143: Unity Homes – Matt’s Factory Built Net Zero Home

Matt and Sean discuss Unity Homes’ approach to sustainable homebuilding (including Matt’s home!). 

Watch the Undecided with Matt Ferrell episode, “The Simple Genius of a Prefabricated House – My Net Zero Home Build”: https://youtu.be/r-RTlbv84T8?list=PLnTSM-ORSgi7FwYRnWkpCSkAeFOzrgh5h0

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Hello everybody. Today’s episode is still to be determined. We’re gonna be talking about how this little piggy used sticks to build his home. as usual. I’m Sean Ferrell. I’m a writer. I write some sci-fi, write some stuff for kids, and I’m just generally curious about technology and its impact on our lives.

And luckily for me, my brother is Matt of undecided with Matt Ferrell. Who, of course, weekly talks about exactly that. ,

how you doing, Matt? I’m doing well. How about you?

I’m doing okay. Some heavy traveling the past few days as I was touring from New York City up to the middle of the state, trying to help my son find the appropriate college for him.

And as I just mentioned to you a few minutes ago mm-hmm. , my voice may sound a little gravelly because , when you ride the rails like I do. Like a hobo with a bindle

It gets

a little rough out there. So before we get into the discussion around Matt’s most recent episode, which is, as I teased at the beginning, is about home building, Matt was the piggy in that analogy if nobody understood Yes,

I’m I’m,

I’m the pig. I wanna share some comments from a previous episode of ours.

This is from Passive House aggressively net zero at scale. This is from our discussion around the hotel that was built in Connecticut, which was having net zero impact on the environment and the impressive use of technologies that already exist to take an already existing building and convert. Into this hotel.

Mm-hmm. , There was this comment from Pathfinder GM who said, I was most surprised when they said that it wasn’t drastically more expensive to build this hotel. And the hardest part was them going in blind because they are the first to do this. It would be really interesting if they make a passive, large sales structure organization and use this hotel as one of the baseline.

I feel like if they do make an organization like this set up recommendations and guidelines for schools, hotels, offices, factories, industrial greenhouses, government structures, many more businesses would be built this way to lower the maintenance cost for long term, not including the benefits to the climate.

And just wanna give you the opportunity, Matt, there are such organizations out there advocating for exactly these things. Do you want to name a couple of the ones that actually hit on some of the things Pathfinder was? Well,

the passive house organization like Passive House, Us, those kind of organizations, they do have like write-ups on how to do this for pretty much any size of building.

So there are people out there and organizations out there that are already doing this. It’s just not widely adopted. And you and I talked, and the last episode is still to determined how there’s a risk factor here. A lot of companies and hotels and large organizations, they stick with the current playbook because there’s.

it’s a known quantity. It’s like the, it’s less risk. So it’s like trying to get people over that hurdle of, Oh no, it’s not risky. This guy already did it, and look how much it cost him and look how much it’s saving him every year. And it works really well. It’s like the more we see this, the more that risk will diminish and more companies will start to do this.

So it’s I, I agree. The organizations are key aspects to trying to get this to happen and writing that playbook. But there are groups out there that have been trying to do this for the past decade.

Yeah, I work for an organization that has an office building in New York City, and we recently went through a conversion process to change the way the building uses its space, and the attempt was included review by one of these organizations that then offers a certification at different levels.

So there’s gold, silver, bronze, and you get a certification and then it gives you the ability to. Either brag about your ability or it gives a motivator to a company or a building owner to potentially make further changes to increase their score. But it also gives that building that company or that building, it puts a face to these attempts.

And I think that’s part of it too. So I think Pathfinders on the right path, no pun intended. The having an organization like this, not only to steer, but also to increase the visibility of this kind of effort is important. So, and I think there are organizations that are doing that, So thank you Pathfinder, for waiting in on that.

There was also this from Fortitude. Fortitude asked you a direct question. And I already know the answer. And the answer is actually embedded, not only in previous conversations we’ve had, but you actually mention it in your most recent video. But I’m gonna ask this question anyway. Fortitude writes yes.

Will you do an episode on your geothermal system? Oh,

big yes. On that. Absolutely.

