Category Archives: Sustainable Design

screenshot-2014-05-16-13-08-55

Homes Matter

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

screenshot-2014-05-16-13-08-55
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.”

 

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.

128

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.

 

 

 

 

Another Unity Home Rises on Connecticut’s Gold Coast

Tradd 134Newsletter Home      Bensonwood Home

It is always rewarding to build for repeat clients, which is the case with our current Unity home in Essex, Connecticut, our seventh since launching the new line of residences in October 2012. The two-story, 2,450 square foot Tradd is Net-Zero ready, is expected to exceed the Passive House standard for air tightness, and like all Unity Homes, can go from foundation to finished home in 30-40 working days.

Our local on-site builder for both Unity homes in Essex, A. Joseph Shea, was instrumental in bringing Bensonwood’s Unity Homes and the two Essex couples together.

Tradd floorplanThis latest Unity, our first Tradd 134, is a 4-bedroom, 3.5 bath shore home customized with solid-sawn Douglas fir timbers and high-end finishes and mechanicals. The custom Tradd will serve as the guest house to the main house; a home for which Bensonwood built an addition back in 2012.

The retirement-age clients had considered building a fully-custom home with Bensonwood, but chose Bensonwood’s sister company, Unity Homes, instead because of its streamlined design-build process. They didn’t want to spend a lot of time making the myriad decisions a full-phase custom design process can require. Instead, they were able to visit Unity’s Walpole, NH facilities and, after just one day of finalizing the design and selecting finishes, moved to contract.

Tradd 134 2nd floor planThe energy-efficient, prefab green home is currently in fabrication at our Blackjack Road facilities, concurrent with the site work. Its weathertight shell will then be raised on site in a matter of days, later this month, and finished during the summer. Like the Xyla, Zūm, and Värm Unity Homes, it features sustainable wood construction, ample use of natural light, low VOC building materials for greater indoor air quality, paints, adhesives, and sealants, as well as dense-pack cellulose insulation, solid, sound dampening construction, and draft-free even-temperature comfort.

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.

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.

 

USDA Supports Sustainable Wood Building Materials for Environment and Jobs

timber in the city
An award-winning “Timber in the City” design by Bensonwood designer Tim Olson using advanced wood building materials such as Cross Laminated Timbers and Glulam Beams.
timber high rise interior
architects rendering of the Courtyard Cathedral
Interiors of the Courtyard Cathedral and its innovative use of wood products. Olson’s engineered wood Courtyard Cathedral was a winner in the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture 2012-2013 competition.

Newsletter Home      Bensonwood Home

Wood—one of the world’s oldest building materials—is now emerging as one of the most advanced. Of course, Bensonwood treasures the natural wood we use in our timber frame homes, but its innovative use in engineered products is already beginning to change the nature of construction across the U.S. by offering alternatives to steel and other high embodied energy building products. By encouraging these advances in wood technology, the United States Department of Agriculture hopes to support President Obama’s Climate Action Plan by preserving the role of forests in mitigating climate change.

At a meeting hosted by the White House Rural Council in March, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced a new partnership to train architects, engineers and builders about the benefits of advanced wood building materials, and plans for a forthcoming prize competition to design and build high-rise wood demonstration projects. The latest engineered wood technologies can be utilized in the construction of tall buildings and skyscrapers as well as in housing projects, improving their energy efficiency and thereby reducing energy consumption for heating and cooling. According to some industry estimates, one 3-5 story building made from the new wood technologies has the same emissions control as taking up to 550 cars off the road for one year.

As an added benefit, stronger demand for innovative new wood products not only supports sustainable forestry practices and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, but also puts rural America at the vanguard of an emergent industry. This has the potential to support more than one million direct jobs, many in non-urban areas, expanding economic opportunities while moving toward greater domestic production and sustainability.

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

Adele Naudee Santos and Tedd Benson

Newsletter Home      Bensonwood Home

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.

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.”

Give Up On Prefab?

When I previously wrote about Montage Homebuilding, I explained why I am no fan of the terms prefab and modular. They represent different objectives and methods in off-site building systems, but both suffer from deep blemishes brought on by their flawed legacies. I therefore announced a new name for our unique off-site fabrication system, which has been assiduously developed to correct—rather than integrate with—the status quo.

sears kit house
A circa 1908 Sears “Modern Homes” mail-order kit house.

