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.

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