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Energy Solutions

What’s Different About Unity Homes?

Panelized construction, meticulous attention to energy detailing, and a sophisticated computer design system put Unity Homes at the cutting edge of home building

A Unity Homes wall section at the company's Walpole, New Hampshire, factory.
Image Credit: Alex Wilson
View Gallery 9 images
A Unity Homes wall section at the company's Walpole, New Hampshire, factory.
Image Credit: Alex Wilson
Jay Lepple explains the wall detailing on this Unity Homes wall panel.
Image Credit: Alex Wilson
Cutaway showing the R-35 wall assembly.
Image Credit: Alex Wilson
A wall-roof panel intersection. Note the dual-bead gasket.
Image Credit: Alex Wilson
This heat-recovery ventilator (HRV) is mounted in a modular HVAC panel and is ready to be shipped to the site.
Image Credit: Alex Wilson
A just-erected Unity Home in Keene, New Hampshire. The house went up and was fully closed in in three days.
Image Credit: Unity Homes
Nino Jordan manipulating Unity Home modules on the computer.
Image Credit: Tedd Benson
Bensonwood's German Hundegger CNC machine cuts I-joists.
Image Credit: Bensonwood
This kitchen is in a just-completed Unity Home (the Xyla model) in Brattleboro, Vermont.
Image Credit: Unity Homes

In my blog last week, I provided a little background on Tedd Benson and his evolution that led him to found Unity Homes. This week, I’ll describe some of the features that set Unity Homes apart from both standard home construction and other panelized and manufactured home production.

An emphasis on energy performance

A top priority for Unity Homes is energy performance. The homes have R-35 walls and roofs that vary from R-38 to R-48 — depending on the roof spans. (Longer spans require deeper rafters (made from engineered I-joists) with room for more insulation.)

Unity’s R-35 wall does better than some R-35 walls, because thermal bridging through the framing is minimized. The wall system uses 9.5-inch-deep I-studs, so there isn’t a lot of higher-conductivity wood.

Unity uses triple-glazed, low-e, argon-filled Loewen windows throughout to control heat loss. With every house, designers consider window orientation and area and usually specify different glazings for different walls — installing windows with a higher solar heat gain coefficient (SHGC) on the south side. I was surprised that the highest SHGC for Loewen triple-glazed, low-e windows is 0.44, while some other manufacturers offer triple-glazed, low-e windows with SHGC ratings up to 0.60.

Door manufacturers could be doing better

Like me, the folks at Unity Homes (and Bensonwood) are frustrated with what’s available in the way of energy-efficient doors. They have made a lot of headway by pre-building entire entry modules in the factory (with pre-hung doors and all the air sealing needed in the surround), but the doors themselves continue to be a weak point.

Tedd let me know that indeed his team has been working on developing a better insulated door, and they expect to have a prototype soon. I’ll keep an eye on that.

Minimizing air leakage

The other major energy feature of Unity homes — perhaps the most important — is airtightness. Through a combination of precise cutting of framing members, the use of Huber Zip sheathing with taped joints, and advanced European gaskets, Unity Homes achieve the very stringent Passivhaus standard for airtightness: 0.6 air changes per hour at 50 pascals of pressure difference across the envelope (ach50). When tested by Efficiency Vermont, a recently completed Unity Home in Brattleboro (the company’s first) came in at an impressive 0.51 ach50.

Tedd argues — correctly, I believe — that with very tight construction it’s not as important to have a lot more insulation at the roof than in the walls, because there won’t be as much thermal stratification as in conventional houses. In fact, the homes do so well that single point-source heating systems, such as air-source heat pumps, usually suffice as heating systems — at least for smaller homes.

Scoring energy performance

The Home Energy Rating System (HERS) is a standardized metric for reporting the energy efficiency of houses. In the HERS rating system, a score of 100 corresponds to a standard new home that barely meets code requirements. A score of zero would be a net-zero-energy home (one that uses no net energy on an annual basis, beyond what is produced by the house). An average existing home being sold today has a HERS rating of 130.