The promise of prefabrication has always been the simple proposition of using industrialization advances to bring consumers greater affordability simultaneous with improved quality. And why not? It has already been achieved in most every other consumer products sector from automobiles, to appliances, to furniture, and to, well, nearly everything. Modern manufacturing has indeed scaled quality and value, and buyers have come to expect it because they usually get it.

But in housing, people have instead learned to associate prefabrication and modular manufacturing methods with pigeonholing words like flimsy, toxic, cheap, temporary, limited, compromised and, oddly, to an architectural style: modernist.  Of course, the associations aren’t always deserved, but I argue that most of the off-site building industry continues to do more to reinforce the stereotypes than to overcome them, making the unfortunate perceptions too true, too often.

Naturally, I was quite interested to find a rather provocative article titled, “Why It’s Time to Give Up on Prefab.” The author, Australian architect Chris Knapp, is the director of Built-Environmental Practice, a firm that appears from its website to have a vibrant design practice, both residential and commercial. The article addresses all forms of off-site building under the single word prefabrication, as “the term identifies a range of applications for building and building components of any scale, not just housing. Yet the target of prefabrication has been focused upon housing since the very beginning.” As an architect, Knapp is particularly focused on the fractured history of prefabrication in architecture, which serves both as complement and counterpoint to my design-build perspective.

While we have simply renamed our process “montage” for clarity of intent and to avoid association, Knapp has a more radical point of view: “This is a call for the end of prefabrication.” His argument asserts that there has been too much trying and not enough succeeding, just a “countless series of disappointments.” That point is easy to make because the string of flame-outs is long and includes luminary architects like Buckminster Fuller, Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier. Even Thomas Edison took a crack at it. From these examples and those of many others, a reasonable conclusion is that the promise of prefabrication would not be realized through a singular design or engineering concept. The future of housing was bigger than Le Corbusier’s ego, and while not perhaps as big as Fuller’s, its requirements couldn’t be reduced to his domes. Gropius could not see past Bauhaus ideals, and after attempting to pour concrete into a gigantic house-shaped form to create a monolithic structure, Edison probably realized that lightbulb-scale fail-to-success experiments were more practical.

But these aren’t good reasons to aim bullets at prefab in my opinion, and the contemporary efforts Knapp mentions don’t necessarily deserve that either. Charlie Lazor’s FlatPak house is really very innovative, and mainly suffers from being named for how it is shipped and being defined by a particular style: his. Similarly, Kieran Timberlake’s work is ambitious, creative, and courageous. They are attempting to bring the future forward and are addressing important issues with structure, form, connections, modularity, material relationships, and mechanical systems ahead of their time. If the whole looks irrelevant, as it apparently does to Knapp, in detail there is much to gain from their Loblolly and Cellophane House™ prototypes. I know. We built Loblolly. When you throw out all the conventional assumptions about building systems and design-construction process, you get to a place where there’s a virtuous cycle of innovation, feeding on itself. It wasn’t intended to be the solution, but to be a learning laboratory for finding solutions, and between Kieran Timberlake and our team, we found many. There’s a good video about the Loblolly vision and process here.

Loblolly buidling phases
The Loblolly House building process: a pod in the Bensonwood factory, pods being positioned and connected on-site, and the finished project on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

 

 

 

 

 

So the failure of prefab is not specifically in the bumpy history of flaws and failures. That’s how things get improved. Instead, it fails when architects want to shrink it down to their vision, and when an entire sector of architecture attempts to be defined by it, which is a self-limiting cage both to the modernist style itself and to the prefab moniker it wants to own. Stuck in that cage, prefab has had trouble freeing itself for broader duty in more traditional forms, as modernist proponents want the construction system to look like the buildings they love rather than an efficient, quality enhancing building process.

Though he tried, Knapp can’t quite kill the idea of prefab. As he says, “…one must reflect upon this series of utopian misfires in prefabrication’s evolution and wonder why architects have not managed to capitalize effectively upon the platform.” He seems to overlook the possibility that it isn’t about architects. It can live with them, but it is a construction method, not a design style, and therefore is not dependent on their influence, and absolutely will do better without their dominance. Inadvertently, he says so himself by pointing out that prefabrication is successful in Japan and Scandinavia. In both those cases, homebuilding companies design homes as products and sell them through catalogs and models by the thousands. And what do they get for it? Ask a Swede, in whose country they have the highest standard of housing in the world. Or inspect a Japanese house, where production efficiency is unparalleled and defects are as unacceptable as they are in their cars.

