“What’s the difference between Unity and Bensonwood?”
This is a question that both Unity and Bensonwood field fairly often, and one that we have been discussing internally ever since Unity was founded as an offshoot of Bensonwood in 2012.
There are several ways to answer this question, and it might take more than one blog post to do the comparison justice. Sometimes comparisons of Unity and Bensonwood invoke other companies with a similar relationship. Toyota (Unity) and Lexus (Bensonwood) come to mind. More recently we’ve been hearing comparisons to two of Tesla’s electric vehicles, the Model 3 (Unity) and the Model S (Bensonwood). At the risk of inviting cheap shots for comparing our high performance homes to these high performance cars, let’s run with the comparison, based on information from Tesla’s website.
OVERVIEW(click image to enlarge)
SPECIFICATIONS (click image to enlarge)
The comparison is not perfect, but it’s informative.
Tesla opted not to change its own powerful brand for its entry into the mass-market: the Model 3 and the Model S are both Teslas. Bensonwood followed the example of auto makers when it spun off Unity as a separate company with its own brand. This has given Unity the best of both worlds—a connection with and support from the parent company, as well as autonomy to develop in its own direction.
We would be curious to hear your thoughts about the differences you perceive between Unity and Bensonwood. Please drop us a line at “[email protected]”
Unity Homes is pleased to announce a strategic partnership with CertainTeed, a leading manufacturer of building materials and a subsidiary of Saint-Gobain, one of the world’s largest and most innovative building products companies. Unity and Certainteed recently signed a joint development agreement under which they will be collaborating to create new assemblies and components for high performance homes, and further develop an integrated software platform for designing and manufacturing homes.
Both companies recognize that innovation is critical to transforming the homebuilding industry. CertainTeed was drawn to partner with Unity Homes based on our track record of innovation, and by our culture of sustainability that is consistent with its own.
“We are very excited about the opportunity to have a joint development agreement with Unity Homes that will bring their technologically advanced and socially responsible building perspectives to our businesses in North America,” said Minas Apelian, Global Director of St. Gobain’s external ventures arm NOVA, and Vice President of R&D for CertainTeed.
Unity Founder Tedd Benson is equally enthusiastic about this alliance: “Improving the homebuilding industry requires connecting the dots between companies like ours that design and build homes, and those like CertainTeed that produce the materials that go into our homes. We see a wonderful opportunity for innovation by combining the experience and know-how that Unity and Bensonwood have developed over the past 45 years, with Certainteed’s deep research capabilities and broad industry reach. Better industry integration will result in higher quality, reduced construction times and better value for the American public.”
The eventual fruits of this collaboration will include new wall assemblies with specific performance characteristics, designed and engineered to be manufactured efficiently using off-site construction methods that Unity is pioneering in North America. These assemblies will be incorporated into the software platform that is also being developed as part of this partnership. While early versions of the software will feature CertainTeed assemblies, ultimately the software will be “open source,” with a broad array of assemblies and components from many manufacturers.
We are thrilled—and humbled—by Certainteed’s decision to work with us. It’s a strong vote of confidence in the team that Unity has assembled, and it’s also a testament to the power of the vision underlying Unity—transforming the building industry by demonstrating a Better Way to Build.
Posted By Andrew Dey • April 11 2018 • Comments On
Stacey Delgado, the most recent addition to Unity’s project management team, had an interesting reaction to her first day on the job with Unity: “There’s a lot of male energy in the office.” She wasn’t saying this critically; it was simply an observation. I realized that as a male, I don’t typically notice this, because to me it seems normal.
Her remark reminded me of a comment made by a woman who attended a presentation about Unity that I gave several weeks ago to a group of building professionals in Northampton, MA. After seeing photos of our new production facility in which all the workers were men, she asked “Where are the women?” I had to admit that, while we have in the past had women working in the shops—including the timber framer Becky Adams—there are not any at the moment. We do have a number of women working in administrative capacities who support our shops: logistics, procurement, and project management.
It’s an issue that we wrestle with. We know the value of diversity, but we receive very few female applicants for our “hands on” jobs in the shop.
There’s a company in Sweden that is a role model for Unity in many ways, including their efforts at creating an inclusive workplace. Lindbäcks is one of the largest and most sophisticated builders of mid-rise housing in Sweden. Like most builders in Sweden, Lindbäcks uses off-site construction techniques that have been a model for Unity’s own processes. The new facility that Lindbäcks opened several months ago contains some of the most advanced equipment and systems to be found in a residential building company anywhere. And the company’s CEO, Stefan Lindbäck, is committed to encouraging women to join the company’s team in all capacities—including working on the floor of the production facility.
Tedd Benson and I were treated to a taste of Lindbäcks’ gender inclusivity several years ago when we spent a day with Stefan Lindbäck and his second-in-command, Helena Lidelöw, who oversees the company’s production. We learned that Stefan and Helena are approaching the challenge of bringing more women into the workforce from all angles, including work clothing.
Carpenter pants are a big deal among the tradespeople in many European countries, and Sweden is no exception. Carhartt-clad carpenters from America have been known to lust after the high-tech materials, ingenious pockets and integral knee pad holders that are common in these European pants. But until recently, these pants were available only in understated colors like black and brown – or perhaps dark blue for the particularly adventurous. Not exactly the stuff of fashion statements.
Stefan Lindbäck approached Björnkläder, Sweden’s largest manufacturer of carpenters’ pants, with a proposal: if they would produce carpenter pants designed to work well for women, then he would purchase a pair of Björnkläder pants for every one of the 300+ workers in his shop. Tedd and I witnessed the outcome of this effort in our tour of the Lindbäcks shop.
These pants were so well-received that Björnkläder has made them a part of their general offering. From the Björnkläder website:
Carpenter Jubileum, Ladies Trouser
Fuschia trouser with a fit adjusted to all the women at work. They offer all the pockets and compartments to help keep track of your tools. The trouser includes a very smart double hem that allows you to lengthen the pant by only unpicking one single seam.
While the pink (“fuschia”) pants are a fun story, Lindbäcks’ approach to construction, which makes use of software-driven machinery in the controlled conditions of a shop, is the real reason they are making progress on gender inclusivity in a male-dominated field. In Lindbäcks’ shop, where equipment does the heavy lifting, cutting and fastening, qualities such as intelligence and dedication are prized more than brawn.
Back in New Hampshire, we see similar opportunities in the new production shop that is now serving Unity Homes and Bensonwood—a shop that Lindbäcks’ Helena Lidelöw helped to design. The guys—and they are currently all guys—working in our new shop are fond of telling visitors that the work they are doing now, as compared with the work they were doing in our previous shop, depends more on their intelligence than on their strength. They are happy to have made this shift to using their minds more than their bodies. If this shift makes the work more inviting to women, then the guys in the shop will welcome them onto the shop floor.
I’m hoping that Tedd will reach out to Carhartt about adding a new color to their line of carpenter pants. Whether the guys will start wearing pink is another question.
Posted By Andrew Dey • March 20 2018 • Comments On
Anyone considering having a new home built faces a fundamental question: whether to pursue a path based on off-site construction (generally panelized or modular), or have the home built in a more typical manner, with the countless individual parts and pieces fashioned and fastened on site. Good results can be obtained with either path, because the key factors are the knowledge, experience, dedication and cooperation of the team building the home. Of course at Unity Homes, we believe that the best results are most readily achieved using off-site fabrication. A growing cadre of industry experts agrees.
At a recent industry event in Boston, the buzz about off-site construction was palpable. Every year the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association’s “Building Energy Boston” conference brings together professionals dedicated to high performance building, energy efficiency and renewable energy. Presentations featuring off-site construction figured prominently at the conference, including two in which Unity and Bensonwood were front and center.
On the first day of the conference, Bensonwood COO Hans Porschitz participated in a panel discussion that reviewed the legacy of a project built in 2007 that helped to spawn three new companies, each focused on using off-site construction to build high performance homes: Unity Homes, BrightBuilt Home and GO Home.
Before these three companies existed, their founders collaborated on the construction of an innovative building for an adventurous client in Rockport, Maine. That project was the BrightBuilt Barn. The lessons learned on that project and the acclaim it generated helped to inspire Bensonwood to spin off Unity Homes, Kaplan Thompson Architects to form BrightBuilt Home, and GO Logic to create the GO Home. All told, these companies are responsible for designing and building over 500 high performance homes during the past ten years. And that legacy continues to grow.
Hans at NESEA; Jay in Keene
A second highlight of the conference, and one that also reinforced the sense that the future of home building is in off-site construction, was the real-time tour of the new state-of-the-art production facility that Unity and Bensonwood share. The roughly 100 attendees at this conference session in Boston were treated to a live remote tour of our new facility in Keene, NH.
