Tedd Benson has become one of the most celebrated home builders in America, having reintroduced the art of timberframing and further developed it using modern technology to create structures of lasting beauty and high efficiency.
His namesake company, Bensonwood Homes
, has become a national brand representing the highest levels of beauty, craftsmanship, and environmental responsibility. As the 2013 co-chair of the Building Design + Performance section of ECOHOME’s Vision 2020 project, Benson talks with ECOHOME about how ancient wisdom can inform modern challenges, helping us map a path forward toward 2030 and beyond.
Benson began by sharing his background, and how he rediscovered and reintroduced the finest traditions of American home building to a national market.
I grew up in Colorado, the sixth of 11 children in a lower-income family, so I worked through high school doing construction, mostly heavy-equipment operation. That got me into the new developments around town where the carpentry was going on, which appealed to me. Eventually, I found jobs with a couple of the framing crews and learned how to swear from the Colorado carpenters. Later, I moved to the Boston area where I had the chance to work with real craftsman on historical buildings. We rehabilitated buildings [that were] 200 and 300 years old, lovingly repairing them because they were worth it--they were beautiful and functional, as all buildings should be.
There and then I decided I wanted to build with timber-frame. This craft should never have died, and so I devoted myself to it in 1974. I was searching for a better way to build, having become disenchanted with stick construction (probably because of the Colorado carpenters) and timberframing looked like a good alternative. Four years later I wrote a book about it, Building the Timber Frame House: The Revival of a Forgotten Art. The purpose of the book was to get the word out; we were one of very few companies doing it back then, and we wanted others to do it, too. For timberframing to become a viable and living art, it had to have more than one guy doing it.
You developed a national brand, Bensonwood Homes, and a well-respected business among your home building peers.
Early on, I reasoned that if timberframing was an expression of a living philosophy, we had to define our mission accordingly. We now have wonderful businesses, instead of just one successful one. We manage through democratic processes and the work has become an expression our values.
Do you have a mission statement?
Yes, but it’s not a snappy phrase. It’s like ecology with many moving parts, as complex as a Rubik’s cube. But if I were to say there’s a nut, it would be: “Through process and product, improving people’s lives.”
You’re known as a green builder and designer, talk to me about sustainability.
It’s not easy to solve the problem, but the problem is simple to describe--in part because it has not changed for 2,000 years or more. Our objective remains the same, to create a resilient built environment. I go back to Vitruvius, the father of Western architecture, who defined the fundamental triad of great design as: beauty, strength, and function (venustas, firmitas, utilitas). The issue from the Vitruvian perspective must be holistic for the resulting built architecture to live well in time. This is why the Triad is also called the Vitruvian Virtues. We believe that balancing key design and construction objectives is even more critical now than it was in Vitruvius’s day, so that’s how we talk about it in this company from design to delivery.
In this light, if we’re going to pursue the 2030 challenge—and we are—it cannot be a pursuit of energy efficiency alone. It has to include livability, beauty (which is a primary driver of durability), and affordability. For our purposes at Bensonwood, we added a leg to the Vitruvian triad and created a new architectural quadrivium by adding added frugality (parsus). The frugal part was not such a concern 2,000 years ago. They didn’t have energy as an issue. People were just cold or warm. Now we have energy and require frugality with finite resources, including the family budget. And although it’s the most salient issue today, energy frugality must be sought in concert with great design and at an affordable price. It cannot stand alone as the only justification for any structure.
I’m calling this holistic approach the Vitruvian Imperative, and I believe it to be perhaps the most important conversation we need to have across the industry. The very concept of sustainability relies on the basic idea that these buildings will live in time as well as work in the present.
You’re known as a high-end home builder. How do you square this with affordability?
People need to be able to afford great homes. Although it’s not celebrated in architectural magazines, we’ve been building affordable homes at Bensonwood since the inception of our company. When we started, all of our clients were working people--teachers, police officers, and even a few hippies--and most were do-it-yourselfers. We’d build the shell, and they would finish it off, sometimes with our help. We were the affordable, local home builder.
We continue seeking ways to move great homes down the market, making efficiency, durability, and beauty affordable. The last six years have given us this opportunity. We have been building turnkey homes for $150,000 to $350,000, marketing them under our Unity Homes
How do you view this move relative to the 2020 Vision?
If we find ways to deliver homes built on the Vitruvian imperative at scale, we can make a difference at scale. We don’t really need another demonstration project or another LEED Platinum movie-star home. The word is already out, the example has been set, and now it’s time for us, as an industry, to get to work. This is such a big issue, and so important to the environment and to the planet, that the whole initiative has become more pressing even than the fight against cancer.
Meanwhile, the new machismo on the construction site says, “I can build tighter than you.” This is not about competition, it’s about all of us trying to achieve the same thing—it’s a new industry gestalt.
To achieve scale, we need to discuss the idea of finding a middle ground. Right now there is still too much maximizing, too much compromising, and not enough optimizing. When we maximize energy performance alone, we need to know what we compromise and how to compensate for it. Usually the compromise is cost, which will prevent us from getting to 2030 Challenge goals—even if codes change—because no one will be able to afford new homes, and without scale there’s no real environmental benefit. But if we compromise beauty, our buildings won’t be appreciated enough to last 200 to 300 years.
The important conversation remains—how do we create great architecture in high-performance homes that are also affordable? Some answers will come with size and simplicity. We can do great, beautiful, lovable architecture that is not a display of geometry gone wild. But there may be other answers, too. And I look forward to exploring these answers during 2013 with Vision 2020. I’d also like to see the Vitruvian Imperative come into common parlance, not only in architecture, but throughout the industry, so it becomes as recognized an objective in our industry as the other Greek imperative, “do no harm” has become in the medical field.
Building on its successful launch in 2012, ECOHOME’s Vision 2020 program continues in 2013, focusing on eight critical areas in sustainability: Energy Efficiency + Building Science, Building Design + Performance, Materials + Products, Sustainable Communities, Water Efficiency, Codes, Standards + Rating Systems, Indoor Environmental Quality, and Economics + Financing. Track our progress all year as our panel of visionary focus-area chairs, our editors, and leading researchers, practitioners, and advocates share their perspectives on initiating, tracking, and ensuring progress toward sustainable priorities and goals in residential construction between now and 2020. The program will culminate in an exclusive Vision 2020 Forum in Washington, D.C., in September 2013, and with a special edition of ECOHOME in Winter 2013. Click here to see the 2012 Wrap-Up.