomplish nearly anything if we unleash our collective energy, skills and knowledge because in the end, making good buildings is a team sport. If there are any heroes, it’s always an accounting of how many are in the “we.”

In the past four decades, that “we” that we call Bensonwood have contributed our special skills to over a thousand building projects, most of which have been designed and engineered by our staff. We have built in nearly every state in theU.S., and a few places overseas. Our work graces churches, restaurants, libraries, theaters, gazebos, pergolas, barns of all sorts, and houses big and small. We have made a difference.

We’ve also done what I set out to do at the beginning: we have indeed developed a better way to build. It wasn’t luck. We’ve been working on that specific project assiduously for fifteen years. We now have a truly unique off-site design and construction process that is a real and unique solution to many of the conventional construction deficiencies. We’ve developed a design system, written software, invented building systems, and then combined all of that with the precision of our craftsmanship and the efficiency and control of Lean manufacturing methods. Our special system is called Open-Built™ This entire “operating system” brings to homebuilding the consistency, quality standards, and cost structure homeowners deserve.

Now we realize that our “secret sauce” gives us more capabilities and capacity than we typically utilize. It’s time to expand.

Today we are announcing the launch of a new brand called Unity Homes that will increase our capacity for growth and bring our legendary quality to more people. Unity Homes and Bensonwood will be separated to assure full focus for both, but they will also be complementary. Bensonwood will be free to continue pursuing new challenges in timberframes, and highly customized, demanding building projects, both commercial and residential. Unity Homes will have a tightly engineered and well designed suite of homes that can be personalized, but the customization will be limited for the sake of optimizing cost and quality.

The mission of Unity Homes is to offer the highest quality homes for the lowest possible cost. Because of Bensonwood’s legacy, the Unity Homes quality won’t waver; because of our goals for this new brand, we’ll constantly fight to make this standard of homebuilding more affordable and more accessible.

For nearly a year, we have been working hard in the background to design and engineer the Unity Homes offerings and develop all the information and material needed to bring it to life in a way that is distinct and unique, and representative of our standards and values.  Our team did all of the work right here, including the design, engineering, pricing, specifications, website design and development and even the wonderful renderings to represent the designs.

Essentially, with no outside funding and lots of long hours, we have created a 40 year old start up. And it is now live. I feel like a kid.

The “we” of Bensonwood has triumphed again. The new era of Unity Homes has begun.

 

 

 

A New Guide to the “Sexy” Energy Solution

A few weeks ago, Alex Wilson asked me to write a foreword for his new book, which is simply titled Insulation: The GreenBuilding Guide.  Writing the short foreword was a harder task than I imagined. The stakes felt high, both because it’s such an important topic, and also because it would affect a good friend’s book. It paralyzed me for a bit before I finally got some words to stick. As it turned out, I haven’t done any other writing for the past few weeks because of an intense work schedule for our company these days. Therefore, I’m posting this little foreword to get something up here, but also because Alex’s book will be a must-read and I’ll be promoting it in every way I can.  Here’s a start.

We instinctively know that insulation is the obvious solution to a very common problem, but low energy costs have allowed us for too long to give it short shrift. We are certain to grab a good coat when we go outside on a cold day, yet most of the buildings we inhabit are themselves poorly dressed for the weather they inevitably encounter. Despite having readily available and effective insulation materials for over a century, we’ve failed to address the insufficient thermal coverings of our buildings, having opted instead to hook them up with all sorts of high-tech mechanical devices to manufacture artificially tempered living environments no matter the necessity. And no matter the energy costs.

Frank Lloyd Wright probably best summed up the oblivious rationale for under-utilizing insulation when he said that insulation might be worthwhile for roofs, “…whereas the insulation of the walls and the airspace within the walls become less and less important. With modern systems of air conditioning and heating, you can manage almost any condition.” Armed with that unfortunate logic, we spent decades equipping our buildings with the necessary equipment to “manage almost any condition” instead of pursuing better insulation. Wright’s opinion and the long-prevailing paradigm it represents is the major reason the energy consumption of buildings rises well above that of both the transportation and industry sectors as our nation’s number one fuel guzzling, polymorphous beast.