The tour was led by Building Systems team leader Jay Lepple, who walked through the shop and explained the equipment, materials and methods that we are using to build high performance homes. Unity founder Tedd Benson concluded the tour by explaining that the vision of this new facility extends beyond Unity and Bensonwood, because we plan to provide precision building components to other projects and companies as well.
During the Q&A session that followed the tour, the conference-goers in Boston were able to ask questions of our building systems team in Keene. One of the more memorable questions came from a Maine-based architect who asked “How will you respond when 250 architects suddenly come knocking on your door asking for panels for their projects?” That would be what we call a “good problem”!
Given the quality of practitioners brought together by the NESEA conference, it has always provided a glimpse of the future of sustainable building. This year’s conference reinforced our belief that off-site construction will increasingly be the method of choice for building homes that are healthy, comfortable, durable and efficient.
Posted By Andrew Dey • February 27 2018 • Comments On
The recent warm weather seems to be inspiring potential clients to think more earnestly about building a new home, because the number of initial inquiries we are fielding is trending upward. While it’s not too late to begin the planning process for building a home in 2018, anyone hoping to be in their new home by the end of the year should decide soon on a path.
How does a person wanting to build a home begin the process? While the answer to this question may be obvious to some, we know that it’s not to others. Here are a few thoughts to help expedite the decision-making process.
We’ll assume that you have considered the option of buying an existing home, and despite finding that this would probably allow you to purchase more for your money—at least in terms of size—you are opting to build new. There are many good reasons to build a new home rather than buying one that already exists. Bensonwood blogger Rick Reynolds has explored those reasons in this blog post.
We’ll also assume that you already own the lot on which you would like to build. We’ll save for another blog post our thoughts on finding and evaluating a building lot.
With these basics taken care of, you’ll want to consider a number of issues and address key questions, including:
DEFINE YOUR GOALS – Why are you building a new home? What are your priorities, hopes and concerns for the project? How will you define success? Articulating these goals for potential project partners will help you and them decide whether they will be a good fit for your team.
KNOW THE BUDGET – For a home to enhance your life, it has to fit within your financial means. Many construction horror stories involve costs that spiraled out of control. Having a clear budget that includes a bit of cushion is critical to minimizing stress. Clarifying the resources available may involve prequalifying for a construction loan and mortgage.
CONSIDER THE DESIGN – Listing needs and desires is a good place to start. There are many plans available for review online that can spark ideas and inspiration. The home may be pre-designed (from a stock plan), designed by a design/build company such as Unity, or custom designed (with an architect or designer). These options vary in their flexibility and predictability.
Early-on in the design process, consideration should be given to situating the home on the site. It’s usually helpful to engage a designer (or a design/build company) with the knowledge and experience to properly site the home and ensure that the design addresses your needs.
Each stage of the design should be followed by a “reality check” on the costs, ideally generated by a project manager or professional cost estimator.
NARROW THE SPECIFICATIONS – You will potentially be asked to make hundreds if not thousands of choices in the planning and building of the home. Having a sense of what you like and don’t like can help to make the process more efficient. How will the team facilitate your making well-informed choices about the materials, fixtures and finishes that make up the home?
DETERMINE THE SCHEDULE – Are there particular constraints or deadlines for the schedule? (Please don’t tell us in June that you’d like to be moved in by Thanksgiving!) How will the team ensure that the schedule goals are met?
CHOOSE A BUILDER – Does the builder have an established track record for building homes similar to the one you desire? How will the builder ensure that the schedule is maintained, the budget is met, and quality is achieved? Perhaps most importantly, how do you feel about the builder—does communication flow easily, and do your values seem to be aligned?
Every new construction project is different because each client has particular needs and desires, and every site is unique. But despite that variability, projects also share certain common goals, including maintaining quality, controlling costs, and following the schedule. There’s a common saying in the homebuilding industry: “Fast, good or cheap: pick two.” At Unity Homes, we’ve developed processes that don’t require compromising one of those three priorities. Instead, we aim to optimize them all.
If you are planning to build anytime soon, please reach out to us at [email protected] so that we can help guide you toward the path that makes the most sense for your project.
Posted By Andrew Dey • January 5 2018 • Comments On
Here in New England, we’ve recently had several spells of brutally cold weather, and there’s more to come. The high temperature forecast for this Saturday is -1 degree F. That’s the high. The temperature is projected to drop to -20F that night.
These are conditions that test the ability of homes to keep us comfortable, safe and healthy.
The plumbers and heating contractors with whom we work have been scrambling to deal with “no heat” calls—and the associated frozen pipes that can result—but none of these calls have been for Unity Homes. Ice damming is another potentially serious issue that is exacerbated by the combination of snow and cold temperatures. We see significant ice dams on most of the homes in our area—but not on any Unity Homes. A third potential consequence of the intense cold is uncomfortable drafts as the winter wind blows through the cracks and crevices found in most homes. Thanks to the airtight construction of our homes, the occupants are spared these drafts.
We know that high performance homes are better for the environment, because they sip energy, rather than guzzling it. But it’s extreme conditions like those we have been experiencing that can provide the most compelling case for the high performance of a Unity Home. When the mercury drops below 0 degrees and the wind outside is howling, our homes remain comfortable, quiet, safe and healthy. And built into every Unity Home is a high level of “passive survivability”—the ability of a home to hold in the heat for extended periods of time when the power goes out.
Our strategy for achieving a consistently high level of comfort is based on making the shell of the home—the walls, floors and roof—very well insulated and tightly sealed. Thick walls, triple-glazed windows and Passive House levels of airtightness result in heating loads that are unusually low. In other words, it doesn’t take much energy to heat (or cool) a Unity Home. The low loads allow us to use air source heat pumps, rather than conventional boilers or furnaces, to heat our homes.
Air source heat pumps have been around for many years, but only recently has the technology improved to the point where they can be a good fit for homes in cold climates. The Mitsubishi Hyper-Heat system that we favor is rated to -13 degrees—that is, the system can “pump” heat from minus 13 degree outside air, and deliver it inside the house. We are hearing anecdotally that the heat pumps in our homes are providing heat at temperatures even lower than -13 degrees.
Rather than sizing the heating systems in our homes to cover the very coldest days, we typically specify a small number of supplemental electric radiators to help keep our homes comfortable during those peak (or valley) periods. These radiators work especially well to augment the heat in spaces that are not directly served by the heat pump system—for example, a guest bedroom or home office. When the weather gets cold and stays cold as it has recently, the supplemental electric heat augmenting the heat pump is a simple and effective way to help ensure that the occupants stay warm.
Unity’s project managers have been reaching out to clients in completed homes to get a better sense of how the systems are operating at these low temperatures. We have not heard any complaints. In fact, the owner of a Unity home in central Vermont recently let us know how impressed he was by how the heat pump system was able to keep his house warm. And a homeowner in southern Vermont wrote this: “Our system is working well and achieving our heating needs, even at -11 degrees.”
Perhaps the most valuable benefit to living in a Unity Home is the peace of mind that comes from knowing that regardless of what the weather may bring, the home will remain comfortable, quiet, healthy and secure.
Posted By Andrew Dey • December 20 2017 • Comments On
Comparing Whole House, Tempo and Shell Packages
Most visitors to Unity’s website are probably familiar with the three different project delivery methods that we offer: Whole House, Tempo and Shell. What may not be clear is how these options differ, and how the decision is made about which path to pursue.
During Unity’s early years, most of the projects we did—regardless of their location—were based on the Whole House model of project delivery. If the project was distant, we would team up with a local builder on whose expertise and network of subcontractors we could draw. The local builder would be a subcontractor to Unity, and Unity would have a contract with the homeowner for building the entire house.
While this contract structure theoretically gave us control over all aspects of the project, in practice it was sometimes difficult for us to exercise that control on projects that were distant. Given the challenges of trying to general contract from afar, we began to develop another approach, which we call “Tempo.”
The Tempo model is similar to the way in which Bensonwood, Unity’s sibling company, has operated for decades. Unity has a contract with the client to provide the shell of the home assembled on site, as well as the materials, finishes and fixtures required to finish the home. The local builder also has a contract with the client, and that contract typically includes the site work, the foundation, the subcontracted trades (electrical, plumbing, etc.) and installation of the materials provided by Unity.
We usually suggest the Tempo option for projects that are too far away for us to general contract efficiently ourselves. This model optimizes the value provided by both parties—Unity and the local builder—by allowing them to do what they do best. Unity fabricates and assembles the high performance shell that is key to a healthy, comfortable, energy efficient home, and Unity provides a curated selection of high value materials designed to complement the shell. The local builder brings knowledge of local building codes and practices, a team of subcontractors, and a consistent site presence that is critical for the successful finishing of the home.