A standard Unity Home should achieve a HERS score of about 40, while the Brattleboro house had a HERS score of 44 (three points were lost because the insulation couldn’t be inspected). Thus, Unity Homes should use only about 40% of the energy of a new home that barely meets code requirements. This energy consumption is low enough that with energy-efficient appliances and lighting and an energy-efficient air-source heat pump, a roof full of solar panels can bring the HERS rating down to zero.

It’s not only about energy

Performance is also about durability, and Unity Homes’ meticulous attention to building science and quality control during production should ensure far greater durability than standard homes. In fact, Tedd talks about a 250- to 500-year life for his homes. (With the home my wife and I are building in Dummerston, our goal is a 300-year design life, but such longevity goals are almost unheard of today.)

I’ve visited Tedd’s Walpole, New Hampshire, factory twice now, and continue to be impressed with his use of state-of-the art materials and technology from around the world — especially Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, and Germany. I’ve seen materials in standard use by Unity Homes that I’ve never seen before — like dual-bead gasketing that fits into precisely cut eighth-inch spaces between framing members.

Green materials

The life-cycle assessment of materials has also guided decisions by Unity Homes. For example, the company has largely eliminated the use of foam-plastic insulation, due in part of concerns about flame retardants and the high global warming potential of certain products. Instead, cellulose insulation — made from recycled newspaper with borate flame retardants — is used in the walls and roof.

The foam that is used on the foundation walls is extruded polystyrene salvaged from commercial or industrial projects. And timber elements used in the houses — there are a few to serve specific load requirements and add aesthetic appeal — are typically glulam beams, but substitutes are possible, including salvaged timber from old buildings.

Vinyl (PVC) has been largely avoided in Unity Homes, except for wiring and drainage piping. Siding is typically cedar shingles. And zero- or low-VOC materials are used throughout.

All right, some of those air-sealing materials coming from Europe take a lot of energy to ship here, but Tedd told me that there is interest from the supplier to set up U.S. production here if demand increases sufficiently.

Speed of construction

Unity Homes go up fast. The on-site 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 — strategies that had their origin in the Open-Built system described last week. While a standard new homes takes 150 days to build (and some take a lot longer — ask me about that sometime), Unity Homes can get the build cycle down to 35 working days currently, and the ultimate goal is 20 days.

The homes

When I visited Unity Homes a few weeks ago, I was treated to a tour of the company’s OBGrid computer system by Nino Jordan. It’s an impressive system that has evolved over the past 20 years.

Unity Homes offers four different platforms: Värm, Tradd, Xyla, and Züm, ranging from tradition to contemporary. Each of these platforms has 35 to 45 modular elements that can be configured on the OBGrid system, which determines the exact positions and connections as each element, such as a porch or garage, is dragged into place.

The client can see what the house will look like. The next evolution of development is CAD software, called OBCad, which will seamlessly compile data about the cost, specifications, production information, and more. The system will even pull in Google Earth and Bing to see how the house will sit on the building site — with actual topography and orientation. Once a final plan is selected after a series of meetings, a detailed materials list is transmitted to the manufacturing side, which includes the company’s German Hundegger CNC machine that cranks out precision-cut framing members.

The design software seemed to make the design process so easy — and you can see the cost impacts of that bump-out addition immediately. Honestly, I was blown away. The more houses that are built, the more the system capabilities expand. “Anything we’ve designed and built can be used again, whether it’s a dormer, bathroom, porch, stairway, bathroom, or closet,” Tedd told me.

Affordability

Driving down cost, as noted last week, is a big priority for Tedd and Unity Homes. The price of new, high-quality, custom homes today is often around $200/square foot, according to the company, while the first Unity Homes are coming in at around $160-$170/sf, including foundation. The company’s long-term goal is to bring that cost down to $130/sf., which would be slightly less than the average cost of a resale home ($140/sf).

Tedd is also a big believer in phased homebuilding and/or DIY participation in the process. In his view, insistence by banks and building officials that homes be absolutely complete before moving in has undermined flexibility and homeowner involvement. He calls this the “tyranny of completion,” noting that “you shouldn’t have to finish what you don’t yet need.” Tedd built his own house, starting 35 years ago, in phases: “We finished it as our family requirements grew and as we could afford it.”

