Martin Luther King Day: Bensonwood Story

To company associates and friends:

Today, both Bensonwood and Unity Homes are observing Martin Luther King Day as a paid holiday. This started for us in the mid-1980’s, so the institutional memory about what prompted that decision is starting to fade. It’s a personal saga, as much as it is a piece of company history, so I’m going to use my time off today to tell you the whole story.

The short version is that although Martin Luther King Day was signed into law as a federal holiday in 1983, New Hampshire and a few other states held out.  A few years later, when there was yet more news about NH politicians stalling the decision and proclaiming the illegitimacy of Dr. King and the holiday, we decided (in 1985 or 1986, I think) that we could declare it as one of our paid holidays to honor MLK and to recognize the importance of the continuing struggle for racial equality. It was a small act of defiance about our state’s position, but it was at least something we could do to demonstrate our beliefs on the matter. We also just may have been the first New Hampshire company to honor MLK Day as a paid holiday.

Unfortunately and embarrassingly, New Hampshire was the very last state to recognize MLK Day, and it didn’t officially happen until 2000. But about 15 years earlier, we did our best to set the right example.

Now, for the back story. Why is Martin Luther King Day so important to us? Why did I insist that we observe it when New Hampshire was refusing to do so?

It begins in my youth. I was brought up to believe in civil rights and social justice, and to understand that as a country, there has always been a big gaping divide between our fundamental founding principles and our actions in policy and practice. We were also taught to believe that justice and truth will eventually prevail, and to have faith in the inherent goodness of mankind.

My dad and mom were ardent Christians, and believed that racial discrimination is deeply unjust and un-Christian, and that the outcomes in suffering and poverty offends the teachings of Christ, and our very humanity.  My dad was a “lifetime” member of the NAACP, a dedication that began when he and my mom discovered in the 1950’s that traveling African-Americans could not get a hotel room, and had to find alternative lodging with “good Samaritans” like them.

Through the years, we learned about various civil rights events at the dinner table conversations and as a subject of prayer. We didn’t have a TV in those early years, but my dad would rent one on special occasions, and we’d watch transfixed, even if the technology was the main attraction. Very often, the TV rental was stimulated by the civil rights issues of the late 50’s and 60’s, including the March on Washington in 1963 and MLK’s great “I have a Dream” speech, the Selma marches of 1965, and other events. The importance of the fight for racial justice was seared into my memory and consciousness.

I went to college (Colorado State University) with the intention to play football, and although I was doing well enough, I ended up disliking the program, partially because they wanted me to be 30 pounds heavier and doing less academically in order to “concentrate on football.” There’s more to this, but the point is I quit the team, and when I told the coach (Mike Lude), his reply became a source of motivation ever since: “Benson, you’re throwing your life away!” I didn’t think so.

The big reason I quit football is that I had an idea. I knew nearly all of the blacks on campus because they were either on the football team or the basketball team, or related to someone on those teams.  For a campus of 12,000+ students, the tiny minority population was just wrong. There were serious issues involving discrimination and a lack of commitment by a state institution to integrate appropriately. Therefore, I thought we could do something about it, and together with some friends, we founded the Committee on Racial and Ethnic Equality (CREE) to bring attention to the problems, and support the minorities on campus. My two co-founders in the organization were David Williams and Meredith Springs. We accomplished a lot, and certainly raised awareness with the administration and students. We even helped to get funding for a program to bring more minorities to campus, and played a key role in its functions and execution.

Eventually, I was appointed to be the Director of Race Relations for the student government, and maintained an office in the middle of the Student Center, that became the center for CREE and other minority student activity.

In the spring of 1968, David Williams and I were invited to be delegates of CSU to attend a conference in Washington D.C. on race relations issues. Instead, we found ourselves engulfed in one of the most tragic events in American civil rights history. We arrived at roughly the same time Martin Luther King was killed. As we were making our way to the conference venue and our lodging at American University, riots erupted. David and I found ourselves in the middle of the tempest in the streets. Ironically, in that situation we were both frightened about being vulnerable because of the color of our skin.  We survived with different stories about which one of us was heroic, but there was no conference other than the one out in the streets. Martin Luther King was dead, and at that moment his legacy was uncertain.

When we got back to CSU, David, Meredith and I organized a march in honor of Dr. King. David remembers that some professors joined in as we moved along, and we were a little irked that they seemed to want to “lead” the march. I don’t remember that, but I do remember that it grew significantly and felt meaningful and important. I also remember that it was solemn and peaceful and tearful. Martin Luther King, whose work and words I had followed in belief and action, was dead.

