OPEN BUILDING: An interview with Tedd Benson of Unity and Bensonwood Homes

Tedd Benson, owner of Bensonwood and Unity Homes

People are constantly changing, yet the homes that they live in, once constructed, are inflexible to their changing needs. Open Building (OB) represents an alternative approach to building that accounts for the changing needs of homeowners and communities through its application of flexible building principles. Green Building Canada interviewed Tedd Benson, owner of Unity and Bensonwood Homes, about the theory and practice of Open Building.

Open Building (OB) means different things to different people. How does your Open-Built® implementation of OB fit in with the vision Open Building pioneer John Habraken set forth?

The unfortunate fact is that Open Building doesn’t mean much of anything to most people, and even more unfortunately, that includes most professionals in the home building industry. I wish there were more discussions about the meaning of Open Building, but the conversations are really much more basic at this point, as there is very little awareness about one of the most important industry ideas that could move homebuilding process and product to a better place.

Our adoption of the Open Building principles follows Habraken’s ideas quite closely, but we have then extended the implementation with our own ideas to address current design and building practices and the particular issues of the current American home building industry, including building science, engineering and technology.

Our launch of the Open-Built® system began with Habraken himself. He came to New Hampshire in the early 90’s and gave a thorough seminar to our staff. The seminar grew out of a series of discussions between Habraken and I. He was working at MIT and living in Cambridge, MA at the time, so getting together was pretty convenient. By the time he gave the seminar, he was able to cast the Open Building ideas in a way that made them directly relevant to our company’s design and building systems. What we do today was born from our personal interaction with Habraken, which continues today. I most recently saw Habraken when I gave a talk on Open Building at a conference in Boston last year. It was an honour to have him present.

What benefits does Open Building contribute to the design and building process?

In Habraken’s words, one of the fundamental objectives of Open Building is to restore the “natural relation” between a building’s form and its inhabitants. Design tends to make the inhabitants’ lives generic and buildings are so fixed in their aesthetics and function that people must adapt to buildings because buildings have not been made to adapt to the people who live in them. Here’s an important disconnect to acknowledge: buildings are for people, yet people tend to be dynamic and ever-changing, while buildings tend to be static and thwart change. The central tenet of Open Building addresses this problem by seeking to separate the base building (support) from the interior fit-out (infill).

There are two parts to the OB proposition. First, in the process, the supports side of the building is seen as public, long term, and involves regulation and professional skills to create a durable and sustainable structure that will be an asset to the community as well as its owners. The infill, on the other hand, is seen as private and should be in the full control of its occupants. It is designed for occupant control, and is designed and organized to reinvigorate the natural relation that people should have with their living environment. Second, in regards to the product of the home, the result is a “disentanglement” between the long term and short term (base building and infill), and inevitably between numerous building “layers” that live in time differently.

From this essential philosophical idea flows a whole host of solutions, from organizational rationale that can revolutionize design methodology, to unique building systems that will radically alter assumptions about the process of building.

Tedd Benson of Bensonwood Homes
Tedd Benson at work

Can you give an example of how OB benefits homeowners?

Open Building is intended to ease and even facilitate renovation, upgrade and change as the occupants desire and require. The central idea is to allow the building to adapt to changing needs, changing technology and changing fashion. There are two important added advantages: it makes the construction process more efficient since there is less entanglement and more open access, while also allowing the owners to finish the building as they can afford it rather than being forced to finish the entire home during construction because of the inherent entanglement.

Does it benefit the community or environment in any way?

By separating the base building from the infill, the focus for the underlying structure is on long-term durability, which is the essence of sustainability. We believe there should be a 250-year standard, which Open Building encourages because it allows constant renewal for the occupants but seeks to keep the structure inviolate.

In addition, since the infill is designed for renewal and access, there is more opportunity for parts, components and equipment that are all demountable, reusable and recyclable. So the community gets a long-term asset, the occupants get a building that adapts to them, and the environment benefits from less demolition and the usual landfill impact.

What impact does Open Building have on the communication process between the various people involved in the building of a home and the homeowner?

Since an OB building is more organized, and there’s therefore much more access to the service and finish layers, there’s less anxiety about making all decisions and predicting the near- and long-term future because the short-term and long-term aspects of the building are not entangled. The homeowner simply has more control even if the initial considerations turn out to not be accurate. The result is that the homeowner isn’t so pressured because design and process decisions are not weighty with finality.

The Open Prototype Initiative that you are taking part in seeks to prototype the future of home building. How are you working towards this goal?

The recession has slowed down the Open Prototype progress, but we have decided to accelerate it despite conditions by launching a new company called Unity Homes. Unity Homes is a direct outgrowth of the Open Prototype project and is named for the second one at Unity College. We intend to pursue the future of home building in actual homes that people can buy. The first two Unity homes are under construction now. More will be built this spring. We think this effort will be extremely successful as it will be off-site built to higher standards than any typical home and will also display the Open-Built advantages.

Tedd Benson and crew working on the Favat house (This Old House)
Tedd Benson and crew working on the Favat house (featured on the show This Old House)

The popularity of open-source software propagates the notion that “open” means free and accessible by all to use. Your Open-Built® system is registered as a trademark, so is the Open Prototype Initiative aimed at opening up this process of building to the whole building industry to freely use?

Open Building and Open-Built® have the occupant/homeowner in mind for the use of the word “open,” but in fact there’s much about Open Building that must be widely accessible if it’s going to be widely adopted. The basis for Open-Built® is what I call an Operating System, which includes a 3D grid and interface/connection standards. This is where the industry needs to come together to create an environment in which suppliers, manufacturers, designers, and builders can all make, create, and deploy with a host of agreed upon standards. This will make good design more available and good building parts, components and equipment more affordable. In the coming year, we intend to make a formal proposal in this regard and we’ll invite everyone to participate.

You state in your 2003 White Paper, “What is Open Building?” that the theories, practices and projects in residential Open Building are largely unknown, even within the building industry. What would you most like builders to know about Open Building?

Open Building is a disruptive idea. It inherently unseats the status quo assumptions about how design and construction should proceed. The main thing I want builders to know is that the change is coming—just as it has in every other industrial activity—and they can either be victims or beneficiaries of the inevitable.

Why do you feel builders have been so slow to adopt the principles of open building?

Yes. Not just slow. Complete denial.

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