Tedd argues that since a long-term mortgage can more than double the original building cost, the best way to save money in homebuilding is to borrow less. For this reason, Unity Homes supports DIY involvement and phased building after the erection of the weathertight shell and completion of critical living areas. The Open-Built system supports this idea by creating accessible cavities for wiring and mechanical systems and using demountable finishes. This allows the incomplete areas to have a loft-like appearance — and not look like a construction zone.

Continuous improvement

Tedd is pretty clear about his aims with Unity Homes. “We think building a house should be fun, and more people should be willing to engage in the building of their own home,” he told me. “Unfortunately, people tend to be deathly afraid of it because it takes so long and is traditionally such a complex and stressful process.” He reminded me of the oft-heard expression, ‘build a house, lose a spouse.’ “What if it only took 30 working days, all costs were known, the build quality was above anything experienced, and it could have a net-zero-energy impact forever?” 

Unity Homes may not quite be there yet, but I believe they are further down that path than anyone else in home building today. The company, along with parent company Bensonwood, employs 80 people in Walpole, New Hampshire.

Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and executive editor of Environmental Building News. In 2012 he founded the Resilient Design Institute. To keep up with Alex’s latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.

7 Comments

  1. David McNeely | | #1

    Detail Questions
    Some very exciting concepts here, which result in a few questions:

    1.) Image 2 looks like they use furring to provide utility cavities?

    2.) So the roof assembly is cellulose between I-joists? How is condensation managed (e.g. as reported in "Creating a Conditioned Attic")?

    3.) In image 4, why not flip the air handler 180 deg, thereby eliminating two 180 deg bends in ducts? (Equivalent to adding 80' of duct in terms of pressure drop)

    Thanks for the article—it was inspiring and thought-provoking.

  2. James Howison | | #2

    Bensonwood season on This Old House
    I don't know the exact relationship between Unity and Bensonwood, but I laughed when this article came up today because I'm just watching the old season of This Old House where they are building with Bensonwood. Sounds like some things have changed (cellulose rather than spray foam) but for those interested I bet it's still interesting.

    http://www.thisoldhouse.com/toh/tv/

    They call it "The Weston House" and it was broadcast first in 2008. This link might take you straight there.

  3. Donald Crouch | | #3

    Wall Construction
    Can someone please take a moment to educate me on how these walls are constructed? It appears as if they are I-joist installed vertically with a piece of OSB attached front and rear and then the cellulose is installed. I love the idea and just wanted more information on the actual pieces used and thought process. I have always been a fan of Bensonwood as they appear to be a company who isn't satisfied with the status quo and instead think outside of the box along with looking for answers to problems when others don't even realize a problem exist.

  4. John Dunbar | | #4

    Reply to Donald Crouch Re:Wall Construction
    Donald,

    You can find additional information regarding Bensonwood's OBPlusWall using the following links:

    http://bensonwood.com/work/walls.cfm

    http://bensonwood.com/lifestyle/insulation.cfm

    http://bensonwood.com/about/release101119.cfm

  5. User avater
    John Semmelhack | | #5

    SHGC - glass vs. whole-window
    Alex,

    I'm pretty sure in discussing the SHGC value difference between Loewen and other triple-pane manufacturers, you're mixing apples and oranges (or at least Macintosh with Fuji). Loewen's 0.44 SHGC is a whole-window value. Values from other triple-pane manufacturers of ~0.60 are glass-only SHGC.

  6. Donald Crouch | | #6

    Thanks John
    John, thanks for the links!!

  7. User avater
    Alex Wilson | | #7

    SHGC values
    John,
    From the (albeit limited) research I did into Loewen's triple-glazed windows used by Unity, it appears that the Loewen is using Cardinal's LoE-272 in the windows Unity is specifying for the south. This is the so-called "low-e-squared" product. Cardinal also makes LoE-180, which has a single layer of silver and offers significantly higher solar gain--though not as low emissivity and, thus, not as high an R-value. I suspect that Loewen windows could be ordered with this glass, but I didn't check. That would be my low-e coating of choice for triple-glazed south-facing windows in a northern climate.

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