From that moment in my life to the founding a building company in New Hampshire was a twisty, weird path, but that’s what happened. I like very much what I’m doing now and believe in it immensely, but I don’t like the lack of racial and cultural diversity in this corner of the world and I miss my friends, neighbors, and colleagues from those former times. My geography has changed; the racial mix of my community as changed; but my core beliefs and values have not. The struggle for racial equality is not over. Dr. King’s dream isnot fulfilled. It is the very least we can do to acknowledge the martyrdom of the man, and do our part to ensure that his famous words will eventually be true:

“The arc of the moral universe is strong, but it bends toward justice.”

 old days009old days008

old days010






The New Guilded Age

All that is wrong with the conventional building industry becomes clearer when you see it through the bright lens of a better way. I’ve been thinking a lot about what is right and wrong as we say goodbye to our latest French Compagnon-in-training, Thomas Beauvillain, who has been with us this past year. We wrote a little story about Thomas and the Compagnons in an earlier newsletter, but it’s worth reviewing a few of the key pieces of the story here.

Thomas Beauvillain
Thomas Beauvillain

The Compagnons du Devoir (Companions of Duty) is a 900 year old guild of French artisans. Its roots go back to the golden age of building, an era during which many of the architectural treasures we so admire today were constructed, including grand manor halls, cathedrals, barns, houses, and public buildings, now 500 to 1000 years old. The Compagnon tradition of training deeply for knowledge, skills, discipline, and character development are the basis for the attitude and competency that were considered to be necessary requirements for master craftsmen challenged to create what has become many of western civilization’s architectural icons.For a prime example of such buildings, think of the Notre Dame Cathedral, which started construction 851 years ago. It displays the paragon of craftsmanship, engineering, sustainability, and design that doesn’t yet have any obvious contemporary peers, but has many from that amazing period.

Notre Dame cathedral
Notre Dame cathedral

Monumental buildings like the Notre Dame cathedral were made possible because the training for craftsmen who built them was rigorous. They understood that their intention to make great buildings would depend on people with great skills, and great skills, in turn, requires extensive knowledge combined with personal discipline and evolved character traits such as perseverance, patience, humility, and respect. After all, these were people who invested their lives in creating gifts to the future. Very often, the massive projects took 100+ years to build, and so many of the craftsmen did not even live to see their work completed.

While the history of Europe in the Middle Ages was an earlier version of Mark Twain’s “Gilded Age” on steroids, with the very meaning of the word civilization in question, it was also the “Guilded Age” in the development of artisanry in many crafts and trades that set standards of art, precision, and durability that are hard to emulate centuries later. For instance, with all our advanced engineering knowledge and sophisticated tooling and technology, we modern day timberframers look at amazing work in such buildings as Notre Dame and Westminster Hall and realize we are still raw apprentices in comparison.

Westminster Hall
Westminster Hall

The Compagnon du Devoir program has continued through the centuries (they were called upon for the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty), and is still active today. If we think buildings matter to our civilization, you’d think such a training program would be obvious, sensible, and essential, yet nothing like it exists in North America.

Especially in residential building, unfortunately the opposite culture is dominant. In many of our trades, you don’t need to know anything at all, and the devolution is so complete that the intent to know is considered elitist, and caring is “kissing up.”  If you aren’t close to our construction industry, you may think I’m exaggerating, but this is real and true, and it comes from both the supply and demand side. The industry cuts costs by hiring unskilled labor, and those who are hired under those kinds of motivations have no incentive to become learners– a classic vicious cycle. One of the typical job site cynical comments is, “They pretend to pay us, so we pretend to work,” but the other more unspoken version is, “They pay us only for our bodies, so we leave our brains at home.”

Recognizing both the void and an opportunity, for the past 21 years, our company has tapped into the Compagnon culture and training. Through Boris Noel, an amazingly talented French carpenter who found his way to us in the early 1990’s, we discovered the remarkable “product” of the Compagnon training, and the deep benefit of being linked into an unbroken chain of knowledge and craft culture development. With thanks to Boris, we were subsequently accepted into their program of apprenticeship “tour” companies, and therefore have had the privilege of hosting young Compagnons during their training years, and have taken advantage of it whenever possible over the past couple of decades.

