Monthly Archives: June 2008

What is the Cost of Unity?

This post is for all those who keep asking us how much the Unity House costs and can’t believe we don’t have a clearer answer.

Unity House is also called OPEN_2. It is the second project of our OPEN Prototype Initiative, which is a partnership between MIT’s Open Source Building Alliance (OSBA) and Bensonwood Homes. Our naming of the collaborative venture using the word, “prototype,” was purposeful. Here’s the definition of prototype from the American Heritage Dictionary:

An original, full-scale, and usually working model of a new product or new version of an existing product

Unity House fits both aspects of this definition. Working on it has turned us into an experimental design studio and a building systems laboratory. As we become satisfied with the design concepts and the performance of the building envelope and systems, it is our intention to scale up production processes in order to create the construction elements in a more efficient manner. From the Small Business Encyclopedia, this is called a “Pre-Production Prototype.”

This type of prototype is for all practical purposes the final version of the product. It should be just like the finished product in every way, from how it is manufactured to its appearance, packaging, and instructions. This final-stage prototype is typically expensive to produce—and far more expensive to make than the actual unit cost once the product is in full production—but the added cost is often well worth it.

I added the bold. Prototypes are expensive.

Here are a few of the construction elements we’ve developed or improved specifically for Unity House:

• R-40 exterior wall, with a hybrid insulation approach
• Rain screen siding systems
• Window pan flashing and sealing system for thickened wall
• Roof panels and protected membrane system for flat roof
• Custom steel rack for PV (photo voltaic) array
• Folding interior walls for rapid partitioning and removal (15 minutes)
• Modular interior wall system for quick installation and reconfiguration using simple tools (1/2 day)
• Modular suspended ceiling system, creating mechanical chase
• Wainscot system for wiring access, using unique materials

We also worked extensively on mechanical system engineering and design, building code compliance issues, and LEED research and documentation requirements.

If prototypes are inherently expensive, this one has been especially expensive because so much new ground is being broken. We are not just prototyping the building; we are also prototyping nearly every ingredient of the structure and finish. It’s been fun, exciting, and yes, costly. But as the definition above suggests, we expect the added costs will be well worth it. We’ll bring the innovations and ideas to all of our projects. We’ll make better buildings and be a better company because of these investments.

So, to be honest, we still don’t know what Unity House costs will be. We are ten days into the site assembly, with at least 50% of the work yet to be done. When it’s done, we’ll know, but that information won’t be made public. The investment in the prototype will be borne by Bensonwood, Unity College, OSBA, and a few corporate participants, all of whom will be involved when we do a post-construction financial review. For anyone else, asking what Unity House costs is not a fair question, nor is it relevant to any kind of comparison.

On the other hand, the good, fair, and right question is, how much will it cost when it goes into production? We plan to answer that question soon. We will be offering versions of Unity House to the general public, and we’ll therefore have to put a price tag on it. I’m as eager as anyone else to find out what that will be.

The Price of Common Sense

The SUV was born from cheap fuel, a lust for things large and powerful, and big profits. It died from the high cost of fuel, a need for things small and efficient, and ultimately, low sales.

It was widely reported this week that consumers very quickly changed their minds about the features they seek in an automobile.

The three Detroit automakers were outsold for the first time ever by their Asian rivals in May, and a sedan was the top-selling vehicle in the United States for the first time in 16 years.”Clearly, for people who are shopping for a new car today, the only thing that matters is its fuel economy,” said Ron Pinelli, the president of Autodata. “The big vehicle that they once loved is now a source of pain for them when they fill up at the pump.”

From this consumer shift, the industry is starting to immediately and dramatically respond. To meet customer demand that is increasingly dominated by concern about fuel efficiency, not surprisingly, GM announced imminent plans to close four pickup and SUV plants in North America and expand output at two of their car plants.

The astounding thing is that the end of the SUV/pickup dominance appears to have happened in a single month.

Jesse Toprak, senior director of industry analysis at, said everyone was scrambling to keep up with one of the most rapid sea changes ever for the auto industry.

“The shift was so swift that it caught everybody by surprise, including Toyota,” Mr. Toprak said. “Dealers we’ve talked to said they could have sold twice as many Priuses easily, basically resulting in a record month.”

We’ve also heard in the last few days that the average cost of gasoline is at a new high and is climbing. Putting these two momentous news stories together, I gather we now know the price of common sense: it’s about $4 per gallon.

What happened so suddenly to the automobile industry is no doubt about to happen to homebuilding. The energy gobbling McMansions are our SUVs and every overly large, energy-wasting production home built is evidence that consumers haven’t cared enough because, until now, the cost of heating and cooling homes has been too cheap.

Now that consumers have learned the price of common sense, what can they do? Clearly, they are buying Priuses and other hybrids as fast as they are made, and they have the industry scrambling to remake itself in the image of their newfound desire.

But there is no Prius for living widely available to consumers, because there is no consolidated national industry homebuilder or manufacturer to develop one. This is one of the reasons why we are stepping into the breach with the OPEN Prototype Initiative. While we aren’t one of the giant builders and our manufacturing capacity is limited, we know that, in partnership with MIT’s Open Source Building Alliance, we are in a unique position to develop the ideas, standards, processes, and products that will enable the homebuilding industry to give American homeowners what they now know they desperately need: a high-performance home that doesn’t use up our finite fossil fuel resource.

Unity House, our second OPEN Prototype project, is now rising on its site in Unity, Maine. Last week, our crew spent five days assembling the building shell. In the next five days, we’ll be completing the building exterior. We have a webcam up so you can check our progress. This is an extraordinary building that could easily be reconfigured both on the interior and exterior to meet many different needs and architectural expectations. It is repeatable, adaptable, and will get more and more affordable. With fifteen more working days to go, watch us build our idea of a Prius for living.