Pro-File Build: Bensonwood's Tedd Benson
It’s not often talked about, but one of the biggest hindrances to securing a custom home commission for architects and builders is the lengthy construction timeline. It takes a long time to build a new house from the ground up, and not everyone is willing to wait the necessary two-plus years to see the process through. So, more often than not, buyers will settle for the “good enough” existing house, rather than suffer through the waiting period for their new custom dream home. Well, builder Tedd Benson has an answer for this problem, along with a host of other flaws in the way we deliver houses in this country: He calls it “montage,” but most of us know it as prefabrication.
Part of why he wants to distance himself and his companies—Bensonwood, Unity Homes, and the new spin-off Tektoniks—from the word prefab, and especially “modular,” is the motley achievements done under those labels—despite, often, the best intentions. The terms have been loosely applied to a myriad of project delivery methods and buildings of dubious quality and performance. His companies are focused on continual process improvement—on reaching toward the future of homebuilding science and construction and on creating the best, controlled work environment for his company’s 125 employees. To that end, Bensonwood opened a new, 110,000-square-foot factory in Keene, New Hampshire, this past spring. It’s equipped with state-of-the-art precision machinery from Europe with the capacity to process mass timber components, in addition to its regular suite of products.
Although he’s fully embraced the newest technologies in home construction, Tedd got his start resurrecting one of the oldest building methods in the country—timber frame construction. He fell in love with its beauty, intricacy, and durability while working as a custom builder in New England in the 1970s. There, he had the opportunity to remodel existing timber frame buildings and marvel at their great condition centuries after they were built. That led him to build new houses with timber framing and to share his learnings with other enthusiasts. He literally wrote the book on timber frame construction—in fact, he wrote four of them—and was instrumental in reigniting interest in the building art.
Timber frames lend themselves to factory fabrication, which Tedd’s Benson Woodworking company (later morphing into Bensonwood Homes) embraced. Over time, the company grew the number of building components and assemblies it offered, as well as the types of construction it supported. Today, the company doesn’t build an entire house in its factories, but it can fabricate nearly all of its components and assemble them, with local talent, at a building site anywhere in the country. “There really is no practical limit to what we can achieve with regard to offsite construction,” he says. “We have incredible flexibility in what we can build and what we can contribute to a project.”
Iterating and Perfecting
Bensonwood, based in Walpole, New Hampshire, works with architects, homeowners, and other professionals to deliver bespoke buildings using its standardized assemblies. It can engineer entirely new assemblies, panels, and components, but the best performance results are from employing what the company has learned and engineered over multiple installations. If the architects who work with Bensonwood can learn its “rules,” or standardized kit of parts and dimensioning, they can benefit from 45 years of building science research (see our cover story on page 26 for an example).
This is the way it works in Sweden, Tedd points out, and other European countries. “In Sweden, architects are designing spaces and buildings—they don’t worry about envelopes and assemblies, because they can rely on companies to deliver those. In the same way, architects here have gotten comfortable with window systems, cabinets, and doors. The challenge is for our architects to let go of trying to control everything. We’re totally invested in making really good envelopes, and iterating and perfecting them. The question is, ‘can we get architects to leave them alone?’ It’s a good industry conversation to have.”
With his other company, the six-year-old Unity Homes, Tedd has answered the question himself—by designing and offering his own set of houses, engineered to the high-performance standards championed by Bensonwood. Its goal isn’t to preempt what architects do, but to offer a more affordable, predictable, and quicker alternative to full custom design and construction. “I love the high-end custom projects, but not every client can be a patron,” he points out.
And with his brand new company, Tektoniks, he’s gone in the opposite direction—simply providing his components to larger-scale multifamily and commercial construction projects led by developers, architects, and commercial builders.
“At our factory what we’re really producing is panelization, and that suite of building assemblies is available for Bensonwood projects, Unity projects, and Tektoniks. They aren’t substantially different, but they may be thicker or thinner. We’ve basically distilled those families of assemblies to get dependable building performance and to manufacture them efficiently,” he explains.
What’s left to conquer? A kind of Unity Homes for high-end residential. Rest assured, that’s in the works. The plan is to launch a platform of architect-designed houses built with the high-performance components Bensonwood companies have engineered. What excites Tedd about the initiative is the opportunity to make houses that can meet even more demanding levels of energy efficiency and resource conservation. At present, the factory is capable of making a house to Passivhaus standards (and has on several occasions), but the Unity Homes mission to remain affordable precludes the extra cost involved.
More is Less
Why have so many companies doing seemingly similar things? Tedd has a big factory and a lot of machines to keep busy. Unlike several factories in other parts of the country, his enterprise is not underwritten by venture capital money. “We are bootstrapped with local bank financing, and they attached everything including my dog,” he jokes. Quips aside, there’s a strong structure underpinning Bensonwood companies, decades of know-how, and deep relationships with great custom builders and architects across the country—qualities most of the shiny start-up prefab companies don’t have. Tedd Benson himself is a name brand and a reliable known quantity. What he understands better than anyone is that to bring costs down for his high-performance components, he needs to ramp production up.
“Building one single-family home at a time has its limits in terms of scaling,” he says. “And that’s one of the benefits of Tektoniks and reaching into multifamily and commercial work. The more we can scale up production, the more that helps us with the supply chain to bring costs down. As we look to scaling the benefits of offsite fabrication, we do need to reach toward standardization. Panelization, 3D components or pods—if we can standardize the micro and macro organization of them, then we can really provide the industry broadly with some cost-competitive and highly improved building shells and building components.”
That’s not to say Tedd wishes to abandon the highly specific custom work Bensonwood is capable of doing. He thinks of it as research and development that can trickle down through the other companies. “Custom work and offsite fabrication are very compatible,” he notes. “In our offsite facilities we have access to CNC machining and other precision tools, so complexity and uniqueness are not an obstacle and, in fact, they’re kind of an invitation.”
Tedd Benson is ramping up when most veteran custom builders might be ready to lighten their load. That’s because building well isn’t just a passion for him, it’s a social justice mission. He’s appalled by the prevailing construction standards and lax building codes in this country, and he truly believes we can and should do better.
“People are spending their life savings on poorly built houses. We want to make the best possible home available, and to make it more affordable and accessible,” he says. “In Europe, prefab is associated with better-quality buildings; they understand factory built is how you get better.”