“Our” compagnons:

Boris Noel
Boris Noel
Remi Chadron
Remi Chadron
Julien Worms
Julien Worms
Emmanuel Jego
Emmanuel Jego
Bruno Sutter
Bruno Sutter
Group of visiting young compagnons
Group of visiting young compagnons

Under the immigration rules, we usually are able to have the apprentice Compagnons with us for 9 to 12 months. As our own master craftsmen are also extremely experienced, knowledgeable and committed, the exchange is definitely mutually beneficial. We have a pretty well-defined curriculum, continuous learning culture and a constantly improving process that is dynamic and open. Many of the compagnons have found their experience with us to be enlightening and fresh, especially because we’re not tied to their specific traditions and methods.

After all these years of influence, the elements of the Compagnon culture that are now stuck with us are extremely important and powerful. And perhaps a bit counterintuitive. Think of this: It takes 10-15 years to complete the Compagnon program, but there are no promises or expectations for long term financial gain. The wealth it offers is in knowledge, skills, and character. The jobs at the other end of the training might only be normal carpentry, nothing more.

The training starts in the teenage years and continues through several phases, includes a lot of personal sacrifice, much traveling, few privileges, and learning, learning, learning. The implied goal is high craft mastery annealed with humility. As a link in a sacred chain, there’s too much responsibility to allow room for personal arrogance. And so in the end, the sort of training that would in another profession earn a PhD, here only gives one the right to practice a trade with confidence and pride. That’s the form of wealth that comes with the deal.

At the end of their training, compagnons are required to build a "master work," which just might be the equivalent of a PhD thesis.
At the end of their training, compagnons are required to build a “master work,” which just might
be the equivalent of a PhD thesis.

Thomas started his training when he was 15. He’s now 22. But he’s mature and wise far beyond his age because he really and truly knows a lot since he’s already fully welded into the ancient chain of knowledge. What he knows he learned it from the guys who learned it from the guys who learned it, going back to those who learned it from others nearly 1000 years ago.

Before he left, this 22 year old compagnon gave a seminar to our team about the ancient French layout method, which allows very complex 3-dimensional geometry to be determined from an amazingly detailed process in 2-dimensional triangulation, projected intersecting coordinates, and geometric math.

Thomas with the seminar project he used to teach the French layout system
Thomas with the seminar project he used to teach the French layout system
An example of the layout system, with a class project compagnons learn in their apprenticeship training
An example of the layout system, a class project compagnons learn in their apprenticeship training.
How many American carpenters could do something like this?

Since we now have computers and CAD software, we technically don’t need to use this sort of technique anymore, but good craftsmen aren’t satisfied with being dependent on computer automation; therefore learning the systems that rely on basic geometry and math is important. But more to the point, for real craftspeople, gaining more craft knowledge is important in itself and needs no further justification. Therefore, Thomas’s seminar was well-attended even though in this case it was held after hours and off-the-clock.

Bensonwood team in Thomas's seminar. We've had similar classes with other compagnons, so some of our guys are already quite proficient.
Bensonwood team in Thomas’s seminar. We’ve had similar classes with other compagnons, so some of our guys are already quite proficient and also teach.

If there is any better evidence of the advanced craft culture we have here, I don’t know what it is. Think of how different this is from the usual construction site cynicism and low-brow language and behavior: instead, a bunch of guys, after work, of their own volition, learning from a young French carpenter how to do something they may never actually use in professional practice!

If we’re going to take our industry to a better place, we need a strong dose of something akin to the Compagnon ethos. The good news is that it’s not complicated. You just have to believe that building the places where we live and work matters deeply to who we are, and what we believe and intend as a society. If that is an acceptable premise, then those who practice in the building trades need the knowledge and humility of the ages, as well as the science and tools of our age, in order to be positioned to create the kind of sustainable habitats our world desperately needs.  Buildings are the most literal home of civilization. Surely, we can be committed to getting that part right, while we struggle with the rest. To build what is desperately needed 21st century and beyond, we need a new “Guilded Age” of building, and I’m happy to say there’s at least a little groundswell of that movement under way.

Homes Matter

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

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.”


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.


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.





