Tedd Benson and the Business of Scaling Sustainability
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Author and building pioneer Tedd Benson has devoted his life to developing a better way to build. Founder and CEO of Bensonwood & Unity Homes in New Hampshire, his endeavor has been to revive traditional timber framing and carry it into the 21st century.
Since his youth, Tedd has been a crucial figure in the revival of timber framing in America. He was one of the founders of the Timber Framers Guild of North America in 1984, and authored four books on the subject.
Through the decades, his first company, Bensonwood, established itself as a creative leader in timber frame design, engineering, craftsmanship, and computer-aided technology. Their work can be found almost anywhere in the US, and in several other countries. From the start they have devised ever more efficient production techniques, and ways to improve the energy performance of the homes themselves – such as pioneering a method of wrapping the timber structure with a high-density insulation system that greatly reduced energy loads.
Now, with the building materials available, and the electric heat pumps and water heaters of today, it’s Tedd’s firm belief that the time has come to transition society to clean electricity. “Every building that goes up should be fossil-fuel free, there’s just no reason not to electrify and move toward renewable energy sources,” Tedd asserted. Keeping tightly constructed homes comfortable efficiently is a cinch, whatever you heat with. “It just doesn’t take that much. More energy efficiency, more air-tightness – these are not expensive things.”
Modern Technology Married with Tradition
Every step of the way, Tedd has worked to create the most optimized energy efficient buildings possible with the technology available. “In the 1970s, I thought the best way to go about reviving timber framing would be to use modern technology and current tools as opposed to trying to revive it with the original tools. So, we started with what we had at the time, and our work has evolved as we bring new technology along with it. That’s what will continue to make our work less and less expensive, and more broadly available to the American public.”
One such innovation has been the use of glue laminated timbers, or glulam – a material composed of lumber bonded together – which has led to major cost reductions, space innovations, and forest preservation. “Glulam is a good solution for everybody,” Tedd stated. “It’s an amazing product. We source it from Northern Quebec, where they harvest only the very tops of Arctic Spruces. The diameter of the wood producing individual components of the glulam can be down to 3 inches. At that size, it would be kindling, otherwise!”
Tedd still uses solid-sawn timbers, as well, but with the determination that the buildings they are built with should last at least as long as it took the trees that created them to grow. “In the old world they used old trees, some of them 200 years old, but that resulted in buildings that are also often well over 200-300 years old. We think that one the critical things about our buildings is that the underlying integrity of the structure should be a multi-century proposition, not a multi-decade proposition.”
Bensonwood and Unity Homes are indeed in it for the long haul. Their pursuit of merging old world craftsmanship with new world technology has manifested in the construction of their 110,000-square-foot building component manufacturing facility in Keene, New Hampshire. The facility has a solar array, with plans for expansion, that produces nearly 50% of its electricity. Centralized production is a major step in the streamlining that is essential to making increasingly affordable homes.
Solar Powers Homes for Decades
This long-haul view means that solar is almost a no-brainer on Bensonwood and Unity Homes. Solar, and complementary technologies like heat pumps, enables their high-efficiency timber frame homes to generate most of their own energy.
Working with ReVision is simple math for Tedd, as our two companies hold a great deal of common ground. “It’s fun, you’re such a good company,” he said. “Not just the people and the culture, but the values, principles, and right down to being worker-owned. That’s a principle we hold as well, with 58 owners here at Bensonwood and Unity Homes.”
In addition to go-to rooftop solar, Bensonwood and ReVision are planning some interesting collaborations such as developing timber frame kits for ground-mounted solar arrays and solar car charging canopies. Most recently, ReVision worked with Tedd to pull an older PV array from his barn roof, and move the panels onto a custom-timber framed ground mount racking system, then put new PV on the roof and re-wire the ground mount!
Tedd doesn’t plan to stop growing anytime soon. “It’s a process, not an event. We’ve got to continue to scale up so a higher quality of homebuilding can be the norm, and affordable for everyone.”
Like ReVision, Tedd and his team have the audacity to believe that all great things start small. “Can one company have that kind of influence? Yeah, I actually think we can. Once you prove that it’s possible, then it’s possible! Nobody can deny it, because there it is.”