Recently Unity has begun to offer a third project delivery model, in which we provide the shell of the home assembled on site, perhaps with a few select additional components such as preassembled stairs or an interior trim package. Unity’s shell packages represent an investment in those parts of the house that are most critical to performance, and which we expect to last for hundreds of years. By assembling its high performance shells in days rather than the weeks or months that would be more typical, Unity accelerates the project schedule, and minimizes the exposure of these components to the elements. Unity’s shell package option can work well for owner-builders who plan to invest their own time and energy to finish the home, and for homeowners whose needs and desires cannot easily be accommodated by Unity’s options for finishes and fixtures.
When embarking on the design-build journey with Unity, it’s not critical that a client know with certainty which project delivery model will be employed on their project. However, the earlier in the process that decision can be made, the better we are able to tailor our services to the particular needs of the project. Unity’s sales associates are well-versed in the nuances of each process, and they look forward to helping our clients determine the model that best fits their needs.
Posted By Andrew Dey • November 21 2017 • Comments On
In a low-key, in-house ceremony last month that involved cider donuts, coffee and brief remarks by founder Tedd Benson, Unity Homes celebrated its Five Year Anniversary.
When Unity was launched as a spinoff from Bensonwood, one of our goals was to demonstrate a different, more efficient way to build homes. We knew that this “better way” would be based on the off-site construction techniques developed over the course of decades by Bensonwood, and on Bensonwood’s extensive experience designing high-performance homes. Despite having these advantages right out of the gate, we also knew that developing a better way to build would be a challenge. The five year mark feels like an appropriate time to reflect on Unity’s considerable accomplishments, and on what the future holds.
That Unity has flourished, after having been founded in the midst of an uncertain economic recovery, feels like an accomplishment in and of itself. Our growth and development to date have been primarily thanks to “bootstrapping,” rather than extensive outside investment. We may have been constrained by lack of resources, but our steady, organic growth has resulted in a strong foundation from which to expand.
We have built homes: over fifty to date, with another twenty or so in the pipeline. These are healthy, comfortable, durable homes that our clients appreciate. These are also homes that raise the bar for the industry on performance.
We have grown our team. We’ve added to our sales, marketing, project management and procurement teams. In fact, we are still expanding our team – specifically on the design side. Please see the “Jobs” page of Unity’s website for additional information.
We have continued to refine Unity’s design system, and we’ve developed tools and protocols that streamline our process.
Unity has received numerous awards and recognitions, including BuildingGreen’s “Top Ten Green Building Product of the Year.” The demonstration home that we assembled in three days at the Greenbuild conference in 2015, and which subsequently became Unity’s show home in New Hampshire, achieved LEED Gold status, was the first certified Zero Energy Ready Home in New Hampshire, and received the “Project of the Year“ award from the US Green Building Council’s New Hampshire chapter.
Our success during these five years has bolstered our confidence that Unity and Bensonwood together will be able to make full use of the new production facility that we are now bringing online, with greatly increased capacity.
We anticipate that the next few years will be exciting for Unity. Interest in off-site construction methods is increasing steadily among building professionals. Tedd Benson recently returned from presenting at a national conference on off-site construction, and declared that there is a growing “fever” for these innovative methods. Many thought leaders in the industry contend that off-site construction will be a cornerstone to addressing issues of affordability, quality and skilled labor in the coming years.
Unity will continue to be at the forefront of the off-site construction movement. We are proud of what we have accomplished in the past five years, and we look forward with anticipation to what the next five years will bring.
Posted By Andrew Dey • October 25 2017 • Comments On
Machines are humming, wood is flying and panels are being produced at the new production facility in Keene that will serve both Unity and Bensonwood.
We knew when we embarked on the project to create a world-class production facility that it would not be easy. We were also confident that our crew could pull it off smoothly. There have of course been bumps in the road, but overall the project is on schedule and under budget, and we are very excited to have much of the equipment now up and running.
Setting up the equipment, commissioning it and training operators has required a tremendous effort by a large team that included a technician from Germany who was sent by the equipment manufacturer to assist. We were pleased to hear that, in his opinion, our crew picked up the machine operations unusually quickly. It certainly helps that we’ve been working with CNC (computer numeric control) equipment for the past twenty years.
Learning to operate the production line has been a fun challenge for our Building Systems team. The enthusiastic comments and sparkling eyes of our team members reflect the realization that they are at the controls of a production line like none other in the US.
Building Systems Team Leader Jay Lepple has played a crucial role in transitioning our panel production from Walpole to Keene. Says Lepple, “It’s great to finally see all our efforts come to fruition. We still have a few hurdles to overcome—like how to communicate efficiently across a facility that is so large—but we are starting to crank out panels, and it feels like we are over the hump.”
Even though the entire line is not yet complete (we are waiting on delivery from Europe of several additional pieces of equipment), the speed and quality of this new setup are still very impressive. By automating many of the functions that we had previously done manually, the production line allows us to frame, insulate and sheath a typical wall panel in about twenty minutes. We expect that time to decrease further when the additional pieces of equipment—insulating machines, a CNC component saw and a robotic material handling system—are installed.
The new facility is currently in a “soft start-up” phase, but we are now using it to build actual panels for real projects. We look forward to having a grand opening celebration this winter, after all the equipment has been installed and commissioned.
Posted By Andrew Dey • September 18 2017 • Comments On
On Labor Day Weekend, Unity Homes joined several thousand other small home enthusiasts in Brattleboro, VT to celebrate sustainable building solutions at the second annual Tiny House Fest.
Unity had not participated directly in last year’s inaugural Tiny House Fest, because after all, we don’t offer a Tiny House for sale. But when the festival organizers approached us this year and convinced us that the event was about much more than Tiny Houses—it was a celebration of sustainable building culture, we decided to take the plunge and help to sponsor the festival.
Despite the rain that dampened the proceedings, we are glad to have participated in this year’s Tiny House Fest. We spoke with numerous potential (and a few current) clients, we connected with many people who share Unity’s values, and we saw innovative strategies for living more lightly on the planet.
We used the lead-up to the Tiny House Fest to further develop design options for the Nano, Unity’s small cottage platform. The original Nano has a 20’ by 20’ footprint, with a single roof configuration. We recently created a 20×24 version of the Nano, and developed three different roof options (or “caps,” as we think of them): a mono-sloped shed roof, a 7-pitch gable, and a steeper 12-pitch gable with a large shed dormer that allows for a sleeping loft. These designs can be seen on the Nano platform page of this website.
How were Unity’s Nano designs received at the Tiny House Fest? Here is a sampling (paraphrased) of the enthusiastic comments that we heard:
“Now that the kids have moved out and we are left in a big drafty old house, the idea of Tiny Homes is attractive—but I’m not sure we could actually live in one. Your designs seem to offer the same simplicity, but in a more practical package.”
“I knew that Unity was about building high performance homes, but didn’t realize you offer designs that are so compact. A Nano could be the ideal solution to housing my aging parents on my property.”
“We’ve been looking for a small vacation home in Vermont, but it’s hard to find ones that are energy efficient and low maintenance. We may now start searching for building lots, rather than homes, with the idea of building a Nano.”
“My wife and I are pretty handy, and I’m thinking that a Nano shell package could be a great way for us to end up with the art studio that we’ve been dreaming of.”
We plan to post additional variations on the Nano platform in the coming months. Stay tuned to this website for the latest information about Unity’s alternative to Tiny Houses.
Posted By Andrew Dey • August 17 2017 • Comments On
We are having a busy summer here at Unity Homes! In addition to working on our new production facility and other long-term initiatives, we are busy building homes. Just last week we assembled three homes on sites around New England. The week prior we had completed the shell of another home, and we are looking forward to raising three more in the next few weeks.
The best word we’ve found to capture this work that our assembly crews do on site is montage. It’s the term that both the Germans and the French use to describe the on-site assembly of prefabricated components into a complete home—a process that Unity is helping to pioneer here in the US.
Since Unity is fundamentally about building high performance homes, it seems appropriate to share a snapshot—or four—of our current activity. Here’s a montage (also defined as “a composite formed by pictures and text”) of Unity’s recent work on site:
We continue building at the Quechee Lakes community in Vermont, where two weeks ago we raised the shell of the seventh of twelve homes we are contracted to build there. Of the five homes that are finished, two have sold, and one is being used as a model home. If you are in the market for a home in Vermont – perhaps ready to trade the bustle of urban living for the beauty and calm of the countryside, you could do worse than landing in a Unity Home at Quechee Lakes.