But the building construction piece of the energy sector pie has been decidedly sedentary, an unproductive sloth in comparison to its unending appetite for fuel. Unlike the transportation sector, which must both transport us and condition our indoor environment, buildings need only be designed and constructed to serve us while steadfastly stuck in one spot. They can simply sit there, securing their space on the earth, serving best by being stalwart immovable objects. They don’t take us places by land, sea or air; nor do they do any industrial tasks or produce things for our benefit. As such, buildings haven’t been designed to provide that sort of tangible return for the spent fuels. Instead, the largest proportion of that energy is delivered for the sole purpose of creating habitable (i.e. “comfortable”) environments.

Finding ways to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels is a mighty problem; one that now pulls at us with ever increasing urgency. Some facets of that predicament appear to be overwhelmingly difficult to solve. Ocean freighters and airplanes burn fantastic quantities of fuel to perform their tasks, as do steel mills and chemical plants. It’s hard to imagine how these things ever lose their energy-hogging ways.

Buildings, on the other hand, are easy. Nearly half of their energy demands come from heating and cooling, and most of that usage could be cut dramatically–even eliminated–by making the building envelope tight and adding lots of insulation. So there IS some good news: our biggest energy consuming sector also has the lowest hanging fruit, and lots of it.

We can literally insulate our way to a much brighter energy future while insulating ourselves from the ever-higher cost of energy. Every highly insulated building is an energy miser forever. Every building weaned from fossil fuels is weaned forever. We can keep warm and cool without resorting to the energy-sucking equipment Frank Lloyd Wright wanted to rely on. The new paradigm shift recognizes that if we DON’T insulate sufficiently, we’ll probably be saddled with big, thirsty equipment running constantly at exorbitant financial and ecological cost.

This is one of those world-changing awakenings that doesn’t stem from any kind of brilliance, but instead comes from stupidity having a little less dominance. But it’s important change nevertheless, and it’s at least beginning to overwhelm the reign of ignorance. Builders, architects and homeowners across the country are proving that with enough insulation (including air-tightness) we can use smaller and simpler equipment and eschew fossil fuels entirely.

Insulation is, therefore, the obvious and simple answer to a big problem. Understanding insulation and using it effectively are key to achieving passive comfort and energy independence. There are no technological barriers to insulating our buildings more effectively and thereby lowering our national energy usage dramatically. You’d think that would be the end of it. We’d employ it, solve that problem, and move on to the next one. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy, nor that simple.

First, it’s not that easy because the general public still has little interest in insulation. It’s invisible and boring. Like reinforcement in concrete, it’s often seen as kind of a cost nuisance rather than something you’d want to consider improving. Similarly, “out of sight, out of mind,” aptly explains why people don’t give much consideration to insulation. Knowing too little about the subject, people are often proud to announce that their home meets code requirements, as if that was like acing a test, instead of what it is: the lowest possible passing grade. Where “minimum” sounds like “maximum,”  “better” sounds like overdoing it. So we’ve been stuck insulating most of our buildings at the C- level or less for a long time.

Knowing that, consumer awareness is critical to implementing the massive energy reductions we can achieve with our buildings. President Obama tried to encourage people to have a little more respect for insulation when he jovially declared that it is “sexy stuff,” and “I get really excited about it.” Of course, that was fodder for many days of derision by the critics and comedians. But it’s no joke. We have a ways to go before people will commonly trade their noticeable A+ features for hidden A+ insulation.

Second, it’s not that simple because insulation is a deceptively complicated subject. And that’s the reason for this book. As Alex Wilson points out, “No other building element offers such a diverse range of materials, and complexity of considerations–environmental, human health, performance, and building science.” There are myriad materials, old and new, promising to be the better way to insulate—even as newer “innovative” products are coming out all the time. Attempting to understand the benefits and potential in all these options can easily get confusing and overwhelming.

Like the canoe adventurer (and canoeing author) that he is, Alex is our perfect guide. He’s been exploring both the quiet and turbulent waters of this subject, and delivers here an accessible guidebook that clarifies the issues in his typical objective, authoritative way. With the information packed into this small volume and Alex’s reassuring guidance, we’ll all feel just a bit more comfortable as we continue to chart our own routes toward a steady current of true sustainability in building performance.

Look for Alex Wilson’s important new book from BuildingGreen soon.