Unity Homes – Walpole, NH
By George Harvey, staff
This is not just another story about highly efficient homes. It is a story about the development of affordable highly efficient homes.
Tedd Benson started out in 1974 as a conventional builder, but soon began investigating the wonderful colonial timber-framed structures he saw in New England, impressed by their strength and resilience. With a view to improving the quality of current homebuilding, Benson found ways to combine time-honored building techniques with the best modern products and processes. It is an ongoing journey in which improvements achieved can be foundations of greater improvements in the future. So the story of his company, Bensonwood, is a history of a research and development program with fine homes being the visible result. A passionate green building advocate, Benson’s journey continues to this day.
Benson started with the model of the handcrafted mortise-and-tenon buildings made by our ancestors, and modernized their design and manufacture using computers. To enclose the timber-frame structures, he developed a panelized system that incorporated the necessary insulation and mechanical systems for HVAC, plumbing, electrical, and communications. Centuries-old techniques of construction combine with new manufacturing techniques to make better homes.
Over the past forty years, Benson has written several pioneering books inspiring the timber frame construction movement, of which he is considered a leader. This company’s work has repeatedly been celebrated on PBS’s This Old House TV series and in numerous publications. His research is not just about better construction techniques. It is about better construction business models, with a continual drive for improvement in design, engineering and construction of sustainable housing for healthy living.
One enormous improvement is to take manufacture out of the field, eliminating the work of fashioning each piece individually at the job site during the prime construction season. Instead, most building is in a controlled environment out of the weather. Pieces are formed into highly finished, panelized construction assemblies that can then be transported efficiently and inexpensively to the home site. There, they are rapidly assembled in a matter of days, versus the weeks or months required for conventional stick-built construction. Work quality improves, efficiency improves, waste is reduced, costs are predictably managed, and final quality is consistently better.
The result is that custom-designed homes are more comfortable, and healthy living can be achieved at a competitive price. People can live in buildings clearly intended to last for centuries with very little or no outside energy needed.
Benson’s goal, however, was not merely to make better, more energy-efficient, longer-lasting houses, but to make them affordable for ordinary homebuyers. And so, in the midst of the greatest housing crisis since the Great Depression, he started a new subsidiary, Unity Homes.
The goal of Unity Homes is to produce high-quality, comfortable homes that are healthful to live in while reducing construction costs. There are four basic designs, ranging from the Varm, a traditional farmhouse, to the ultra-modern Zum, but the customer can choose from a large number of options, making the possibilities virtually limitless. The new homeowner is freed of the time and financial burden of traditional architectural design and benefits of designs carefully chosen for efficient construction.
While the home site is prepared, the panelized construction assemblies are built in Unity Homes’ factory in Walpole, New Hampshire. The assemblies, like those from the Bensonwood parent company, are shipped as flat, wall, roof, and floor components that are joined together at the building site. The elements arrive, and in a few days the weathertight shell of the building is complete, ready for the infill and finishes.
The Open-Built® design of the company’s panelized assemblies is an impressive improvement. Each is a self-contained section, with all penetrations planned and prepared. Wiring and plumbing are organized into dedicated channels or chases, “disentangling” them from the structure and the insulation, for easy access in the future. The company’s airtight, highly-insulated (R-35) OBPlus Wall®, a central component of all Bensonwood homes, is award-winning. Dense-packed cellulose insulation (9.5 inches) is pre-installed, giving recycled paper and cloth fibers centuries of valuable new life. The cellulose is given a natural borate treatment to discouraged pests and act as a fire retardant. Roof insulation is R-44.
Benson is continuing to look for better ways to do things. What he foresees is zero-energy-ready housing, constructed on site in 20 days, built to last centuries, with total costs to the homeowner well below those of conventional new homes. He says of this, “We know this is our goal, and we know it is achievable.”
Benson Woodworking’s Unity Homes website is at unityhomes.com.