“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” by TreeHugger’s Lloyd Alter.
Designed to consume 50 to 75 percent less energy than standard newly-built homes, Unity Homes currently has four distinct 2 to 4 bedroom styles ranging in size from 1,028 to 2,450 sq ft. The home models are the Tradd (a classic tall cape), Xyla (an American bungalow), Värm (a Swedish contemporary) and Zūm (a passive solar optimized modern). All four of the highly-customizable styles have been built.
In the two years since its launch, Unity Homes has developed ways to raise the quality and performance of sustainably built homes while continuously trimming cost to make them ever more affordable. The company has already reached its original goal of trimming the typical build time to 30-35 working days for most projects and expects to get it down to around 20 working days in the future.
Although Unity Homes first appeared in 2012, the seeds of the idea began much earlier. In 1991, Bensonwood began the long-term process of standardizing home production using computer-assisted design (CAD) software to optimize floor plans.
“I have long believed that the average American home should have a much higher standard of build quality, durability and energy performance,” Tedd Benson said in a 2012 Green Building Advisor article about the Unity Homes launch. After years of building a reputation for higher-end timber frame home and institutional projects, Benson and the Bensonwood team wanted to bring his building innovations to the market-rate factory-built world.
There was also a philosophical element to Benson’s plan, describing the typical American home as a performance dinosaur, and too much of a long-term burden for homeowners and society. Then, as now, he wants to make that species extinct and transform the industry by offering an affordable home at a higher standard of efficiency.
In 2008, Bensonwood received critical acclaim for its roles in fabricating the LEED Platinum-certified Unity House, a net-zero energy residence built on the campus of Unity College in Maine for the college president and his family.
The project was important, not only because the building was designed to maximize energy performance, but because it highlighted the Passive House standard for airtightness—the most cost-effective and easily achievable aspect of the Passive House standard.
Inspired by the project’s success and what the company learned from it, four years later Bensonwood launched a separate company producing high-performance prefab houses. The company was dubbed Unity Homes because it was thought the perfect name to express the democratic, egalitarian nature of these homes designed for the average American family.
Despite being in the throes of the worst housing crisis since the Great Depression, Benson realized that the company’s Bensonwood’s Open-Built® “operating system” capabilities and production capacity were being underutilized and warranted expansion. Tedd Benson also wanted to avoid reducing staff and a new division would allow the company to weather the housing downturn.
A 40-Year-Old Startup
Unity Homes’ strategic vision began with a seemingly simple premise. “What if building only took 30 working days, all costs were known, the house quality was above anything the buyer had previously experienced, and the home could be net-zero-energy forever?”
For nearly a year, the entire Bensonwood team worked together to design and engineer the Unity Homes offerings and develop all the information, renderings and floor plans.
With no outside funding and many long hours, the company created a “40 year old start up,” Tedd Benson quipped at the time. In the end, Unity Homes was able to achieve both energy performance and price point goals with its high-precision panelized construction methods, keeping 60% of construction inside its production facility. Each home is organized into easily accessible “layers,” making for easier future upgrades and repairs.
By the time Benson announced the new company’s launch in an October 9 post on his blog site, “The New House Rules,” Unity’s first two homes were already in production.
Montage: A Streamlined Process
The Unity Homes team sees these houses as more than another entry into the green prefab market, but rather as a complete rethinking of how houses are built. Many people in North America buy houses that might not last as long as they do; Unity houses, like the custom Bensonwood homes, are designed to last for generations.
Additionally, instead of prefab or modular, Tedd Benson prefers the term “montage” to describe the homes, which essentially means “assemble” or bring together disparate elements to form an integrated whole. That use of montage refers not only to the building process where panels are assembled at the home site, but also to a unique approach to vernacular design. The homeowner would not incur the cost of hiring an architect, nor would they be choosing from a limited product line as with most modular or prefab houses, but be allowed a range of customization to fit their lifestyle, budget and location.
Produced in Bensonwood’s Walpole, NH “studio,” the panelized wall, floor and roof assemblies are typically ready to ship to site in a few weeks. This work is concurrent with site prep and in parallel with other component fabrication such as the precision-cut beams and millwork.
The onsite assembly of the weathertight shell is usually accomplished in one to three days, depending on complexity and garage options. From there, Unity Homes can be finished quickly because of the open layout and packaging of systems, such as pre-assembled HVAC modules. While a standard new home takes 150 days to build, Unity Homes can now shave the building cycle down to as little as 30-35 days.
