Category Archives: Montage Prefab

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

solar panels on Unity Homes

unity homes kitchen

Newsletter Home      Bensonwood Home

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?

Montage Homebuilding

Words matter and the words that are used to identify the current off-site construction methods are insufficient by definition, and tainted by association. Here at Bensonwood and Unity Homes, we have long been uncomfortable with the terms used for off-site building fabrication methods. It’s usually either “modular” or “prefab,” and both have muddy meaning because of the diversity in practice, and both come with some negative baggage. Modular refers to the built volumes that are trucked on the highway like carcasses of beached whales, and prefab mostly connotes a modernist style, with an indeterminate percentage of value-added in off-site value actually accomplished in the prefabrication process.

The segment of the construction industry referenced by those two categories is wholly failing in three significant ways.

1. They represent only 2-5% of the new home construction, and therefore aren’t making much of an impact. The low percentage of actual built product is caused by #2, and is just as well because of the damage inflicted in #3.

2.  Modular and prefab aren’t bringing the sort of fundamental quality and cost improvement to the industry that’s needed. Neither segment is doing enough to use the off-site manufacturing control advantage to bring real and much-needed improvements to the quality of homes.

Modular is a building method in which whole houses or fractional 3D portions of them are constructed indoors instead of outdoors. The factories are predictably huge to house multiple volumes in production, and the process in the factories typically mirrors the on-site process, albeit under roof. Modular building has the benefit of controlling work conditions and the interaction of trade functions, but it also imposes inherent compromise by forcing architectural outcomes to the constraints of highway shipping rules. Inevitably, the widest, longest and tallest commonly trucked loads are modular buildings. They are the bane of the highway system; the ones with the escort cars, flashing lights, flapping building wrap, and often spilling over into both the adjacent lane and the road shoulder.*

Of course, there are some good things happening in the modular building segment, especially in commercial construction, where modules are typically only one aspect of a more extensive off-site strategy, not the entire solution. In addition, there are a few modular homebuilders working to raise the standards for modular building, and I certainly applaud their efforts and hope for their success. It’s sorely needed.

But the bottom line is that modular homebuilding in this country is the industry sector bringing the very worst building standards to consumers. This unfortunate fact infects the whole industry with the consumer preconception of an affordable, but low tier product. It’s the Twinkie of housing: it doesn’t cost much, but it’s not good for you either.

The specialized HUD code for manufactured housing is like one big loophole that you can drive a big modular box through. What is most impressive about these modular “houses” is their uncanny ability to aggregate the very worst, most toxic, self-destructing building materials on the market into one complete package. It is seen as virtuous by some that these homes are “affordable” enough to increase home ownership for lower income people, but it’s really just a bad deal for those who can least afford it.  The homes are typically flimsy, defect-ridden, energy hogs; making the cost of ownership high and the value of the investment low.

Prefab is generally serving the other end of the financial spectrum where cost is less important than style. Dwell Magazine is all about Prefab, for example. These homes are hip, modernist and often associated with particular architects. The consumer perception is that prefab offers contemporary design in a more accessible way, and/or offers green values rather than cost and quality benefits. Of course, there’s no single standard among the prefab companies, but prefab oriented companies typically are only prefabricating a small percentage of the building off-site, leaving most of the conventional construction process and players to build as usual, with only a modest time advantage.  It seems the real important benefit for the consumer is to get the “kit” they want to help ensure the outcome will be as they imagined.

Prefab is a good idea, but it needn’t be about style only, and ought to bring more value to the finished product. It’s not enough.

3.   Finally, the industry segment associated with modular and prefab construction is wholly failing to create good jobs. This is the worst failure in my mind, and gives further insight about #1 and #2. The employee turnover and absentee rates for those sectors of the construction industry is not only worse than the rest of the construction industry (which is in itself very bad compared to other industries), but is (or was, in 2005) worse than ANY other industry at 61%.** This is inexcusable. Nothing good can come out of a building system that depends on low pay, low skills, and bad working conditions to achieve financial success.

Even if I spend more time talking and writing, I still think of myself as a carpenter. That’s where my heart is. My objectives in this business have always been to develop a better way to build. That “better way” must result in much better homes that will bring real quality of life improvements to the occupants, but it also must elevate the builders themselves because the building profession is so critical to our civilization. After all, it’s about how we live.

