Montage Building: Interview With Tedd Benson on Unity Homes

Unity Homes - Xyla

Based on a philosophy of optimizing for cost and performance rather than compromising, Tedd Benson’s Unity Homes offer both high quality and energy efficiency while being cost competitive. To deliver value to home buyers (including the Passive House standard of air tightness), Benson points to off-site assembly, a method of construction that allows for greater control and a higher quality of craftsmanship than on-site construction. He offers his thoughts to Green Home Gnome about Unity Homes and off-site assembly or montage building.

Why did you choose to adopt the Passive House standard of air tightness with your Unity Homes, but not the other standards that go with Passive House?

The Passive House standard has multiple requirements. Some are more effective than others, and some are more expensive than others. We’re trying to optimize by focusing on controlling  cost and leveraging  for effectiveness. Thicker walls and more insulation is costly and needs to be considered against the value very carefully.

We have therefore studied this issue, and our analysis has brought us to the conclusion that after about R30, there are severely diminishing returns with added insulation. At that point, air tightness is a much more significant factor in the building performance. Luckily, air tightness is nearly free. It’s just about good workmanship and good work processes. We can achieve the Passive House air tightness standard on all of our homes consistently, so we focus on that and diminish the PH standard insulation level slightly (R35) to a point where we are getting really good performance, allowing us to use small air-source heat pumps for heating and cooling.

Can you tell me a little about the homes currently in production?

Unity Homes have minimal energy demand, which allows us to eliminate fossil fuels and use an air-source heat pump to supply all the heating and cooling requirements. With this and many other energy features, these homes can achieve net-zero with a modest solar array (5-7 kwh).

We don’t compromise on the structure, as we assume these homes will serve for 300-500 years. In addition, they’re comfortable, light filled, spacious, have great air quality and are filled with great materials, finishes and fixtures.

The Unity standard is the future of homebuilding. You could put it this way: “Nothing compromised. Nothing maximized. Everything optimized.” Or simply “Not too little. Not too much. Just right.”

Tedd Benson of Unity Homes

How far can you transport these houses and how economical is it to transport?

We can ship within a few hundred miles efficiently. This consideration is one of practicality: the distance in which a single driver can make the trip and unload the truck without having to sleep over. We can deliver beyond that, of course, but the costs are higher and need to be more carefully analyzed. Our goal is to extend our production to be closer to our markets. We expect to begin that expansion this year.

A catch-22 facing prefab builders is that volume needs to increase before costs can drop, but for that to happen prices need to be lower for the average consumer. What do you get for the cost of your homes?

That’s right. But it’s not such a bad Catch-22 if we’re strategically accurate as we grow. There are plenty of markets in which Unity is cost competitive now, while providing much higher quality in much faster time. As we grow and bring prices down with scale, we can then bring the Unity proposition to markets where costs are currently lower.

Can you tell me a little about the five key attributes of Unity Homes?

I’ll put this in the form of the Unity Homes goals, and indicate where we are today:

1. Custom home design will be free (currently is).

2. The typical build time will be 20 working days (currently 30 to 35).

3. Living in a home can be free of utility costs and also generate energy for transportation (currently no fossil fuels, net-zero capable).

4. All systems within the home should be continually alterable and upgradeable, with most of the work able to be accomplished by the homeowners (currently disentangled and reconfigurable within the shell, with easy access to most mechanical systems; all homes designed for unpredicted capacity, not just first space plan).

5. Cost for this much higher standard design and performance standard is competitive with current on-site, building-code-based standard (currently competitive with lower quality on-site alternative  in many markets where building costs are at the national average or higher).

What advantages do the Open-Built system offer?

Open-Built improves the efficiency of the construction process by disentangling systems for easier installation. That same disentanglement allows for long-term access, which means homeowners and professionals can accomplish changes, upgrades and renovations with less demolition and rework.
Building a Unity Home

Anything else?

Yes. One BIG thing. Words matter, and the words that are used to identify the current off-site construction methods are insufficient for what we’re trying to accomplish. “Modular” and “prefab” are the usual descriptors. Modular refers to the built volumes that are trucked on the highway like carcasses of beached whales, and prefab mostly connotes a modernist style, with an indeterminate percentage actually accomplished in the prefabrication.

The segment of the construction industry referenced by these two words is wholly failing in three significant ways. First, they represent only 2 to 5 percent of new home construction, and therefore aren’t making enough of an impact on the industry. Second, they aren’t bringing the sort of fundamental quality and cost change to the industry that’s needed because they aren’t doing enough to use the off-site advantage to bring real improvements. Third, they are completely failing to create good jobs. This last one is the worst failure. The employee turnover and absentee rates in those sectors of the construction industry is not only worse than the rest of construction (which in itself is quite bad compared to other industries), but is worse than ANY other industry. This is horrible. Nothing good can come of a building system that leans on low pay, low skill and bad working conditions. We do not want to be associated with it.

Therefore, we’re using the Swedish word for off-site building because it precisely translates into English, German and French (and all of those countries where these languages originated have contributed to our work culture and technology). That word is “montage,” which essentially means “assemble.” One of the definitions is perfect: “any combination of disparate elements that forms or is felt to form a unified whole.”

We think it’s a better word because the essence of the process is, in fact, assembly. First we assemble the designs from a collection of digital “Lego” elements, rather than starting from nothing to drive down cost, raise quality and still provide a completely custom home; then we assemble the CNC cut parts and pieces in our production studio into the same elements (panels, cartridges, pods, etc); and finally, we assemble the elements on the site to create the complete house. So montage is perfect in that regard.

Most importantly, we need a different word to help us separate the quality of building and the quality of job that are essential to the Unity vision. These two objectives lean on each other for success. You can’t create good jobs with a bad product. Good jobs only pair with the creation of good products. And the reverse is true as well. Good, industry-disrupting products cannot be created unless the people doing the work have good jobs (with good pay, benefits and working conditions) that require discipline, skills, knowledge and a dedication to constant improvement. That’s Unity. That’s montage building.

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