Building History Next Door

rebuild For a number of reasons, in the past few months I’ve been pulled into thinking again about historical timber frame construction and the evolution to light wood framing in the 19th century.  It’s an incredibly interesting topic in any event, but even more so as our contemporary wood building systems continue to evolve—now, as they did 200 years ago—continually responding to changes in technology, economics and cultural expectations. Building history seems to be in the air. I have recently accepted speaking engagements at the Weare, New Hampshire Public Library in May and another for the Monadnock Center for History and Culture in July. Both will be talks about timber frame building, past and present, and the sponsors have an interest in referencing the historical timber framing in their towns. With these engagements coming up, I’ve been doing some research about the history of a few towns in this part of New Hampshire, particularly Weare and Peterborough. P1030301 (Medium)Staying with the history theme, we are also currently working on a timberframe project that requires the use of reclaimed hand-hewn timbers. We are purchasing these timbers from salvage contractors who dismantle old, out-of-use barns that are often a tax and maintenance liability for the owners. This is a rather sad story, as America is quickly losing one of the most beautiful and enduring parts of our architectural heritage. Yet without programs to support the costs borne by the property owners, the demise of barns will continue. We wish we could save them all, but a second best alternative is to try to save the timbers when we can, and this project will do that well, and celebrate their rugged hand made beauty in a building that should stand for another few hundred years.

The timing of that project turned out to be serendipity when the producers of a new TV show  called to ask if I could help narrate a short segment with them to give a little insight about traditional timber frame building methods. I agreed to do it, knowing that the authentic hand-hewn timbers we had on hand would make it easy to explain the fundamentals of the traditional process using the visible hand-tooling evidence as the best explanation of the work involved. The timbers we used to describe early timber framing in the short film segment are remarkable. They’re mostly white oak and chestnut, with sizes up to 14” x 14” and up to 40’ long. To understand the task, you have to understand that each of the timbers was a tree growing in a primeval forest we can’t imagine today, and every one of them was worked with both skills and toil most of us can’t fathom. Wresting timbers from trees was accomplished, as many things were back then, “by dint of severe effort.” Looking at these timbers now, you can know a lot of truth about the men who labored over them 200 years ago. The marks of their axe, adze, scribe, chisel and handsaw are right there, as if made yesterday, and they reveal patience, perseverance and pride. It’s quite a story.

colonial era pit saw
A two-man colonial pit saw. Courtesy Plimouth Plantation

But that work only resulted in a timber frame. For this kind of structure, it was still necessary to have boards for sheathing, cladding, flooring and various millwork. As towns were sprouting up in the expanding new world in the 18th century, it was usually just too much effort for most people to make all of those materials by hand. The traditional method for making boards was to use a two-man saw over a pit, with one person on top the log and another below, making up and down strokes through the log length. That work was brutal, even by the work standards then. Therefore, as soon as watermills became possible, they almost simultaneously became a requirement of colonization. The agreement to establish a settlement in Weare, NH was based on the condition that a mill would be in place. That took a few years, and therefore, “House construction in the early settlement was primitive. Logs were used to build houses, and were hewn flat for flooring, ” according to the town history. By this method, they nearly eliminated the need for boards and the massive amount of handwork needed to make them.

When sawmills were finally in place, timber frame buildings became more common in Weare, but nails were scarce and precious, so most of the boards were attached with wooden pins instead. The sawmills solved one big problem, but another remained. It must have been frustrating to be in the midst of a limitless forest resource, but still many man years of work away from turning that raw material into the kinds of buildings they ultimately intended. The buildings we know, use and revere today were the dream of every family, but most early settlers never achieved the dream, and lived instead in crude log houses, or worse. In the Peterborough, NH town history written in 1876, the typical homes of the mid 18th century were described this way:

They were open, cold, and uncomfortable, and it required much hardihood to endure the exposure to which all were subjected in abodes so imperfectly constructed. We can hardly imagine how they could live in such houses, and carry on so much work besides the regular household duties; but they had made up their minds to receive everything in the best spirit, in hopes of better and more prosperous times to come, and thereby they made of their hovels, of their wretched cabins, and half-built houses, homes consecrated to religion, and to all the social and moral virtues.

I like the word “hardihood.” Along with “dint of severe effort,” it kind of says it all. Theirs was a struggle to get out of the hovels and into real homes, and live in civilized villages, and ultimately they did, but it was accomplished the truly old fashioned way. NH-SawmillFor all these reasons, easier was better because it improved the quality of life sooner. Sawmills became more efficient as the mechanical equipment improved, making it much more practical to saw the timbers from the logs as well as the boards. At the same time, manufactured cut nails replaced hand-forged nails, and even later wire nails replaced cut nails. With these advancements, timber frame building evolved to use more sawn lumber, and then sawn lumber parts became smaller, and the connections were made with thousands of nails instead of a few hundred timberframe joints.

