An intersecting interest in off-site construction processes recently inspired modern home plans designer Gregory La Vardera and custom timber-frame builder Tedd Benson to form a collaboration drawing on each others' strengths, expanding the aesthetic repertoire of one and the construction options of the other to better serve their clients.
Benson has been innovating new building approaches for years, including embracing state-of-the-art construction methods. Off-site fabrication enables his Walpole, N.H.–based company, Bensonwood Homes, to deliver highly crafted houses that are 40 percent to 65 percent complete when they arrive on clients' jobsites. Yet despite Benson's readiness to adopt newer, more streamlined processes, his firm's aesthetic has remained firmly entrenched in the architectural traditions of the New England and timber-frame vernaculars. Meanwhile, from his Merchantville, N.J., studio, La Vardera has been designing and publishing modern house plans since 2002. La Vardera focuses on providing high-quality designs for a segment of the housing market he believes is underserved: those that love modern design, want high quality homes, but can't afford to hire an architect.
While Benson has been fine-tuning his firm's factory fabrication processes and his Open-Built construction approach, La Vardera has been studying the use of what he calls modern methods of construction and off-site manufacturing as a means of affordably delivering houses with a modern aesthetic and livability to Americans.
Once they discovered their common interest and were introduced, collaboration seemed a natural step. And so was born Bensonwood's new Alliance Series of homes designed by La Vardera, drawing from an existing plan in his portfolio, the 1,800-square-foot XHouse2.
"We don't do a lot of contemporary style buildings, and Greg's designs in particular really lend themselves to the type of work we're doing and opens up a whole new clientele for us," Benson says of the partnership.
La Vardera adds, "I have a strong following interested in modern housing, and this enables me to provide another option—aside from standard construction—for people who like my house plans." Both believe contemporary home designs are naturally suited to off-site fabrication. The typically simple volumes and use of materials make them easy to break down into components for prefabrication and on-site assembly. The XHouse2's modern aesthetic is tempered by its use of common and familiar building materials, which helps to keep costs predictable, particularly in a prefab environment.
The XHouse2 provides three bedrooms and two and a half bathrooms in a relatively compact footprint and straightforward floor plan. The first floor's open layout integrates the kitchen, living room, and dining space adjacent to an entry foyer, coat closet, and half bathroom. Between the first and second floors, La Vardera created a landing where he located the laundry room and a full bathroom. A few more steps mark the transition between this landing and the second floor, where the master suite and two additional bedrooms are located. A porch at the front and a deck and balcony at the back extend living space outdoors. The simple shape, surfaces, and finishes make construction as straightforward as the house's design.
La Vardera focuses on making his house plans as generic as possible to allow them to work in the widest range of situations, using most building methods, he notes. While the XHouse2 is designed for 1,800 square feet of living, building it atop a full basement could yield a total of 2,700 square feet of usable space. It also lends itself equally well to downslope and upslope sites. The basic 30-foot-by-30-foot footprint of the XHouse2 also makes it ideal for narrow lots, infill sites, and New Urbanist developments, according to La Vardera.
Its flexibility made adapting the XHouse2 to Bensonwood's panelization process relatively easy with a few modifications. La Vardera worked closely with the builder's design team to adjust the house's floor-to-floor heights, increase the floor system thickness, increase the height of baseboards, and shift the placement of some design elements.
Wall thicknesses had to be increased to allow for the mechanical disentanglement layer of Bensonwood's Open-Built system, necessitating a slight expansion in the plan's footprint. Also, the original specification for steel framing of the front porch and rear deck was replaced with timberframing.
"Greg's fans would previously have to take his plans to the lumberyard to run up components or to a local contractor or build it themselves," Benson says. "Not only does this collaboration solve a lot of the problems that come with that, we've solved a lot of that with Greg so we know it's exactly what he intended with the design. The client benefits from Greg's expertise, knowledge, and design intent, with the added benefit that their particular house is not an experiment."
Bensonwood plans to migrate two more of La Vardera's plans into the Alliance Series.
La Vardera aspires to drive American homebuilding toward the more efficient, standardized, and computer-driven off-site manufacturing processes prevalent in the Swedish homebuilding industry, which he has been studying closely and writing about on his blog. (Similarly, Benson has been following the German homebuilding industry's methods for years and has adopted some of those elements into his own processes.)
"In Sweden, they have machines that handle just about everything. They build houses the way we build cars," La Vardera says.
He hopes to help push off-site construction in the United States toward greater sophistication and reliance on computer-guided processes, and less reliance on the inefficient conventional practices that are still used by many of the prefab homebuilders in the U.S. "I'd like to see something less sophisticated than Tedd's proprietary system that is still much more energy efficient than what [the industry] builds now, and yet can land in the same price range as what we build now by benefit of using a lean manufacturing system, as well as making a slightly smaller house than the American public has been used to," La Vardera explains.