We want this blog to spark conversation about the green innovations embedded in the Unity House. This new residence represents a college commitment to sustainability and green building. It is the first step in the 2020 Master Plan created by a diverse and representative group of students, faculty, staff and community for a fully sustainable campus. This residence shows the world that Unity College believes in practical responses to climate change and environmental quality.
What makes this house special?
This new house has a small ecological footprint. It is built on previously impacted land. The landscape will feature a mostly edible or permaculture design. The energy system is completely solar and feeds energy back to the electric ‘grid’. It has a ‘green roof’ and will trap rainwater for landscape needs. Unity College made a choice to build a ‘net zero’ house, which means that we will significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions as we heat, cook, cool and light our living space. The house will not produce any carbon emissions. The materials used in construction are recycled, local or renewable and it was produced with zero waste. All the appliances are rated Energy Star at the highest level.
Who built the house?
Bensonwood Builders in Walpole, N.H. designed, produced and built the house. Tedd Benson, who gave the commencement speech at Unity graduation in 2008, designs and builds energy-efficient, low-maintenance timber frame homes that are built to last for centuries. He has named this prototype The Unity House, which will become available for sale on the broader market.
Any outside contractors came from the local area when available. For example, the ‘teardrop’ cul-de-sac landscape was designed by a Unity student, Brad Ecklund. He is working with Brian Gaudet and Moonshine Gardens, a Unity based firm, to install the patio and edible plantings.
What does the Unity House cost?
Unity College has contributed $200 a square foot to the cost of the house. The actual cost of this particular house is higher than that because of all of the research and design work that has gone into it. Any additional cost is being carried by Bensonwood and represents a philanthropic contribution to the college. This is a prototype (the first of its kind) and each new innovation had to be tested and evaluated before it was considered or installed.
However, none of these cost figures are representative of what a house such as this will eventually cost. Bensonwood is hoping to bring the costs down considerably below the $200 per square foot figure once they can construct these homes at the appropriate scale of production.
The project has involved many different ‘green’ companies. Our solar array and metering mechanics come from by Grow Solar from Vermont. Our air-source heat pump is a new energy efficient design produced by Hallowell of Maine. This building is the result of a team effort that included carpenters, plumbers, electricians, scientists, architects, alternative energy experts, and LEED evaluators – all curious about alternative energy and new green building design.
Is it true that the siting and landscaping costs have driven up the total price of the cost?
As with constructing any new house, predicting the final cost is difficult. The siting costs for the house have been more than we originally anticipated because there is a lot of ledge on the site. We do not have the final figures yet on all of the siting costs. When we have them we will make them available. However, the site is being “developed” with ecological and edible landscaping and will be a very attractive space for Unity College.
Does the house belong to Mitchell and Cindy?
No. The house is a President’s Residence for the college. It belongs to the college. The Unity House is both a private residence and a public showcase. It is a role model for what is to come in new house construction. We will be using the house as a private living space and will also use it as an educational tool. Each aspect of the house will be interpreted so that people who visit can learn about its innovative approach to energy, water use, indoor air quality, landscaping, material use, and more.
How is the cost of the Unity House financed? Where does the money come from?
None of the expenditures for The Unity House come from the Unity College operating budget. The down payment for the house comes from the plant fund. The siting costs are paid for by the plant fund as well. Unity College borrows the rest of the money. The monthly payment for the house (repaying the loan) is equivalent to the president’s housing allowance. Hence The Unity House doesn’t increase the debt load of the college in a significant way and doesn’t impact our ability to proceed with future construction projects. Finally, the impact on the plant fund doesn’t impede our ability to proceed with deferred maintenance and other short term capital expenditures.
The President’s Residence is both a public and a private dwelling. The Gathering Room (living and dining area) will host some meetings and fundraising events for the college. The kitchen is designed to both accommodate small private dinners and very large groups. The guest room has a moveable wall that collapses to give us flexibility when entertaining large numbers of people. When the wall is extended, the guest room becomes a private space for certain guests of the college to reside.
For starters, the LEED certification and unique sustainable aspects of this house give Unity College some wonderful press coverage. The house has received a great deal of attention in many Maine newspapers, we were covered by The Chronicle of Higher Education, University Business, and other national publications, and we expect much more national coverage. This coverage keeps Unity College in the news creating interest in the college and reminding people of our interesting mission. Every news story is a chance to tell the Unity College story. We have only seen the beginning of the press coverage.
A LEED rating will give the Unity House credibility and authority as the best green building possible. LEED stands for “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. LEED encourages the global adoption of sustainable green building practices through the creation and implementation of universally understood and accepted tools and performance criteria. Our house is evaluated by a third-party organization that uses the LEED criteria to score its environmental performance. The evaluation does have costs attached to it but they are not currently available.
LEED measures a building’s performance in five key areas of human and environmental health: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality. If we say our house is Platinum, we mean that it uses less energy, water and natural resources; it creates less waste; and it is healthier and more comfortable. As a result, we will have lower energy bills, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and have less exposure to mold, mildew and other indoor toxins.
In October, Mitchell and I will post several Open House dates so that the campus community and people in the local area can see the house and how it works. If you have other questions about this new building on campus, let us know by posting a question below.