Coincidentally, on a bike ride the other day, I happened by a building in the process of being razed and stripped to its structural bones, revealing nearly the whole of the evolutionary history between early timberframing and the light wood framing that eventually completely displaced it. IMAG0335 (Medium) (2)I learned that original building was built in the mid 19th century, possibly before the Civil War. The older part was built with some typical timber frame methods, but most of the timbers were sawn, with tell-tale up-and-down strokes visible. Interestingly though, there are also quite a few hand hewn timbers in the frame that clearly came from an earlier structure with “ghost” mortises and notches suggesting their previous frame position. Clearly, they eschewed hand-hewing as soon as possible, but they still were frugal and respectful enough to reuse the timbers with so much labor invested in them by earlier generations of builders. And you just have to wonder: just how old ARE those timbers?IMAG0337 (Medium) (2) (1)

P1030313he other story in the older part of the building is the number of sawn studs, rafters and joists of smaller 2x dimension that are interacting with the old timberframe. You can almost see these builders getting comfortable with light wood framing replacing heavy timber framing, just step by step.

When they built the larger section of the home a few years later, they took giant leaps toward balloon framing, but still could not quite give up the use of a few timbers. The front wall is like a classic balloon frame with small, vertical studs going from sill to eave plate uninterrupted. But there was still a timber post and girts at the corners and mid-wall to carry the floor joist loads, and maintain the heavy timber asset.P1030310IMAG0333 (Medium) However, there’s no diagonal bracing, leaving the vestiges of the classic timber frame to be very minimal. And if the front wall shows the balloon frame that would soon dominate, the gable end wall is more like platform framing that is ubiquitous today. So there it is: one building, and a 1ooo year wooden frame building history.

Some say balloon framing (light framing) was invented by George Washington Snow in 1832. (From Keene, NH, right next door, by the way.) Some say it was Augustine Taylor in 1833. Some credit others. But I’m with those who say it just evolved, pulled by sawmill efficiency, nail innovation, and a tremendous need for good quality homes to be built with less skill and labor in the growing and expanding country. Thomas Friedman said, “Big breakthroughs happen when what is suddenly possible meets what is desperately necessary.” Big breakthroughs have happened again, including our ability to bring timberframing back with new capabilities and needs, and an ever-evolving, wood-centered construction method that’s getting ever more durable, energy efficient and adaptable.

Another Unity Home Rises on Connecticut’s Gold Coast

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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.

Bensonwood “Bath Pods” Land in the Rockies

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Nestled in the front range of the Rocky Mountains, Estes Park sits at an elevation of 7,522 feet, considerably higher than the highest point in New England, the summit of Mt.Washington. But for one Estes Park homebuyer, New Hampshire-based Bensonwood—with its production facilities 7,000 ft closer to sea level and 2,000 miles to the east—was the perfect choice to create a new 10,800+ square foot “Rocky Mountain High” dream timber frame home.

bath pods in shopIn addition to the home’s panelized assemblies, Bensonwood fabricated seven bathroom pods complete with decorative tile work and fixtures all pre-plumbed and wired for craning into place on site. Why bathroom pods? Fabricating the pods under the warm, controlled conditions of our Blackjack facilities allowed for greater control over the design (through better tile detail and setting), while reducing overall construction time on site.

bath podsAs part of our “Montage Building” process, the bathroom pods, panelized wall, roof, and floor assemblies, and millwork were then trucked atop flatbed tractor trailers to the lofty build site where the home’s weather-tight shell will be fully assembled in approximately four weeks. When finished, the robust, energy-efficient home will weather the elements with minimal maintenance and operational costs.

prefab bath pod vanity

bath pod shower



Tedd Benson Featured in “Acts of Creation” by Walt Harrington

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Walt Harrington, the award-winning journalist and writer of seminal books such as The Next Wave, The Everlasting Stream, The Beholders Eye, and American Profiles, has included a chapter on Tedd Benson in his new book, Acts of Creation, America’s Finest Hand Craftsmen at Work.

In the book, the author travels coast to coast seeking America’s finest craftsmen at work in a quest to find “the magical nexus of craft, character, and mastery that gives birth to a functional work of art – and leaves its maker with a sense of satisfaction, awe and achievement known well to artists across the ages.”

In a chapter titled, “Tedd Benson: The Craft of Craftsmanship,” the author describes how Tedd literally wrote the book on timber frame home construction, and in the process, demonstrated how the elaborate wood beam joinery of our timberframe buildings can resemble “furniture making done by giants.”

“You are humbled by your own creation, this building that will stand for 500 years,” Tedd tells the author. “And that feeling is what keeps me and all craftsmen doing it every day.”

The book is due out this spring.

It Takes A Village: Bensonwood Chosen to Build Southface Village at Okemo

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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.

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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.