The Unity Homeowner Experience: “Rewarding and Fun”
Tedd Benson has always stressed the importance of owner involvement in the homebuilding process, but J.C. and Nancy Woodward of Fitzwilliam, NH, took it to another level. J.C. and Nancy initially came to Bensonwood looking for a custom home, but after several discussions with associates, architect Chris Adams suggested they consider one of the new Unity Homes about to be launched. The Woodwards were intrigued and chose the Värm style—J.C. also chose to act as general contractor to cut cost.
The site was prepped in late 2012, production began in February 2013, and by April the crew arrived with the home’s shell, which Woodward would finish out himself with help from some local subcontractors. Having built another house 25 years prior, he expected the typical chaotic construction scene with a host of endless problems to address. Because of the obvious attention to detail and quality, Woodward says, any problems that arose were small ones and easily solved.
J.C. was there from 7 a.m. until evening every day and was stunned at how quickly and smoothly the home came together. He was also impressed by how, “every person on the Unity team deeply cared about my project’s success.” From architect Chris Adams “wringing function from every square inch” to make the house feel a lot bigger than its 1,700 SF footprint, to project manager Tony Poanessa repeatedly “going the extra mile” to make the project run smoothly, Woodward describes the experience as rewarding and fun. In fact, he was so inspired he is now taking a CAD drafting course at Keene State College and hopes to work as a project manager himself someday.
The airtight homes possess many of the standards of passive house: optional triple-pane windows, high levels of dense-pack cellulose insulation (R35 OBPlus Walls® and R44 roof), buttoned-up building shells with a Passive House level of airtightness to 0.6 ACH @ 50 Pascals or better, energy recovery ventilators, air-source heat pumps and more to reduce energy use by 50% to 75% compared to standard new houses. The homes’ operational efficiencies with low energy loads mean less power use and smaller HVAC systems. They’re also capable of achieving net-zero energy if the owner decides to add a modest solar electric system.
Health & Comfort
In addition to the energy-saving features, standard specifications of the two- to four-bedroom homes include low-VOC paints and finishes, all-electric water heaters, Moen fixtures, EPA WaterSense toilets from Kohler, and high-quality woodworking and cabinetry.
In addition, they’re comfortable, light-filled and spacious, have great air quality and are fitted with high-quality materials, finishes and fixtures. Another less-considered element is that they are quiet—something too often missing in our homes. Silence is a feature increasingly accepted as vital to health and emotional well-being; and with doors and windows closed there are no traffic sounds from the street, airplanes overhead, barking dogs or noisy neighbors. Tedd Benson often refers to these as providing vital “sanctuaries or “sacred spaces” for family.
Heavily influenced by the thinking of John Habraken and Stewart Brand, Benson and associates developed the Open-Built platform to allow simple modification of structures as occupant needs change. The central idea behind Open-Built is to “disentangle” the building’s interior and exterior systems into separate, functional layers, which improves the efficiency of the construction process. That disentanglement also allows for long-term access, meaning homeowners and professionals can accomplish changes, upgrades and renovations with less demolition and rework.
All systems within the Unity Homes will be continually scalable, with most mechanical and space upgrades able to be accomplished by the homeowners.
The ultimate goal of all green prefab manufacturers is to get the quality control and efficiencies possible in a factory at an affordable price. A common complaint is that Unity Homes and its peers are not affordable when compared to conventional stick-built housing, despite the fact that these are not conventional houses.
In truth, cost for this “beyond code” design and performance is competitive with current on-site, building-code-based construction when all factors are considered. These include: resale value, energy bills, maintenance and repairs, health effects and remodeling cost.
Nevertheless, driving down cost is a top priority in the Unity Homes mission. Unity plans to broaden the market for their homes by continually reducing cost to match the cost of conventional building, which varies widely between geographical regions. The company has already achieved this in many areas of the Northeast.
Eventually, Benson says, as more builders use and demand high-performance products, competition will increase among manufacturers, creating a virtuous cycle of improved performance and lower costs. He is emphatic, “Americans deserve better homes, and the industry has the capacity to build them, we’re just not doing it on a consistent basis. If this type of building was industry wide, the costs would drop for everyone.”
Tedd Benson is pretty clear about his future plans for Unity Homes: expanded production facilities across the country to lower shipping costs, continual improvement in the production process, and lower cost.
Eventually, Unity Homes wants to merge its current panelization process with modules that would allow Unity to complete mechanical rooms, bathrooms and kitchens at its facility, and leave only 20% of the building process for on-site construction.
Last, but not least, he wants Unity Homes to stand as a sustainable model for the industry, and with that to change how Americans view homebuilding from something to be dreaded and endured to something that is rewarding and even fun. In the end that will be a source of healing not only for future homeowners but for the planet.