Moreover, Knapp overlooked other North American successes that also aren’t architect dominated. It is well known that Sears and Montgomery Ward sold so many houses throughout the U.S. in the first decades of the 20th century that many towns are still greatly defined by their style and influence. The ubiquity of catalog commerce, as well as the incredible convenience of rail delivery in those years, made the popular architectural styles of that period available in nearly every corner of the country.  They clearly played a role in the proliferation of the Arts and Crafts homes, most notably, but also the spare, pragmatic American Foursquare style, which gets little attention these days, but visits my dreams often, as I grew up in a wonderful Foursquare home built in 1895, before the catalog home years.

The other giant of prefab in that era was the E.F. Hodgson Company from Dover, Massachusetts. They started earlier than Sears or Montgomery Ward and also developed a more sophisticated modular system (below), which allowed them to deliver the building in more complete panels. Since many of their homes were shipped overseas, they are less well known, but it’s possible that their production was greater than Sears. My wife’s parents lived in a Hodgson home in New York and thought its quality excellent. There were other off-site homebuilding companies in that era (Aladdin Ready-Cut Houses, for instance), but these three were the largest, and accounted for perhaps 250,000 to 300,000 homes between them. Not to belabor the point, but none of these companies were founded, managed, or in any way controlled, by architects.

Hodgson Kit House
An E.F. Hodgson modular house

In the end, Knapp turns against his own theme and argues for the continuation of off-site building:

“The concept and practice of fabricating architectural elements in either part or whole under conditions separated from the contingencies of the construction site is now more important and relevant to gain efficacy as a profession today than ever before. Architects should continue to pre-build off-site, out of the weather, out of harm’s way, and in the most intelligent manner possible. This should include trusses, insulating sandwich panels, curtain walls and modular concepts, but the result needs to be considered, implemented and promoted with greater sophistication.”

That’s a very strong argument for, not against, off-site building. But depending on his meaning, I’m not sure I agree with the words I highlighted. Architects typically don’t actually build their designs, and therefore I don’t think it should be assumed that the off-site fabrication operations should be the purview of architects. For the most part, that has not worked. On the other hand, successful off-site fabrication companies usually depend on architects and professional designers to create beautiful and functional home designs.

Finally, I fully agree that the “the result needs to be considered, implemented and promoted with greater sophistication.”

So should we give up on prefab? Perhaps not. Let’s just elevate it “with greater sophistication” and call it montage.

 

Vision 2020

This year I had the honor of serving as the co-chair of the Building Design + Performance sector of the Vision 2020 project, which was conceived and organized by EcoBuilding Pulse. The idea of this important project is “to set and track critical metrics and milestones by which housing must adjust its business-as-usual paradigm” in order to meet the 2020 milestone goals of the widely accepted mandate of the 2030 Challenge.

Architecture 2030 established the 2030 Challenge to incrementally increase environmental benchmark stringency to significantly lower the carbon footprint caused by buildings, in their creation, renovation and service. It is clear that buildings are contributing greatly to climate change, but since by 2035, 75% of buildings will either be renovated or built in these intervening years, we have an opportunity to correct the problem. So it’s extremely important for our industry to do all that we can to meet the Challenge objectives.

The ten Vision 2020 chairs, along with Katie Weeks and Rick Schwolsky of HanleyWood, met by conference call on several occasions, and ultimately came together to share our respective thoughts in a day-long presentation Summit held in Washington D.C. in September. That event was followed by an essay from each chair, which additionally summarized our research and thoughts regarding our respective sectors and the 2020 milestone.

It was challenging to attempt to contribute on an equal level with my fellow chairs. For example, my co-chair was Allison Ewing of Hays+Ewing Design Studio. She’s an extremely accomplished architect, having previously worked with Renzo Piano, Cesar Pelli, and as a partner at William McDonough + Partners, before establishing her own firm with Christopher Hays. Allison is quiet and humble, but that’s easily offset by her confident, expressive, and profound body of work.  But even without that, Allison proved that some people need few words to say a lot.

The other fellow chairs were equally intimidating and inspiring, including Dennis Creech, who was the 2013 recipient of the Hanley Award for Vision and Leadership in Sustainable Housing.  Dennis has been a sustainable building leader for 30 years and embodies so much about what is good and right in our industry. He’s never wavered in his commitment and, along with his Southface staff, has significantly moved the bar up year after year by doing the research, working in the trenches on policy and programs, and simply teaching the industry how to build better. To say he’s a hard act to follow in a speaking lineup is putting it mildly.