While the Quechee Lakes community includes numerous second homes, most of Unity’s clients come to us for their primary residence. Many are Baby Boomers seeking to transition from large, older homes that are expensive to heat and maintain, to new high performance homes that will have predictably low utility bills. One of the two Värms that we assembled last week falls into this category. It is sited on a breezy hilltop in New London, NH, with sweeping views toward Mount Kearsarge in the east.
We raised a second Värm last week in nearby Brattleboro, VT. The design of the home is similar to layouts that we developed for Quechee Lakes. We call this platform our “skinny Värm,” because the width of the main volume is 20 feet, rather than 24 feet. It features a very efficient floor plan in which the kitchen, dining area and living room are open to each other.
The third project we “montaged” last week, also in southwest Vermont, is based on Unity’s Xyla platform. The clients were drawn to the Xyla’s convenient one-story living. They are planning to install PV panels on the roof of the home, and they have enrolled in a pilot program offered by the local utility, Green Mountain Power, that provides a hefty subsidy for Tesla Powerwall home batteries. The Powerwall will allow the homeowners to optimize the use of electricity generated by their PV array, and Green Mountain Power will benefit from the battery’s ability to help modulate spikes in the grid’s demand for electricity.
On deck for montage next week is a Xyla with a walkout basement in southern Maine. In early September we’ll assemble another building shell at Quechee Lakes, and a large Varm/Tradd configuration near Lake Sunapee, New Hampshire.
We’re gratified to see that the mission of Unity Homes—to make better homes available for more people—is resonating with an ever-broader audience, and we look forward to “montaging” many more homes in the coming months.
It’s official! Unity and Bensonwood have begun working on the building in Keene, NH that will become a new production facility serving both companies. The facility, which will be operational in the fall, features state-of-the-art equipment for producing high-performance homes. With the anticipated four-fold increase in production capacity, Unity will be better able to serve the growing market for homes that are healthy, comfortable and energy-efficient.
“We are very excited about what the future holds for Unity,” says company founder Tedd Benson. “And we are also humbled by the work that’s ahead of us.”
Modifying the 100,000 SF building to suit its new purpose will take about three months. The pallet racks that remained from the building’s former life (a warehouse for medical products) have been removed. The construction team recently took down the interior walls that will no longer be needed, and work is now underway to upgrade the mechanical and electrical systems.
In order to expedite the overall project, the Unity/Bensonwood team will begin installing the new production equipment while work on the building itself is still underway.
Senior Project Manager for the facility, Paul Boa, is eager to get the new machines up and running. “We’ve been waiting a long time for this, and invested countless hours in planning the project. It’s great to finally see things starting to come together in the building.”
Boa will oversee the installation of the automated production lines, the computer-controlled machinery and the robotic material-handling equipment that will make the production facility unique in North America.
The increased production capacity will require more skilled workers, which means more jobs for the region—at least fifteen, according to Benson. “These aren’t your typical carpentry jobs,” he says. “Most of the work is done in the controlled conditions of our shop, using sophisticated equipment that enhances safety and productivity. You’re more apt to find our ‘carpenters’ checking a 3D virtual model on a tablet computer than shuffling through a set of paper plans.”
How do Unity’s shop workers feel about the new facility? Nick Nash, who is responsible for the company’s existing CNC machines, echoes the sentiments of many coworkers when he says “I’m looking forward to working in the new facility. The new equipment is amazing, and working with it will be a fun challenge. I’ve done carpentry on job sites in the usual way, and the way we build is more interesting and satisfying. I get to use my head as much as my hands, and with each home we build, I feel like I’m contributing to improving an industry.”
Improving the industry—finding better ways to build—has been the motivating force behind Benson’s 45-year career in homebuilding.
“I’ve been saying for a long time that the American public is being underserved by the homebuilding industry,” states Benson. “Most other industries have made great strides in the past few decades toward increasing quality and lowering costs—but not homebuilding. Most homes in America are still built essentially the same way they were two hundred years ago, by cutting and shaping each piece on site. Unity and Bensonwood have pioneered the use of off-site manufacturing methods to build high-quality homes. This new facility will allow us to take our game to the next level—and we hope to provide inspiration to the rest of the industry.”
Stay tuned to Unity’s newsletters and website for updates on the new facility.
“Does Unity have standard plans?” and “Can Unity build my design?” are two of the more common questions we hear from prospective clients (the most common is “How much will it cost?”, but of course it helps to have a design when we are talking about cost).
The answer to the first question is “No, Unity does not have standard plans. Due to site characteristics and other factors, no two Unity Homes are exactly alike.” However, Unity does offer example plans that represent a few of the many possible designs that can be created within our design system.
The answer to the second question, “Can Unity build my design?” is “Maybe.” It depends on how closely the design aligns with the platforms, components, and principles of Unity’s design system.
Unity developed—and continues to refine—its design system as part of the ongoing effort to reduce the cost of high performance homes. By streamlining the design and planning process, the system saves our clients time and money as compared with custom design—while still achieving a result that is “customized.” The design system consists of four platforms, and an extensive library of pre-designed, pre-engineered components that can be used to configure the platforms to suit specific needs, sites and budgets.
We call the image below the “Village of Unity,” because it is a visual representation of the four design platforms and the many components with which they can be configured:
Although the number of components in the library is limited, the possible combinations are essentially limitless—at least from a mathematical perspective. Of course in practical terms, the number of design configurations that make sense for a client’s needs and building site are much more limited. During the Preconstruction Services phase, Unity’s design team works with clients to configure a plan appropriate for the project. The result is a design that is unique, but that has embedded within it the intelligence of the design system.
How can the components of our system have “embedded intelligence”? When we add a component such as a master bedroom wing or an entry porch to one of our design platforms, we know all of the parts and pieces that make up that wing or that porch, how it will attach to the main volume, how long it will take to build, and what it will cost. Working within the design system allows for a high degree of predictability in terms of cost, time and quality.
The design system allows for adaptability to particular needs and conditions, but the flexibility of the system is not unlimited. The “massing” of our platforms and components—their footprints and three dimensional shape—generally remain fixed. There is some flexibility in terms of window and door location, and multiple possibilities for attaching components such as screened porches and decks. On the interior, the stair locations tend to be consistent from one plan to the next, due to structural requirements, but because most of the interior walls are non-loadbearing, there can be flexibility in the interior layout.
Occasionally we find that a client’s needs cannot be served within the design system. We think of this situation as “coloring outside the lines,” and offer a couple of ways forward.
Some clients may be close to fitting within our system, but have the need to color outside just one or two lines—that is, make a handful of adjustments that are not available within the design system. For such clients, Unity offers an extended schematic design process that requires a modest additional cost (determined on a case-by-case basis), and that allows for deploying a limited number of non-standard solutions.
If a client finds that working within a system of platforms and components—even with an extended schematic design process—does not allow the flexibility that they require, then we encourage them to work with Unity’s sibling company Bensonwood. Bensonwood has a four-decade history of providing custom design services for high performance homes, and the process starts with a blank slate on which anything is possible. Working within a design system is not for everyone, but between Unity and Bensonwood, we serve a broad spectrum of clients with diverse needs and requirements.
At Unity we have strong tradition of education and training, because our work requires that we stay current with the latest tools, materials and systems applicable to high performance homes. One such tool, which is slowly making its way into the mainstream, is the blower door. By allowing us to measure the airtightness of a house during and after construction, blower doors provide an important indication of how the home will perform.
We test every home we build with a blower door—typically after the mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems have been roughed in, but before the home is sheetrocked. This allows us to seal any leaks in the air barrier relatively easily. Depending on the certifications being sought by the project, we may test the home a second time when it is completed.
Unity’s energy and sustainability specialists, Rheannon DeMond and Alison Keay, have been performing most of the blower door tests, but this requires that one of them visit the job site. We recently decided to streamline the process by training our “Montage” job captains to perform blower door tests when they are on site. By running the blower door while searching for and sealing air leaks, our building systems teams are able to turn good building envelopes into great ones in a few hours.
Rheannon and Alison initiated the training last week for three job captains. The trainees were enthusiastic.
“It’s satisfying work,” says job captain Tobey Wandzy. “Our building shells tend to be very tight after we complete the assembly process, but it’s great to watch the CFM50 number on the blower door drop even lower as we seal up any miscellaneous air leaks.” A lower CFM50 number reflects a tighter house and greater energy efficiency.
The more advanced energy codes adopted in the US require that all new homes be blower door tested, and they specify a minimum requirement for airtightness. Unity Homes always test far better than these standards. Our goal is to reach an airtightness level equivalent to one air change per hour (1.0 ACH50)—and it’s not unusual for us to exceed the rigorous Passive House airtightness standard of 0.6ACH50. In other words, extremely tight.
