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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Custom home design will be free (currently is)
- The typical build time will be 20 working days (currently 30-35)
- Living in a home can be free of utility costs and also generate energy for transportation. (currently no fossil fuels, net zero capable)
- 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)
- 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.