High IQs and lifelong career pursuits aside, building science’s biology, chemistry, and physics essentially come down to the varying forms water and air take as they’re subjected to changing conditions and forces like temperature, movement, and time.
Few think about, let alone discover, what makes for a high R-value or a low perm, but any kid growing up in a house probably can tell whether home has sound building science or not. It gets in under your skin. Building science is a practice with enormous complexity and increasing sophistication as it applies to the molecules of air and water and their interaction with materials that conduct, or undergo convection, or absorb. Definition-ally, building science may be overly inclusive or it may be elusive, but like porn, one knows and can feel its presence, or the lack of it, when one sees it.
Tedd Benson grew up in Colorado’s Front Range mining territory, in Colorado Springs, the sixth in a line-up of 11 children of parents of such modest means that they all lived in a single-story, two-bedroom tract house. Building science, for all intents and purposes, was nowhere to be found.
“The house was a miner’s shack, typical of the area,” says Benson. “There was a lot about it that made you feel insecure; it was flimsy, falling apart. There was this sense of insecurity, and at the same time, it was what we knew.”
Until the family picked up and left one day.
He was still young when the family moved one block over and 10 blocks down the street, to a home built by a miner who was also a carpenter, says Benson, “who cared about quality, details, craftsmanship, and the kind of security you sense implicitly when someone with skills cares about what they’re doing. From moving out of the first house into the second one, I learned, growing up, that a good home can change how you feel.”
This epiphany about how a house in which we grow up tends to work its way in under our skin, into our neural connections, and into our musculature, and veins, and DNA, and beyond one’s anatomy into who one is, what one does, and what one wants to be has served as an impetus for Tedd Benson for more than 40 years. It’s utterly personal, and it utterly dogs him to this day.
The light bulb switched on a realization for Benson that care and skill on the part of the home builder--or practitioner--directly affects a home’s impact on a homeowner, or family living there. What’s more, that granular level detail—the mix of pride, proficiency, and care—multiplied. This, Benson muses, is what Churchill must have meant when he said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us.”
“These people who built homes and barns and buildings to last, built communities, and towns,” Benson says. “They built our society; they built America.”
Benson’s livelihood got its real start because he was curious. Struck by the enduring beauty of timber frame barns and homes from the 19th century in his post-college career home of New Hampshire, he took them apart. One-hundred-plus year-old barns, silos, and houses contained a vast knowledge-base of measurements, cutting and drilling styles, angles, he and a merry band of timber frame revivalists would need to know to erect new structures.
Information that courses through the living archival fiber of those barns sparked further curiosity. What if that which was built “by dint of severe effort,” with axe, adze, scribe, chisel and handsaw could be automated, replicated, sped up?
What if these principles, this craft, this way that wood works, and fits, and lasts, and gets its patina, and lives, could be done faster, reliably, repeatedly, in the shop, with sharper tools and more precise cuts, controlled pitch and temperature, and production-line systems and processes? What if it could be done fast enough, and scale to be done inexpensively, for people of modest means with kids growing up in flimsy, insecure, houses?
This is Unity Homes, albeit still in embryonic form, aiming to give new meaning to “a better way to build.”
Benson has learned—traveling all over Europe and Japan—how to learn about the divisible parts and the unified whole of homes. Mass, matter, force of nature and force of man—timeless structure of the shell and supple software of the “infill”—air, water, temperature, flow, and time, physical elements merge into a non-physical sense of security and belonging.
Ancestral secrets and technological revelations have opened to Benson and his fellow timber frame travelers all along the journey, from the cold, flimsy miner’s shack to the warm, familial culture of Bensonwood Homes and Unity Homes’ Walpole, N.H., headquarters.
He has learned, and he has learned to teach. Sometimes, to learn to make new, better versions of something, it helps to take old sturdy versions apart. What to automate and what to do painstakingly with human hands and eyes. It’s part of the constant learning journey aimed, obsessively, on “a better way to build.”
The way a Unity Home must learn as it goes what its dwellers want next, Benson and his Unity Homes team are learning as they go how to "build a better way" ... attainably for those who may feel their homes are flimsy, insecure.