What about that old adage that “houses need to breathe”? Building scientists have repeatedly debunked this myth, which has been replaced by a different mantra: “build tight and ventilate right.” The blower door helps us to build tight—for energy efficiency, and heat recovery ventilation systems ensure that we ventilate right—for healthy indoor air. In a Unity Home, energy efficiency and occupant health go hand in hand.
Posted By Andrew Dey • February 14 2017 • Comments On
Several Unity representatives recently participated in the Better Buildings by Design conference sponsored by Efficiency Vermont. By bringing together leaders in the green, high performance building industry, the conference gives us a valuable opportunity to connect with our peers. Unity Homes has a challenging mission in raising the bar while lowering costs for home building. Attending a conference like Better Buildings by Design reminds us that we are not alone in this ambitious pursuit.
Many of the conference sessions addressed topics that relate directly to our work here at Unity: enclosure details for air-tightness, mechanical systems for “low load” homes, ventilation methods to ensure healthy indoor air, and strategies for balancing cost and quality. While most of the projects featured in the case studies presented at the conference were built using conventional on-site methods, we were pleased to see several companies represented that, like Unity, are using off-site techniques to build high performance homes. While technically these companies could be considered competitors, our relationship to them is based on mutual respect and support.
When Unity’s founder Tedd Benson talks about current efforts to use off-site fabrication to build high performance homes, he often harkens back to the early days of the timber frame renaissance. In the mid-1970s, Tedd and several other visionaries, primarily in New England, had the audacious idea to marry the centuries-old craft of timber framing with modern tools, techniques and materials. The early practitioners in this timber frame revival – many of whom Tedd helped to train – were competitors, but they were also supporting one another’s success, because without multiple thriving companies, there could be no timber frame industry. Tedd drafted the first charter for the Timber Framers Guild of North America, which emphasized cooperation and support. The size and strength of today’s timber frame industry, in which Bensonwood still plays an important role, is a testament to that early vision.
The state of the off-site home building industry—at least as applied to high performance homes—is similar to the early days of timber framing, in that the industry as a whole is strengthened by the success of each individual company. Conversely, when a company runs into trouble or founders, the credibility of the entire industry may be undermined.
Here at Unity, we are pulling for the success of other off-site home building companies such as BrightBuilt, Preferred Building Systems, Vermod and Huntington Homes, all of whom had a presence at the Better Buildings conference. Although the particulars of each company vary, we have the shared goal of using off-site construction to provide high quality homes for a reasonable cost.
Attending the Better Buildings conference and reconnecting with like-minded peers reminds us that we are part of a movement that goes beyond simply building homes and providing shelter. We are at the vanguard of residential construction, where motivated and skilled workers employ the latest in technology and equipment to produce homes that perform exceptionally well, have a minimal environmental impact, and will last for generations. We salute the many people who share this vision, and we are proud to be part of the tribe.
Posted By Andrew Dey • January 24 2017 • Comments On
Several months ago we received the following comment from Unity clients in Connecticut who had been living in their new home for about two years:
“The most remarkable thing is that neither one of us has been sick since we moved into our new home!”
While Unity can’t take complete credit (or responsibility!) for the health of the occupants of our homes, the comment does highlight the relationship between high performance homes and occupant health. As evidence grows of a linkage between home performance and health, the home building industry, health professionals and government officials are paying increasing attention to the intersection of their respective fields.
In December, the DOE issued a report titled Home RX: The Health Benefits of Home Performance. This report provides a comprehensive review of recent studies that connect building performance and health. While more research is needed to augment the initial findings, it is clear that the indoor environment of a high performance home can have positive effects on the health of homeowners and their families.
Given that Americans spend on average 70% of their time at home, it seems intuitively obvious that high performance homes would enhance occupant health. A review of the health-related features of a Unity Home—and the potential ailments they address—supports this notion:
Unity Homes are Dry
Damp homes provide an environment for mites, mildew and mold. These can contribute to allergies, asthma and other respiratory difficulties. Thanks to tight construction, proper exterior detailing and continuous ventilation, Unity Homes are dryer than most other homes.
Unity Homes are Built to be Contaminant Free
Many homes contain materials that off-gas harmful chemicals such as formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The materials that make up a Unity Home are carefully chosen to minimize these indoor air pollutants. Our materials meet the requirements of the EPA’s Indoor airPlus program.
Unity Homes are Well Ventilated
In homes that are not properly ventilated, indoor air pollutants such as radon, carbon monoxide or VOCs can accumulate and potentially cause health issues. Every Unity Home is equipped with a balanced ventilation system that continuously supplies filtered fresh air to the home through clean, sealed ducts.
Unity Homes are Temperature-Buffered
Homes that are subject to broad temperature swings are susceptible to issues such as condensation and ice dams that can result in dampness. Thanks to thick walls, air-tight construction and triple glazed windows, Unity Homes tend to have consistent temperatures, and no drafts.
Unity Homes are Easy to Keep Clean
Staying healthy is difficult in a home that is hard to keep clean. The airtight construction of a Unity Home minimizes the possibility that dust, pollen other contaminants will enter the home, and the hard surfaces found in our homes—including wood flooring and tile—make cleaning a breeze.
In addition to these very tangible connections between health and high performance, there are other, subtler ways in which our homes contribute to the health of the occupants.
Because stress can exacerbate health issues, a home that minimizes stress supports health. Unity Homes are built to be solid, quiet, secure and low-maintenance, with operating costs that are low and predictable. Visitors to our show home in Walpole often comment on the sense of calm that permeates the space; they might see a car drive by, but not hear it. Our houses become peaceful refuges from a busy and chaotic world.
Unity Homes are healthy because of what we build into them, and what we build out. But please don’t simply take our word for it—we encourage you to schedule a visit to our show home to experience a healthy home for yourself.
Posted By Andrew Dey • December 21 2016 • Comments On
At Unity Homes, we are constantly striving for the optimal balance between cost and performance. Our strategies for achieving this balance are varied and complementary. They include streamlining the design process by using standard platforms and configuring them with predesigned elements, making use of technology and advanced manufacturing equipment in our off-site fabrication facility, and refining the process of quickly assembling value-added building components on site.
Thanks to the advanced manufacturing equipment in our shop, we are able to utilize materials and assemblies that would not be practical for site-built houses. This includes components that involve multiple layers that would be inefficient to build—with the required level of precision—on site. Walls are the most complex assemblies that we build, because walls have to perform so many different functions in the finished home. Unity has recently developed and begun to use a new exterior wall assembly that we believe holds great promise.
The development of this new wall system was not driven by any inadequacies in our previous wall system. In fact, the award-winning* OBPlus Wall that has been used on most Unity Homes for the past four years is a robust and energy efficient solution for enclosing our homes. However, we believed that we could come up with a new wall assembly that would be similar in performance to the OBPlus Wall, would improve on certain details, and would be more affordable.
After a year of of prototyping and testing various wall assemblies, we are pleased to announce that our new wall is now in full production. The thermal performance of this new wall is comparable to the OBPlus Wall on which it is based, it has a deeper service space for wiring, and it features a continuous layer of wood fiber insulation that meets the most advanced energy codes. Thus far we have built eight Unity Homes with this new wall, and we are excited by the results.
The appearance of the new wall—it looks like wood!—has attracted the notice of Unity fans on social media. Several have questioned how the wood fiber board holds up to rain, because we are using the insulation board as both insulation and a weather-resistant barrier. This material, which has long been used in similar applications in Europe, is treated with paraffin wax to be highly weather resistant. In fact, water poured on the material simply beads up and rolls off.
If we had any questions about the performance of this new wall, they related to our ability to air seal the joints. The impressive energy efficiency of Unity Homes is based largely on the air tightness that we have consistently achieved. Blower door tests on the first Unity Homes built using the new wall have revealed that it performs very well in this regard.
Why did we choose wood fiber board for the layer of continuous insulation, rather than the more commonly used rigid foam or mineral wool board? The simple answer is that we like wood, and, all things being equal, are drawn to its use because it is renewable. The more complicated answer involves building science, the hygroscopic properties of wood fibers, and our desire to have wall systems capable of drying to the outside.
Lowering the cost of high performance homes requires constant balancing between our impulse to improve the systems we are using, and the need to maintain consistency so that we can achieve efficiency in the production process. With each home we build using our new wall, we grow more confident that this assembly will be a Unity standard for years to come. *The OBPlus Wall was recognized by BuildingGreen as one of the Top Ten Green Building Products of the Year for 2010.
