Raising the Home Building Bar

Almost every house Bensonwood Homes has put up for the last two years has surpassed the air tightness level required by Passive House standards. And the best part is, it’s been free. “That’s just good workmanship,” says Tedd Benson, the Walpole, N. H.–based company’s founder.

If you’re wondering how the mid-sized builder has worked that level of precision into their homes, the answer lies in getting back to basics.

“Almost every architect, when they were in school in Architecture 101, learned about Vitruvius,” says Benson, speaking of the 2,000-year-old Roman credited with authoring the first works on architecture. Benson and his team took a hard look at the Vitruvian Triad — when mandates that for architecture to be successful it must be at once functional, durable, and beautiful — and determined that “if Vitruvius was alive today …, he would probably recognize that energy is another important ingredient in all of design that shouldn’t be sacrificed.”

As a result, the team added a fourth element, frugality, to the list and named the new standard the Vitruvian Imperative. Bensonwood has held that standard up to their own processes to find efficiencies, such as their practice of cutting their building materials with a CNC machine, which accomplishes much of the precision that allows them to achieve their superior air tightness.

Benson is now holding that Vitruvian-inspired standard up to the home building industry and encouraging all participants to use it to raise home building’s baseline for performance.

“Historically we’ve sacrificed beauty and good energy performance for some basic function and called this the typical American home,” he says. For an example of what could be possible, he points to the auto industry. “Most people assume their car can go 100,000 miles and not require a lot of maintenance or high-cost repairs, so consumers have learned to expect that, whether they’re paying $15K or $50K for a car. The designs are good. Reliability is good. It’s a good value. In overall quality of design, structure, function and energy efficiency, homes are far behind what is possible to produce as an American standard.”

The hard part for individual builders, he says, is that the problem is industry-wide, which makes it difficult to achieve the economies of scale that would be possible if all parties were more committed to a higher standard of performance. But while changing the nationwide industry’s mindset may seem like an insurmountable challenge, the solution can start in opening a dialogue, he says. “We need to begin to demand it of each other. We need to aim higher.”

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