Tag Archives: Unity Homes

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.

Seriously?

In my last post, I vented a little about the cover of the largest professional homebuilding magazine (Byline, “Smart Building Starts Here”) depicting a construction site that might have been exceptional 100 years ago, but today should be an industry embarrassment, not a magazine cover. Finding that the photo proudly displayed on the cover was only part of the reason for my dismay.

The home under construction was to be the “New American Home,” the featured model home at the International Builders Show.  Its purpose is to show off the latest process and products our industry has to offer.

For a refresher, here is that magazine cover with story about the model project under construction, apparently a paragon image of 21st century homebuilding. The reality is building materials in the dirt, guys cutting and shaping each and every piece that goes into the building (awkwardly, with small tools), and no organization that systematically improves quality or achieves better efficiency.

What we really see is the lurch into yet another century of homebuilding evolution, still  unimpeded by progress.

SMALL Builder002“The New American Home” that was the outcome of that site construction was also 7,000 square feet, and that represents the other side of the American problem in homebuilding. Big is more important than good.  My intent was to address the building process problem, but readers were more repulsed by the size. After all, as a model intended to be an exemplar, we can probably keep building in inefficient ways, and we can keep giving the American public less housing quality  than they need and deserve, but we can’t keep building that big. So I get it.

Nevertheless, I’m surprised that people take for granted the inherent anachronism of the typical homebuilding process.  Yet its stasis in the context of contemporary technology and worldwide manufacturing advancement is so pervasive that its lack of progress is invisible, and its inefficient and ineffective reality is widely accepted, and sometimes even lauded as evidence of craft. I see an emperor with no clothes; others say he’s always been naked and that’s what makes him so kingly.

Here are two homes I recently saw under construction in the mid-west.

KSjobsite1

Ksjobsite2

Take a minute. Study those photos, as if you were managing the efficiency and quality of a process that matters immensely to the life and economics of our society. Just look at those two sites! Look at the guys sorting through the “pick-up-sticks” in the upper photo. What could they possibly be doing, and who’s paying for it? What do you think about their care of the materials? In the second photo, the dumpster size speaks volumes, and we have more sticks in the dirt, and a guy carrying a single framing member over his shoulder. Why is any of this so accepted in 2014? In any other industry where quality and efficiency matters a company employing this sort of manufacturing standard would be out of business in a nano-second.

As a builder who has spent his professional life trying to improve building quality, I find all of the above examples rather alarming, as I do the home quality standard that usually is the process outcome.  But I guess I’m in the minority.

The final photo is even more revealing. My co-worker, Hans Porschitz, was looking for a photo of the standard building process to add to a  presentations he is doing. In his Google search, he found an article from the Wall Street Journal from 2012, titled: Housing Starts Surge as Confidence Grows. The point of the article was that home construction was starting to come back strong and that all was beginning to look good for building construction. Great news, which at the time people like me read with deep interest, hoping the long recession malaise would finally end. But here’s the kicker: look at the photo that illustrated that positive news about homebuilding:

Our Homebuilding Standard

Seriously? I don’t know where to start, but apparently the editors at the WSJ thought this was an appropriate iconic photo to illustrate the positive bustle of an industry coming out of the doldrums and now thriving again. Aren’t you glad? Would you want to own that house? Is this how much our homes matter to us? How long will we accept these wooden tents adorned with facades of drywall and garnished with amenities? A few things come to me:

  • There’s not a legal labor rate low enough to justify the methods.
  • They don’t care about the construction materials at all.
  • Waste is no problem.
  • There is no pride with anyone there or it would look different.
  • None of these people care anything about OSHA safety regulations, much less their own safety.
  • What else do you see?

Honestly, I just don’t understand it, but this IS the American way of building and we as a society apparently take it for granted that this is as it should be.  There’s an industry and cultural assumption that it’s the best we can do, I guess. The first photo is from the number one homebuilding industry trade magazine, and the last one is from our number one business newspaper. Our country, therefore, obviously thinks our homebuilding process is just hunky-dory.

But when you think about it, is it any wonder that: building construction has become the last refuge of the otherwise unemployable, and certainly doesn’t make any list of desirable careers for young people? …that natural disasters lay whole communities flat? …that the typical American home is an energy sieve? ..and a maintenance nightmare? …that there is typically at least a 15% defect rate (structure, safety, health, not cosmetic) when other industries are chasing fractions of 1%?

Homes DO matter. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, our culture creates our homes, thereafter our homes create our culture. The need for urgency is far more important than only energy and sustainability; it’s about the soul of who we are.

We CAN and therefore must do better. Much better. There are many of us working “in the trenches” to bring a better destiny to American homebuilding, and that includes all my associates at Bensonwood and Unity Homes, who have dedicated our professional lives to that proposition.

Though the enemy–a recalcitrant, misaligned industry–is strong, we will prevail. Better homebuilding is coming to America.

 

 

 

 

 

The Seeds of Sustainable Entrepreneurship: Finding Your Way in a Turbulent World

Hannah Grimes lecture

This is the keynote speech I gave at the Hannah Grimes Center’s 8th Annual CONNECT Event in Walpole, New Hampshire, celebrating the connections between business, local economy and community.

I posted this video here because I think it is valuable to understand not only the 40-year history and evolution of Bensonwood and the genesis of our off-site manufactured, high-performance Unity Homes. I also underscore where we are going as a company and more importantly, the value of sustainable business, even when facing the tough reality of yet another “Hoosac Mountain” in the craft of business.

My speech, “The Seeds of Sustainable Entrepreneurship: Finding Your Way in a Turbulent World,” also touches on themes of unreasonable perseverance, the rewards of working without a “Plan B” and the value of entrepreneurs working under the “useful delusion” that their undertakings are easily achievable, and not at all risky.

 

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.”

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.

 

 

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.