Category Archives: Tedd Benson

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).

A Better Standard

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

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

Part II

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

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

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

BWChouse1

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

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

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

tracthouse1

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

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

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

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

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

BWCproduction

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.

unityinterior

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.

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.