For all three of the above reasons, we don’t think the modular and prefab are terms that come close to describing our off-site oriented methodology, our values, or our long term mission. We are lowering costs, raising quality, reducing energy requirements, removing defects, compressing time, increasing inhabitant control and living environment adaptability.  And to ensure that it all just gets better and better, we are committed to creating good jobs.

The narrow definitions, fuzzy mission, and erratic outcomes of modular and prefab are inadequate and too limiting. In addition, their typical work cultures take the industry in the wrong direction. We have a different philosophy and a different process. It’s smarter than modular and more complete than prefab. In our process, we are trying to pack as much completeness and value as possible into a discrete number of building elements that can result in an efficient, quick, uncompromised, on-site assembled home. In essence, the special “recipe” of our method is intended to raise the standards in every dimension, including the work culture in the once noble profession of building.

Now we need a name for it.

With an insight provided by my friend Scott Hedges, we have decided to use the Swedish term for off-site building. It’s a word that cuts across languages. Its reference to building means substantially the same thing in German, and it has similar connotations in French, Japanese and English. As we have benefited from direct influence and technology from all of those countries to develop our work culture and building process, we might as well blend in some of the language as well.

That Swedish word is “montage,” and it means “assemble.” Montage is also a close synonym for assemble in English. In fact, one of the dictionary.com definitions is a good description of our building process: “.. combination of disparate elements that forms … a unified whole.” In Sweden, an off-site built home is called a “montagehus,” which directly translates to “assembly house.” In Germany, the process of building a house with off-site assemblies is called “montage,” and the crew doing the work is also the “montage” crew. Following the Swedes and Germans, we could use the English word “assembly,” but it would be equally difficult to put into practice and doesn’t sound as nice.

Besides, the Swedes have a right to ownership of the appropriate word for this construction method. The vast majority of their homes are built the montage way, and their build quality and performance standards are incredibly high, arguably the best commonly built standard of residential construction in the world.  It’s well understood in Sweden that Montagehus is how you get that quality.

Therefore, at Bensonwood and Unity Homes, we humbly adopt montage for our design and construction system, with its hard-won association of achieving the highest possible standards through a system of construction that is an efficient, quality-focused assembly process. We also think it’s a better term because the essence of our process is, in fact, assembly, or montage. First we montage (assemble) the designs from a library of virtual “Lego” elements; then we montage (assemble) the CNC-cut (Computer Numerical Control) parts and pieces in our production studio into the same elements (structural members, panels, cartridges, pods, modules, etc); and finally, we montage (assemble) the elements on the site to create the completed building.

So Montage it is. Montage building is the basis of the best world standard for residential construction, and that’s where we’re planting our flag too.

We imagine the adoption of montage will lead to a variety of usages:

“A montage house”

“Montage home”

“Montage construction”

“Montage building”

“Montage crew”

…and we hope something like..

“I won’t settle for less than montage quality.”

The most important thing is that we have a different term to help us distinguish the quality of building and the quality of job that are essential to the Bensonwood history and the Unity vision. These two objectives lean on each other for success. You can’t create good jobs with a bad product. Good jobs only pair with the creation of good products. And the reverse is true as well. Good, industry disrupting products cannot be created unless the people doing the work have good jobs (with good pay, benefits and working conditions) that require discipline, skills, knowledge and a dedication to constant improvement.

It’s past time to disrupt the stale homebuilding paradigm. The process should invite people in, not lock them out; should be fun, not scary; certain, not risky; life improving, not stress-inducing; empowering, not dependency-increasing; a safe and healthy sanctuary, not a health threat and a daily burden. Homes should be spas of comfort and security that are a joy and honor to build. That’s our mission. And we think it’s not different than the desire all people have to create their own “nest,” to have personal control of the place where they live. That’s embedded in our DNA and a human right.

It’s time for montage homebuilding.

 

* As a bicyclist, I’ve had close calls with these monsters in the past. I now worry that they’ll be coming after me purposely.

** In an industry sponsored study (MHRA 2005), they found that Manufactured Housing in the USA, has absenteeism that is 6%, twice that of the overall industrialized sector; and the level of employee turnover is 61%- far greater than any other industry (e.g. 28% in construction and 17% in manufacturing).