But follow Dennis I did, as well as all my other chairs. I spoke last and did my best to punctuate the point that our task is urgent and we should be moving toward a better sustainability standard quicker as have most of the solutions at our fingertips. As usual, the paradigm shift needed is about values and belief, and not so much about innovation and technology.

In the end, I made three contributions to the Vision 2020 program this year. The first was a webinar on the Open-Building topic with Dr. Stephen Kendall. The second was my “Tedd Talk” at the Summit and the third was an essay roughly following the theme of the talk. There are links to all of them, below. The EcoHome issue with all of the essays is now on the stands.

Following these links, I have added a link to all of the Summit essays. You could spend time in much worse ways than reading insights from some of our industry’s sustainable building luminaries talking about what we need to do to build safer, healthier, more durable and energy efficient buildings…now.

Webinar: Building Design + Performance | Open Building: A Critical Component in Sustainable, High-Performance Housing

Tedd Benson of Bensonwood Homes and Stephen Kendall, Ph.D., of Infill Systems US, explore the concept of open building and how its wide-spread adoption could change how we design homes going forward, creating more flexibility and durability.

 

VISION 2020 talk

We Must Change How We Operate

Tedd Benson lays out the options for addressing climate change. Plan A: Change the way we build and do so quickly. Plan B: There is no plan B.Read More

VISION 2020 essay (photo is scary)

It is Time to be Disruptive

Full 2020 Summit program:

Vision 2020 Introduction

Energy Efficiency + Building Science: Dennis Creech on what to do with existing homes

Building Design + Performance: Allison Ewing, AIA, on how we must adapt in order to prosper.

Indoor Environmental Quality: Marilyn Black on how we must balance energy and health.

Materials + Products: Tom Lent on how material transparency is just the beginning.

Water Efficiency: Paula Kehoe on how we must rethink water use and sources.

Economics + Financing: Robert Sahadi asks “Will green become the new granite?”

Codes, Standards + Rating Systems: Mark Frankel, AIA, LEED Fellow explains why we need outcome-based policies.

Sustainable Communities: John Norquist on the need to bring back Main Street, U.S.A.

Energy Efficiency + Building Science: Mark LaLiberte on how we must commit to education and training

Building Design + Performance: Tedd Benson asserts that all that we do must change.

 

Open Building Now!

I recently had an interview with freelance writer, Kiva Bottero.  During the interview, we talked first about Open Building and our Open-Built “operating system,” and then went on to discuss our new Unity Homes company.  Kiva has reported on portions of the interview in Green Building Canada as well as in his blog Green Home Gnome. A further report will be coming out soon in Buildipedia.

Since Kiva did a good job of teasing out a good amount of information about some important topics, I’m publishing the whole interview here in two parts. The first part, for this post, is about Open Building.   TB

KB: Open Building means different things to different people. How does your Open-Built® implementation of Open Building fit in with the vision Habraken set forth?

TB: The unfortunate fact is that Open Building doesn’t mean much of anything to most people, and even more unfortunately, that includes most professionals in the homebuilding industry.  I wish there were more discussions about the meaning of Open Building, but the conversations are really much more basic at this point, as there is very little awareness about one of the most important industry ideas that, if understood and applied, could move homebuilding process and product to a better place.

Our adoption of the Open Building principles follows Habraken’s ideas quite closely, but we have then extended the implementation with our own ideas to address current design and building practice and the particular issues in the contemporary American homebuilding industry, including building science, engineering and technology.

Our launch of the Open-Built system began with Habraken himself. He came to New Hampshire in the early 1990’s and gave a thorough seminar to our staff. The seminar grew out of a series of discussions between Habraken and I. He was working at MIT (Head of Department of Architecture) and living in Cambridge, MA at the time, so getting together was pretty convenient. By the time he gave the seminar, he was able to cast the Open Building ideas in a way that made them directly relevant to our company’s design and building systems. His generous efforts pushed us forward pretty quickly. What we do today was born from our personal interaction with Habraken, which continues today. I most recently saw Habraken when I gave a talk on Open Building at a conference in Boston last year. It was an honor to have him present.

John-Habraken-01

KB: What benefits does Open Building contribute to the design and building process?

TB: In Habraken’s words, one of the fundamental objectives of Open Building is to restore the ‘natural relation’ between building form and the inhabitants. Design tends to assume that the inhabitants’ lives are generic. Buildings are so fixed in their aesthetics and function that people must adapt to buildings, because buildings have not been made to be adaptable to the people who live in them.  Here’s an important disconnect to acknowledge: buildings are for people, yet people tend to be dynamic and ever-changing, while buildings tend to be static and thwart change. The central tenet of Open Building addresses this problem by seeking to separate the base building (“support”) from the interior fit-out (infill). The former is long term, durable and relatively static; the latter is viewed as mutable, ever-changing and relatively dynamic.

