A brand new startup with a 40-year-old soul and big ambitions, Unity Homes is aiming to revolutionize the home-building industry. Launched this week, Unity is an offshoot of Walpole, N.H.–based Bensonwood Homes, which has spent the last four decades focusing on highly customized timber-frame and panelized homes with an emphasis on high performance. With Unity, Tedd Benson, founding owner of both Bensonwood and Unity, is hoping to trim costs by cutting back on customization to bring high quality, highly efficient homes to the masses.
The product consists of four home collections that each focus on keeping energy loads low and achieving Passive House–level air-tightness, to reduce energy use by 50% to 75% compared to standard new homes, making the houses net-zero capable should owners add a photovoltaic array. Call it Passive House Lite.
"We’ve built a Passive House near here, and we were impressed with everything it takes," says Benson. "But some of it is really expensive. When your walls get to be two feet thick and have three layers of insulation, that’s too much cost, too much labor. The air tightness, on the other hand, is nearly free. It’s just about good workmanship."
Designs range from 1,113 to 2,896 square feet, with pricing starting just under $200,000 for the smallest plans and starting at $339,500 for the most expensive collection (prices exclude the cost of land and site excavation, as well as permit fees and taxes).
Unity is able to achieve both energy and cost efficiencies, Benson says, thanks to its highly precise panelized construction methods, which keep 60% of construction inside its production facility.
"All of our cutting and shaping is done with CNC equipment, so you can imagine how much that improves accuracy. So then when we go to assemble walls and roofs, the assembly process goes very rapidly, not only because cuts are precise but also because you’re inside and the tables are at a nice ergonomic height and all your tools are within reach. If you have to walk two steps, we try to fix that," Benson says. "We have control over costs and time, and we constantly tweak the process to make it more efficient and bring those costs down."
Eventually, Benson wants to merge its current panelization process with modules that would allow Unity to complete mechanical rooms, bathrooms, and kitchens at its facility, and leave only 20% of the building process for on-site construction.
Keeping as much of the process as possible inside a controlled environment would help Unity maintain quality while implementing its ambitious expansion plan; the company already has specific locations picked out and accompanying business plans to move into the Northwest, Southeast, and upper Midwest, once its current facility’s production capacity of 150 to 200 homes per year is met—a goal Benson anticipates reaching in the next 12 to 18 months. "The interest is there; the product is right, and the price is right," he says. "We see no reason why we won’t get there quickly."
Unity plans to keep design and engineering functions in New Hampshire, and use satellite locations to bring manufacturing closer to where it anticipates its homes will be built nationwide. "Bensonwood has built in every state except Oklahoma, so we know how to deliver product at a big distance and how to do it well," Benson says. "We think the right thing for Unity is to continue that vision but establish production units in different parts of the country. We have a production model that’s scalable and not terribly expensive. … And since we’re already a national company we know where our clients have always been."
While Unity is technically a separate enterprise from Bensonwood, it has drawn heavily on its elder sister-company’s knowledge base, with several upper-level employees moving to the new venture. While Benson is currently leading both firms, he plans to eventually transition out of leadership at Unity.
To this point Unity has been created without any outside investment or borrowed debt. Once the company begins expanding to other locations, however, Benson anticipates it will seek private investment funds.
But if Benson is ambitious about Unity’s capacity for growth, he’s even more so when it comes to the impact he hopes the new company will have on the home-building industry at large.
"The typical American home is a performance dinosaur, and is too much of a long term burden for homeowners and society," Benson says. With Unity, he wants to "help make this species extinct" and transform the industry by offering an affordable home at a higher standard of efficiency. Eventually, he says, as more builders use and demand high-performance products, competition will increase among manufacturers, creating a virtuous cycle of improved performance and lower costs. "Americans deserve better homes, and the industry has the capacity to build better homes; we’re just not doing it on a regular basis. If we were industry wide, the costs would be coming way down for everyone."
Claire Easley is a senior editor at Builder.