Posted By Andrew Dey • November 22 2016 • Comments On
What’s the most difficult aspect of building a high-performance home? Some might say it’s getting all of the finicky air-sealing details right. Others, ensuring that moisture is properly managed. Still others, “right-sizing” the heating and cooling system. But here at Unity Homes, we are finding that the parts of the process that are outside our control – like financing the home – can prove to be a challenge.
Although lowering the cost of high-performance homes is central to Unity’s mission, the fact is that in certain markets, our homes tend to be more expensive than homes that are built just to the level of current building codes. This is because the quality and performance of our homes is significantly higher than the typical code-built home. When it comes to helping our clients obtain financing for their homes, we often find ourselves educating appraisers and lenders, to help ensure that the value of the home is accurately represented in the appraisal.
Last month we were happy to host an educational event for appraisers, lenders and realtors at which Sandra Adomatis, a nationally-recognized expert on green appraisals, presented strategies and solutions for successfully appraising high-performance homes. Sandra emphasized the importance of appraisers and realtors becoming educated about the construction, features and operation of high performance homes. She provided sample language to better describe the advantages of these homes in the Multiple Listing Service and on appraisals. And she highlighted the importance of working with lenders who understand the value of high-performance homes. Sandra also demonstrated that a compelling case for high-performance homes can often be made by evaluating the total cost of ownership, because lower monthly utility bills offset higher monthly mortgage payments.
The approximately thirty attendees asked good questions and engaged in thoughtful discussion. We concluded the event with tours of our production facility and show home.
The participants in this appraiser education event were universally positive about having attended, with comments ranging from “This was very informative and educational” to “Awesome event!” Everyone acknowledged that there is room for improvement in the field of “green appraising,” and they were inspired to be on the vanguard of this movement. Here at Unity Homes, we will continue our efforts to make every aspect of building a new home—including the financing—as straightforward as possible.
Posted By Joey Morgan • November 16 2016 • Comments On
Unity Homes and Bensonwood were both recently featured in The Business Journal, a local magazine covering the greater Monadnock region where both companies are located. The articles were inspired by the announcement that Bensonwood would be receiving an award from the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship recognizing the company’s innovative design/build process. Bob Oberlander and Hans Porschitz, who play leadership roles at Bensonwood and Unity, were on hand to receive the award.
In a short video clip that was created for the awards ceremony, Unity founder Tedd Benson discusses the ways in which the work that we do reflects the best of our region.
As Tedd puts it, our success “is a celebration of everything that all of us from the Monadnock region know is a part of who we are and how we think and how we act.”
The article about Unity Homes can be read as a pdf here. Although the article mischaracterizes Unity as a builder of “modular” homes, the point remains—that through our innovative processes, we are bringing high performance homes to a broader market.
Posted By Andrew Dey • October 3 2016 • Comments On
One of the most distinctive features of Unity Homes is our design system, which is based on four design starting points or “platforms.” As most visitors to this blog are probably aware, the design of each Unity Home typically starts with one of the platforms: the Xyla, the Värm, the Tradd or the Zūm. These platforms are distinguished by how they look, and also by how they function—how they are lived in. During the design process, the platforms are modified using pre-designed, pre-engineered elements so that the resulting designs fit the needs, the sites and the budgets of our clients.
We hope that the example plans on this website give visitors some sense of the flexibility inherent in our design system. We call them “example” plans to suggest that they represent just a few of the many possible results that can be achieved by configuring the core platform volumes with elements from our library of building components.
How does a Unity client decide on the design platform that is right for them? Often the choice is based on particular priorities—for example, the Xyla and the Zūm offer one-floor living, while the Värm and the Tradd have second stories. Our Zūm clients most often mention the contemporary styling and large windows as driving their choice of platform. Sometimes the decision is simply intuitive: “As soon as I saw the Tradd, I knew that’s what I wanted.”
Because there’s nothing quite like standing in an actual home to experience what living in it would be like, we have decided to host simultaneous open houses at four different Unity Homes, representing each of our four design platforms. We are calling this self-guided event the “Tour of Unity.”
On October 15 between 10am and 3pm, three Unity Homes in southwest New Hampshire and one across the river in Vermont will be available for tours. The locations include Unity’s Zūm style show home in Walpole, NH, a Värm and a Tradd in Fitzwilliam, NH, and a Xyla in Dummerston, VT. All of the homes are within about 35 miles or less of each other. With a bit of planning, anyone interested in seeing all four platforms should be able to achieve this—and perhaps even allow for a brief lunch between tours.
During this self-guided day of open houses, representatives from Unity will be at each of the homes to welcome you, provide tours and answer questions. Attendees may also have the opportunity to hear first hand from homeowners what it’s like to work with Unity, and to live in a high performance Unity Home.
Please RSVP at this web page to obtain addresses and directions to the homes on the tour.
Any questions can be answered by Unity’s Marketing Coordinator Samantha Wilhelm ([email protected]).
We look forward to the possibility of seeing you on the tour!
Posted By Andrew Dey • September 13 2016 • Comments On
Here at Unity Homes, we are excited to have broken ground last week on the first of a dozen houses that we will be building at the Quechee Lakes community in eastern Vermont.
Quechee Lakes is a residential development nestled along a river and among the hills between Woodstock, VT and Hanover, NH. While the primary draw for this community is the area’s wonderful natural attractions—the Ottauquechee River running through nearby Quechee Gorge, endless rolling hills filled with trails for hiking, biking, snowmobiling and Nordic skiing, and numerous Alpine ski areas such as Killington and Okemo—the development itself offers amenities that are built on the area’s natural features, including a lake, a golf course, a ski hill and a clubhouse with a pool and tennis courts.
As with many other residential developments, construction activity at Quechee Lakes had slowed dramatically during the recession. However in recent years, real estate activity in the area has picked up to the point where local realtors feel that they do not have enough quality new housing stock to offer potential buyers.
The developer of Quechee Lakes, in an effort to serve the growing demand for new, high performance homes in the community, hired Unity to build twelve homes on some of the best remaining lots in the development. The choice of Unity was driven by several factors, including the high performance of Unity’s “product,” the compressed construction schedule made possible by off-site fabrication, and the assurance that Unity could provide about costs and quality.
For this project, Unity has created variations of its Värm design platform to accommodate both sloped and level sites, and has assembled a palette of finish and fixture selections specifically for these homes. The Quechee office of Masiello Group/Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate is taking the lead on sales for these new homes. The initial enthusiasm of the realtors for Unity’s homes was reinforced when one was purchased as a pre-sale.
Unity’s project manager for the Quechee Lakes homes, Brad Moore, views this project as the natural extension of Unity’s recent work at Dartmouth College, where he oversaw the construction of four new faculty homes based on the Värm platform: “By building variations on a theme, rather than making each house completely different, we see real efficiencies in how quickly and precisely these homes go together. And those efficiencies are reflected in the final cost.”
The twelve Unity Homes at Quechee Lakes are being built in three phases, the first of which is now underway. Ryan Lawler, who heads Unity’s project management department and who led the preconstruction phase of this project, expects that the first three homes will be assembled on site by early November, and should be completed in January. We anticipate breaking ground on the second phase of homes in mid October. The goal that Unity and the developer share is to complete all twelve of the homes by the end of 2017.
The project at Quechee Lakes represents a new phase of growth for Unity. We are eager to apply the lessons learned and the efficiencies achieved on this project to our work with other developers throughout the Northeast.
Posted By Andrew Dey • August 31 2016 • Comments On
Unity Homes recently completed a home located in a beautiful part of southwest Connecticut. Last week I visited the owners, Amy and TJ, in their new home to discuss what worked well during the planning and construction of their home, and what could have been better. In the spirit of continuous improvement, we are sharing some of their feedback in this blog post.
Amy started off our conversation with an encouraging statement: “If I were to build a house again, I would use Unity,” but then she added with a smile, “with caveats.” As I toured the house with Amy and TJ, they pointed out what they liked and what did not work so well, and they also had suggestions for improving our process.
“The Intus windows are great,” said Amy. These triple glazed tilt-turn style windows from Europe are relatively new to the North American market. I was pleased to hear that she appreciated their function and performance.
As we approached the closet where the mechanical systems were located, Amy remarked that she loved the mini-split heating and cooling system, but she felt that it would have been better if we had allowed for more space in the mechanical room. Because we are trying to optimize the floor plan for every Unity home, finding space for the water heater, the fresh air system and other mechanical equipment is sometimes challenging. (more…)
Unity Homes is honored to be featured in a recent article by Sam Rashkin, who has dedicated his career to improving the performance of homes in America.
When he worked at the EPA, Sam was instrumental in developing and deploying the Energy Star for Homes program, under which more than 1.6 million homes have been certified. Now Chief Architect at the Department of Energy, Sam is promoting the Zero Energy Homes Ready program, which aims to make zero energy homes the new normal.