There are two parts to the OB proposition. First, in the process, the supports side of the building is seen as public, long term, and involves regulation and professional skills to create a durable and sustainable structure that will be an asset to the community as well as its owners. The infill, on the other hand, is seen as private and should be in the full control of its occupants. It is designed for occupant control, and is designed and organized to reinvigorate the “natural relation” that people should have with their living environment. Second, in the product of the home, the result is a “disentanglement” between the long term and short term (base building and infill), and inevitably between numerous building “layers” that live in time differently.

layers

From this essential philosophical idea flows a whole host of solutions, from organizational rationale that can revolutionize design methodology, to unique building systems that will radically alter assumptions about the process of building.

KB: Can you give an example of how it benefits home owners?

TB: Open Building is intended to ease–and even facilitate–renovation, upgrade and change as the occupants’ desire and require. The central idea is to allow the building to adapt to changing needs, changing technology and changing fashion.  There are two important added advantages: it makes the construction process more efficient since there is less entanglement and more open access, while also allowing the owners to finish the building as they can afford it rather than being forced to finish the entire home during construction because of the inherent entanglement.

KB: Does it benefit the community or environment in any way?

TB: By separating the base building from the infill, the focus for the underlying structure is on long term durability, which is the essence of sustainability. We believe there should be a 250 year standard (at least) which Open Building encourages because it allows constant renewal for the occupants but seeks to keep the structure inviolate.

In addition, since the infill is designed for renewal and access, there is more opportunity for parts, components and equipment that are all demountable, reusable and recyclable.

So the community gets a long term asset, the occupants get a building that adapts to them, and the environment benefits from less demolition and the usual landfill impact.

KB: What impact does Open Building have on the communication process between the various people involved in the building of a home and the home owner?

TB: Since an OB building is more organized, and there’s much more access to the service and finish layers, there’s less anxiety about making all decisions and predicting the near and long term future, because the short term and long term aspects of the building are not entangled.  The homeowner simply has more control even if the initial considerations turn out to not be accurate.  The result is that the homeowner isn’t so pressured because design and process decisions are not weighty with finality.

KB: The Open Prototype Initiative that you are taking part in seeks to prototype the future of homebuilding. How are you working towards this goal?

TB: The recession has slowed down the Open Prototype progress, but we have decided to accelerate it despite current conditions by launching a new company called Unity Building Technologies, and under it, the Unity Homes brand. It is a direct outgrowth of the Open Prototype project and is named for the second one at Unity College. We intend to pursue the future of homebuilding in actual homes that people can buy. The first two Unity homes are under construction now.  More will be built this spring. We think this effort will be extremely successful, as all these homes will be off-site built to higher standards than any typical home, and will also display the Open-Built advantages.

Check unityhomes.com

KB: The popularity of open source software propagates the notion that “open” means free and accessible by all to use. Your Open-Built system is registered as a trademark, so is the Open Prototype Initiative aimed at opening up this process of building to the whole building industry to freely use?

TB: Open Building and Open-Built have the occupant/homeowner in mind for the use of the word “open,” but in fact there’s much about Open Building that must be widely accessible if it’s going to be widely adopted. The basis for Open-Built is what I call an Operating System, which includes a 3D grid and interface/connection standards. This is where the industry needs to come together to create an environment in which suppliers, manufacturers, designers, and builders can all make, create, and deploy with a host of agreed upon standards. This will make good design more available and good building parts, components and equipment more affordable.  In the coming year, we intend to make a formal proposal in this regard and we’ll invite everyone to participate.


KB: You state in your 2003 White Paper, “What is Open Building?” that the theories, practices and projects in residential open building are largely unknown, even within the building industry. What would you most like builders to know about open building?

 

TB: Open Building is a disruptive idea. It inherently unseats the status quo assumptions about how design and construction should proceed. The main thing I want builders to know is that the change is coming (just as it has in every other industrial activity) and they can either be victims or beneficiaries of the inevitable.


KB: Why do you feel builders have been so slow to adopt the principles of open building?

TB: Not just slow. Complete denial or ignorance. I suppose the guilty parties are people like me who understand Open Building and believe deeply in its value and industry changing power. We just haven’t done a good enough job of spreading the word and demonstrating. As we move our new Unity Homes company to scale, we intend to change that.