Tedd Benson has been building houses for almost 40 years, and has been questioning the way they are built since he started. After years of specializing in high-end timberframe designs, he has launched a new company, Unity Homes, to bring his innovations to the flatpack prefab world.
Houses are like people; different parts wear out at different rates. In people, it gets expensive changing parts. With houses, until about hundred years ago, this meant fixing the roof and painting; then we added plumbing and wiring and insulation and other technologies that we buried behind the walls, so that like people, it got expensive and destructive to cut them open to upgrade systems. The structure of a home, built of decent materials, might last a couple of hundred years; the heating system or wiring might last a couple of decades, yet builders stuck the wires and ducts into the walls and covered them with drywall.
Benson developed what he called Open-Built, a design system that let the homeowner get at all the systems that go into a house. Ceiling panels can be removed; floors are built with a raised system that makes adding and changing things easy; wiring is behind removable baseboards; plumbing is carefully designed in accessible chases. (See an earlier post on Open Building here and a PDF article from Fine Homebuilding "reinventing the house")
Benson built the homes themselves out of timberframe, which can last a thousand years, and wrapped it with an exterior cladding system that might just last a hundred. This is expensive, and is perhaps a longer timeframe than people worry about.
That's where Unity Homes comes in. It uses more conventional framing instead of timberframe, and offers pre-engineered, prefabricated packages that bring almost all of the benefits of the Open-Built system to a more affordable product. It is a "tightly engineered and well designed suite of homes that can be personalized, but the customization will be limited for the sake of optimizing cost and quality." Tedd writes:
The mission of Unity Homes is to offer the highest quality homes for the lowest possible cost. Because of Bensonwood’s legacy, the Unity Homes quality won’t waver; because of our goals for this new brand, we’ll constantly fight to make this standard of homebuilding more affordable and more accessible.
Starting at under $200,000 for 1100 square feet, (larger models price out at as little as $165 PSF) these houses have killer specifications for such a price: R-35 walls, R-44 roofs, triple paned Loewen windows, tightness to passivhaus standards. Materials are all healthy choices, with low or no VOC finishes, cellulose insulation, and lots of natural light. The base finishes are any other builder's upgrades, with no vinyl to be found.
There are four basic designs with a few iterations of each, including one contemporary model and a very nice "Swedish style" model, the Värm. No, that doesn't make it an IKEA flatpack; there is reason behind it:
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.
The holy grail of green prefab was to get the the quality control and efficiencies possible in a factory at an affordable price. Some will still complain that the Unity Homes are not affordable when compared to conventional housing, but this isn't a conventional house. This is a complete rethinking of how houses are built. Most people in North America buy houses that might not last as long as the mortgage; these houses are designed for generations.
Steve Mouzon has written that a green building has to be Lovable, Flexible, Durable and Frugal; Tedd Benson's Unity Homes nail them all. This is one to watch.