Sam leads workshops for home building executives throughout the country, focused on accelerating innovation. His book Retooling the U.S. Housing Industry: How It Got Here, Why It’s Broken, and How to Fix It presents a comprehensive strategy for transforming both the home building industry itself, and the experience of buying a new home.(more…)
Bensonwood’s former head engineer Ben Brungraber (aka “Dr. Joint”) enjoys breaking things. In fact, Ben’s alma mater Stanford awarded him a PhD. for research that involved breaking traditional timber frame joints to test their strength. Ben recently spent a lively day in our shop, working with members of our engineering and building systems teams to break prototype headers that we are developing for use in the walls of Unity Homes.
As Unity continues to pursue lowering the cost of high performance homes, we are creating new building systems that are optimized both for our production system and for performance in our homes. This “design for manufacturing” approach is made possible by Unity’s off-site construction methods and our closely-knit team of engineers, architects and fabricators.
Recently our team has focused on finding better solutions for framing and insulating the wall area over windows and doors. Standard framing relies on solid headers and short studs to provide the necessary framing, but that wood compromises the energy performance of the wall. Our Building Systems team, working closely with our engineers, has designed a header that uses wall sheathing and minimal framing to create a hollow but rigid beam—a beam that can be dense-packed with cellulose for optimal insulation. The headers will allow walls to be built more rapidly in our shop, and will also provide advantages for assembly on site.(more…)
Early last year, Dartmouth College approached Unity Homes to discuss building four faculty residences on campus as part of an initiative called “Moving Dartmouth Forward” — a program to eliminate high-risk behavior and increase inclusivity. As described in Dartmouth Now, the homes are part of new residential communities that cluster student housing with nearby homes for professors, thereby fostering the type of academic and social interactions that are central to Dartmouth’s vision.
The four faculty homes are nearing completion and will be ready for occupancy this summer. Each has a Unity Värm design platform at its core, but at 3300 square feet, they are larger than typical Värms in order to accommodate faculty-student gatherings.
We began manufacturing the homes in January and assembled the weather-tight shells on site in March. We are now on track to complete all four homes by the targeted completion date of July 1. This will give the college plenty of time to launch the new housing clusters for the fall semester.
According to Tim McNamara, Dartmouth’s Associate Director for Campus Planning and Facilities, the college’s choice of Unity Homes was based on three factors: energy efficiency, speed of construction, and price. McNamara describes the college’s new Unity Homes as “solid, attractive, durable homes.”
Posted By Unity Team • April 17 2016 • Comments On
Unity is pleased to be named a Top 10 Product for 2016, by BuildingGreen, a leading publisher of independent environmental building news. The awards have been given out for 14 years in honor of products that transform the design and construction industry, by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, conserving energy, and incorporating durable safe materials. Alex Wilson, BuildingGreen founder, has said of the Top-10: “We are thrilled to call attention to these products, which are helping to create more sustainable, greener buildings throughout North America.”
In response to the news, Unity founder Tedd Benson writes, “Most Top 10 lists are in honor of past accomplishments. At Unity, we like to think of this as a challenge to do even better in the future. Our charge is to constantly improve performance and quality (beauty, function, durability) while simultaneously driving down cost, in order to make high-performance homes widely available, affordable, and normal. With all of these challenges, it’s going to be a long journey, so it’s humbling to receive this award when we feel we’re just beginning!”
In announcing the award BuildingGreen’s Brent Ehrlich explained why Unity made the Top 10:
“Most single-family and multifamily homes are still stick-built onsite using minimal insulation, poor air sealing, poor quality control, inefficient HVAC systems, and unsustainable materials. Unity Homes is changing that paradigm with its high-performance panelized home system.
“These homes are shop-built to the highest quality standards using materials that are milled with computer numeric control (CNC) equipment to help create panelized wall systems and “pods” (small prefab modules used for bathrooms, mechanical rooms and kitchens) with tight seals, minimal thermal bridging, and superb moisture management. The walls are insulated with cellulose to R-35, and roofs are insulated to between R-38 and R-44. Other energy-saving features include triple-pane low-e windows, custom-built insulated doors, mini-split heat pumps, HRV/ERVs for fresh air, and heat-pump water heaters—making it easy for a baseline Unity Home to meet net-zero with onsite renewables. While already minimizing material waste and operating energy, the company is also evaluating its materials in hopes of minimizing embodied carbon and other embodied impacts in the future.
“Unity Homes also uses FSC-certified wood and low-VOC finishes and adhesives, yet can still offer significant cost savings over site-built homes. And though Unity Homes are built in a shop, there are four design platforms that can be customized using sophisticated CAD-CAM technology, with multi-family and ‘tiny’ house options in the works.”
To read about all the BuildGreen Top 10 winners for 2016, click here.
Posted By Unity Team • March 31 2016 • Comments On
In March, a team from Unity Homes and Bensonwood went down to Boston for the annual BuildingEnergy Conference, held by the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA). For three days, we networked with our fellow industry professionals, participated in presentations, and talked with potential customers—all while reinforcing our status as leaders in green, sustainable, high-performance building.
Many of our partners had booths on the trade show floor, including Intus Windows, Mitsubishi, Huber, Siga and Zehnder. We were pleased to see that BuildingGreen, who recently named Unity Homes as one of their Top 10 Green Building Products for 2016, had a booth across the aisle from ours.
In contrast to the status quo in the construction industry, many of the companies represented at BuildingEnergy 16 share Unity’s goal of making high-performance homes more accessible and affordable. In the process, we face similar challenges—from finding ways to apply new technologies, to convincing banks and mortgage companies to appreciate the added value of high-performance features. Every year, the BuildingEnergy conference provides an opportunity for us to compare notes with like-minded professionals, and reinforces our belief that we are at the vanguard of an important movement.
For this year’s conference, Unity founder Tedd Benson teamed up with several other industry leaders to organize a panel discussion about the challenges and potential of using off-site construction methods to produce high performance homes. Unity’s Operations Director Andrew Dey moderated the round-table discussion that included Tedd, two architects, and representatives of the off-site fabrication companies BrightBuilt Homes and New England Homes. The discussion touched on several issues that are common across the industry, such as the potential stigma associated with terms like “prefabricated” or “modular.” The companies represented also had the opportunity to emphasize the benefits of their own unique approach—in the case of Unity Homes, our software-driven montage process. The discussion was energetic, congenial and informative, and it received high marks from the audience.
The panel discussion on off-site construction was one of several dozen conference presentations covering all aspects of sustainable buildings. Unity’s Rheannon DeMond and Danny Veerkamp gave a presentation called, “Material Selections: A Life Cycle Perspective Viewed Through One Home,” in which they highlighted surprising findings from a recent Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of a Unity Home. For example, when viewed through this lens, the environmental impact of the uPVC material used in Intus windows appears to be lower than that of the materials in a metal-clad wood window. This presentation also underscored the results of analysis that the long-term operational energy of a typical building far outweighs the embodied energy used to make it. As we succeed in lowering the energy needed to operate buildings,the energy used to construct them has a proportionately greater environmental impact. Click here for a PDF of their presentation. (Note: PDFs of all the presentations are downloadable here.)
BuildingEnergy 16 proved once again why the conference is considered the premier gathering of green/sustainable building professionals in the northeast. While about 75% of the attendees work in the industry, the conference also provides homeowners and buyers with a great opportunity to see what’s possible now, and what may be available in the near future. BuildingEnergy 17 will be in Boston March 7-9, 2017. Hope to see you there!
From March 8 – 10, Unity Homes will be participating in the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association’s BuildingEnergy Boston 2016 at the Seaport World Trade Center. This annual event brings together the best and the brightest in sustainable, high-performance building. We are excited to continue our tradition of supporting the conference, as both presenters and exhibitors.
Unity will be at Booth #445 on the trade show floor, and several of our team members will be front and center at the educational sessions. On Wednesday the 9th, from 10:30 a.m until noon, Unity’s building science expert Rheannon Demond and project manager Danny Veerkamp will present a Life Cycle Assessment (LSA) of a Unity Home. The next day, Thursday the 10th from 10:30 a.m. until noon,, our founder Tedd Benson will participate in a panel discussion about offsite construction, moderated by Operations Director Andrew Dey.
Unity’s sibling company Bensonwood will be sponsoring the activities at NESEA night, which feature music, food, and dancing. (There’ll even be giant Jenga blocks for demonstrating your latest design ideas.). Plus, NESEA’s Professional Leadership and Distinguished Service Awards will be presented.
We hope to see you there!
