Slaying the Dinosaur: Low-Cost, High-Performance Prefabs From Unity Homes

Images: Unity Homes.

Back in 2008, Bensonwood Homes — a venerable New Hampshire-based precision builder best known for high-end timber frame and panelized custom homes — received a fair amount of press for Unity House, a net-zero energy residence built on the campus of Unity College in Maine. While Bensonwood's LEED Platinum-certified Unity House was built for the college’s president and his family, the deep-green campus later also became home to TerraHaus, a G•O Logic-designed residence hall built to Passive House standards. Although it’s been four years since Bensonwood made headlines at Unity College, apparently the experience stuck — last week, Bensonwood launched an entire offshoot of high-performance prefab homes named, you guessed it, Unity Homes. A freestanding enterprise from its older sibling that’s currently headed by Bensonwood founder, Tedd Benson, Unity is comprised of four unique flat-pack prefabs each geared to consume 50 to 75 percent less energy than standard newly built homes. Referring to the American home as a “performance dinosaur," Benson proclaims that the mission of his new brand is to "help make this species extinct with a new breed of beautiful, functional and uber-efficient homes."


Assembled in Bensonwood’s Walpole, N.H. factory, the airtight abodes possess all the standards of passive house-dom: triple-pane Loewen windows, high levels of cellulose insulation (R35 walls and R44 roof), buttoned-up building shells, energy recovery ventilators, air-source heat pumps, and more. They’re also capable of achieving net-zero energy if the owner decides to add a solar array.

While the names of the homes are a touch esoteric, the designs themselves are rather conventional, comfortable, classic. First, there’s Tradd, a Cape Cod-style residence measuring between 2,056 – 2,452-square-feet. That’s a rendering of Tradd at the top of the page. Xyla is the “all-American” member of the Unity Homes family. Refreshingly, the single-floor bungalow is rather petite at between 1,113 – 1,591-square-feet. In a nod to Tedd Benson’s ancestry, Värm is a lovely Swedish farmhouse-style affair measuring between 1,782 – 2,896-square-feet. And, last but not least, there’s Zūm, a "modern green" home directly inspired by the Unity House project. Dubbed “a true home of the future,” Zūm offers “contemporary styling and extremely low energy loads” with between 1,594 – 2,133-square-feet of living space.


Prices for the quartet of Unity Homes range from between a little under $200,000 to $450,000 excluding land, permits, taxes, site excavation, and all that good stuff. Tradd has the highest starting price at $339,500 while Xyla is on the lower end, starting at $199,750. Compared to most conventional homes, yes, the price tags are a touch high, but as far as green prefabs go, Unity Homes are on the affordable end of things.

In addition to the aforementioned energy-saving specs, standard features 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.

Also standard with each home is Bensonwood’s proprietary Open-Built system. Essentially, each home is organized into easily accessible “useful layers” making for easier upgrades and repairs down the line. And, of course, all four homes were conceived to meet Unity’s five key attributes — healthy, beautiful, comfortable, solid, and frugal — while adhering to lagom design principles. In other, non-Swedish words, the homes are “just right" or "in balance." A complete run-down of the standard exterior and interior features can be found here.


As for the assembly and installation details of these "bar-raising" homes — I should point out that they've been praised as possibly the "greenest prefabs on the market" by TreeHugger's Lloyd Alter — a press release issued by Unity Homes sums things up:

All Unity Homes are fabricated off-site by skilled building systems specialists using advanced software systems, automated cutting machines, and Lean manufacturing advances to make large assemblies and sub-assemblies (usually panels) with unparalleled quality and precision. Completed building "elements" are then flat-packed on trucks using a unique software system to virtually pack and nest the elements, ensuring that little space is wasted. With the benefit of rapid on-site building assembly (1-3 days), total on-site construction time is reduced dramatically to as little as 20 to 60 working days.
Plenty more info and imagery over at the Unity Homes website. I’ll leave you with these sage words from Tedd Benson:
It should go without saying that the quality of a home is an elemental aspect in the quality of our lives. How we house ourselves deeply affects who we are. It seeps into our consciousness and broadly defines our culture. We now have the knowledge and capability to make much better homes for everyone; therefore we should. We're excited about how Unity Homes will help bring this critical industry initiative forward.