About NESEA: The BuildingEnergy Boston Conference + Trade Show attracts more than 3,500 people who are working together to increase the use of sustainable energy practices in the building environment. Attendees span all sectors of the green building and energy industries so it’s a great place to expand your network of contacts. Conference sessions are rigorous, relevant, and rooted in whole-systems thinking. Plus, a wide range of cutting-edge products are on display. For more info, click: http://nesea.org/conference/buildingenergy-boston-2016
Posted By Unity Team • February 3 2016 • Comments On
When it comes to energy efficiency, triple-glazed windows clearly make a difference. But are they worth the investment? Every homebuilding project and each homeowner has their priorities, but at Unity Homes—where we place a high value on comfort and energy efficiency—the answer is yes. That’s why they are standard on every Unity home.
In terms of the thermal performance of the building envelope, windows provide one of the greatest opportunities for conserving energy and ensuring comfort. They account for most of the heat loss in cold climates and heat gain in hot climates. Glass, on its own, is a very poor insulator, having little to no resistance to the transmission of heat. Standard double-glazed windows, which trap a layer of air between the two panes, can reduce thermal conductivity and increase R-value—the measure of a material’s ability to resist the transmission of heat. Triple-glazing, however, when incorporated into a well-designed, well-constructed window, makes a far more significant difference.
Posted By Unity Team • January 8 2016 • Comments On
Many programs have been established to measure the energy efficiency and environmental impact of new buildings. The plethora of options can make it difficult even for those of us in the industry to keep track of the programs and acronyms. This post attempts to shed light on the more popular rating systems, and the ways in which Unity Homes is meeting or exceeding their targets.
The building geeks out there will likely be very impressed to learn that a Unity Home was recently awarded a HERS rating of 34 (and without incorporating renewable energy). Those who are not versed in home energy rating systems might be interested to know what this means, and why we believe it’s important.
The dust has settled (literally and figuratively) on Unity Homes’ participation in Greenbuild 2015. The Zūm show home that we erected in three days on the trade show floor has now been reassembled (in two days!) on its permanent foundation up the road from our Walpole, NH headquarters. We are responding to the large number of inquiries that resulted from Unity’s participation in Greenbuild. And we are reviewing and evaluating all that we accomplished, learned and saw.
We had envisioned the Greenbuild Conference and Expo as the national launch of Unity Homes, and as such, it could not have gone better. We pulled off the installation of a beautiful, high-performance show home at the conference in a remarkably short period of time. As job captain John McElroy said when someone complimented him on the achievement, “I know, right? I can’t believe what we can do!” A record number of visitors toured the home, we received high praise from many quarters, and we hosted a national launch party for Unity that was enthusiastically attended by some of the brightest stars in green building.
Posted By Unity Team • November 16 2015 • Comments On
In retrospect, our goal of taking just two days to completely assemble the show home for this week’s Greenbuild Conference and Expo may have been unrealistic. It took us three.
But if we hadn’t run into a glitch with trucking permits that delayed the first delivery of components by several hours, we might actually have achieved our target schedule. Unity and Bensonwood have a long history of stretching to reach ambitious goals. On those occasions when we fall short, the results can still be impressive.
We have known for many years that the key to rapid on-site assembly of complex projects is extensive preparation. This project was no different, but the stakes were higher. If the home we started assembling mid-day on Thursday had not been ready for finishing touches on Monday, there could have been ripple effects with serious consequences for the show home partners, sponsors and visitors.
Posted By Unity Team • October 14 2015 • Comments On
At Unity Homes, we use the word montage (a French word meaning “assembly”) to describe three main processes: 1) how our designs are assembled on-screen in 3D using pre-designed and pre-engineered components, 2) how those components are actually manufactured in our shop, and, finally, 3) how our homes are assembled/built on-site from those pre-fabricated components. We have completed the montage design process for the Zūm model home that will be featured at this year’s Greenbuild Conference and Expo in Washington, D.C.and the montage pre-fabrication process is now underway in our shop. However, for this project we’re taking our in-shop work a step further.
After manufacturing the components of a typical Unity Home, we don’t put them together—actually build the home—inside our shop. However, this particular project is not typical Unity. With just two days to assemble the home in the Convention Hall, we knew there would be little if any margin for error—that it would be crazy to attempt this, without first pre-fitting as many of the parts and pieces as possible in our shop.(more…)
Posted By Unity Team • October 7 2015 • Comments On
Unity is known for building homes unusually quickly, but the show home that’s being featured at this year’s Greenbuild Conference and Trade Show in Washington D.C. will set a new bar for speed. Our ambitious plan is to assemble the prefabricated components of this home over the course of two days inside the trade show hall. The completed home will then be open for tours during the conference.
“The biggest challenge with an extremely compressed schedule like this is to maintain Unity’s high level of quality,” says company founder Tedd Benson. To successfully meet this challenge, the Unity team is drawing on a long heritage of precision prefabrication and “blitz builds.”
With a construction schedule this tight, there’s no room for errors or omissions. Experienced carpenters know that mistakes can be minimized by adhering to the adage “measure twice and cut once.” At Unity, we put a different spin on that saying. We say “build twice: first virtually, and then in reality.” (more…)
Posted By Unity Team • August 15 2015 • Comments On
We recently did a blower door test on a Xyla in northern New Hampshire to measure its air tightness—i.e., how “leaky” it was. The result was [email protected] pa, which is well under the rigorous Passive House standard of .6 and almost seven times as tight as the strictest building code.
“ACH” stands for air changes per hour…how many times the inside air is replaced by outside air in an hour. “50 pa” stands for the pressure used during the test and roughly equals the pressure of a 20 mph wind. The lower the air changes per hour, the more airtight a house is.
While most of us understand the importance of the R-value of insulation for energy efficiency, minimizing air infiltration is just as important. (more…)
Posted By Unity Team • April 10 2015 • Comments On
Unity has developed a three-part solution that solves several big problems with modern building. Most construction today is done on-site, where raw materials are delivered and workers then custom-cut each piece to build a home. This laborious process is not much different than it was one hundred years ago. We’ve developed a whole different method of construction that we call “Montage Building,” (a term derived from the French word meaning “Assembly.”) (more…)
Posted By Unity Team • December 20 2014 • Comments Off
Green building is not a stagnant goal, but rather a rapidly-moving evolutionary process. The Northwest EcoBuilding Guild plays an active role in that evolution, working to turn back carbon emissions, become self sustaining, contribute to local economies, and promote health and community. Forward looking, the Guild’s mission is, “Advancing a 200-year perspective on the built environment.”
Posted By Unity Team • December 19 2014 • Comments Off
Bensonwood architect Randall Walter, AIA, LEED AP led an education lab at this year’s Greenbuild Conference in New Orleans titled, “School Building as Teacher: Design for the Future.” Learning objectives for the session were to understand:
• Outcomes of promoting social change through synergistic curriculum and
building/campus design. • Impacts of building systems and resource transparency on student learning. • The synergies between green building and impacts on student learning. • Unintended consequences and learning opportunities from this project.
Posted By Unity Team • December 18 2014 • Comments Off
All Unity Homes have been optimized for health, comfort, energy efficiency and durability. But among the four Unity platforms, Värm™, with its full two stories, has special attributes when it comes to the range of style and configuration possibilities.
In Sweden, the word “lagom” has deep cultural significance. It doesn’t translate directly in English, but it roughly means “just enough,” or “just right.” Perhaps most notably, it also means “in balance”—not too much, but not too little either. Tedd Benson’s family hails from the central farming region of Sweden known as Värmland and it is from these roots, and from this concept, that Tedd and the Unity Homes design team created Värm.
Posted By Unity Team • December 17 2014 • Comments Off
At some point in the decision to buy a home, there comes a critical calculation: Do I build a new house on my own land, or buy an existing one? And if that existing home is poorly constructed or simply outdated, how will that impact me over time?
Aside from the obvious fact that existing buildings are where they are, as opposed to where you’d like them to be, they also come with hidden costs that may not be immediately apparent to the average homebuyer. As one example, getting older existing houses up to current energy code, let alone the stringent standards of today’s high-performance buildings, can involve impossibly long payback periods. (more…)
Posted By Unity Team • October 14 2014 • Comments On
“The typical American home is a performance dinosaur, and is too much of a long-term burden for homeowners and society. Unity Homes aims to help make this species extinct.”
On October 9, 2012, Bensonwood launched Unity Homes with the goal of making ultra-efficient, off-site-built homes affordable for the average home buyer. To date, Unity Homes have been built along the East Coast as far south as Asheville, NC and as far north as Montpelier, VT, and have been praised as possibly the “greenest prefabs on the market” byTreeHugger’s Lloyd Alter. (more…)