Yes. I, I tossed up the softball question so that you could slam it outta the park. Yeah. So thank you. Yeah. As I just mentioned in this most recent episode of Matt’s, which is his discussion around building his own home, the.

Upcoming plans. Matt lays out at the end of the episode, he’s gonna be talking in more detail about the various aspects, so that’s something we can look forward to as his house is put together. This is of course, from his episode, the Simple Genius of a prefabricated house, my Net Zero home build, and this episode dropped on November 8th, 2020.

So before we get into some of the comments that were posed by the viewers, I was just curious, how long was your research process in finding this company? In

finding this company? Yeah. Well, my wife and I started the journey on this right at the beginning of the pandemic. So in 2020, at the very beginning of 2020, it’s when we were actually starting and buying a pot of land.

But I had done probably about a year and a half of. before that, so you’re talking about 2018 ish is when I started looking into different companies and do this kind of stuff, trying to learn as much as I could about passive house energy, efficiency, all that kind of stuff. So it, it’s, this has been like three and a half, 40 years in the making to get to where I am right now for all the decisions I made and why I did what I


Mm-hmm. . And at one point, when you had this company on your list mm-hmm. curious, was there. Final three, like you found, I don’t know how many companies, and then you winded it down. So you had a top three and this company was in that top three. Without naming who your number two option was. Can you give me a sense of what was it about this company that pushed you away from another option?

I will

just name them. It’s like the options were two prefabricated factory built builders and then one was an architect and doing it more stick built. So those were kind of the three that I was looking at. The other company that was like, Unity is called Break Built Homes, and the fact I didn’t go with them doesn’t mean that I don’t think they’re a good company.

Cause I think they’re a great company and if you live out in California or out in Western United States, Definitely look at brail. That’s part of the reason I didn’t go with them, is that they are on the other side of the country and shipping a house across country is very expensive. But the other side of it was, But they do do it.

I found what, But they do do that. They ship across the country. They, they will ship it wherever you wanna go. Right. So it it, Part of the reason I didn’t go with them was the way that they build is they build like literally the entire Lego block. This is your living room, this is your kitchen. And it’s like completely built.

And then they deliver it and they slap them together. Like Lego Phlox on the ground. Mm-hmm. . And you’re basically done. I didn’t go with them because, because of that rigid structure, they have to build the rooms to certain dimensions so they can fit on a truck to be shipped . Right. And so there was.

Um, flexibility

in the size, flexibility in the sizing, and how you design the house, right?

Where Unity Homes is only building the, it’s penalized walls. So it was like, okay, there’s a little more variability to their designs and their structures because they’re not shipping inter finished room. They’re, they’re shipping the panels to stacked together and places

where that. Plays an impact on your new home.

I, I imagine that your studio build, which is gonna be at the back of the garage, was one of those issues where now your garage walls would have to be an extra 10 or 15 feet. Yeah. In length. Was there another spot in the house which also. That would’ve the great room.

The great room, like the, the kitchen, dining room, living room area.

It’s like they do have those in brick built homes. They do have large, great rooms, but because you’re working with preset kind of dimensions, right, uh, it, it, it kinda limited what you could do where the Unity homes had a lot more variety and options available to you. Mm-hmm. . And then on top of which they’re new h.

Not too far from me, so the shipping is a lot cheaper and it’s closer. So there was a couple of reasons why I went with them Over Bright Built. But Bright Built is a very cool company. I recommend checking ’em out if you live out in the West and

both companies, I imagine if Bright Built Will do it, both companies will ship wherever.

Yep. Yep.

Yeah. Unity Homes basically said to me that they mainly, I think it was like east of the Rockies is where they mostly work. Right. And the vast majority are in the New England area where I am. But they will work pretty much anywhere in the country. But the further away you get, the

more, I can’t even imagine the shipping cost of shipping a house across the country that, Yeah.

Yeah. So the gentleman that you spoke with, there was the shop foreman who’s. In charge of, of the shop. And then the, the architect who is the founder of the company. Yeah, Ted Benson. Right. And his, and his discussion around next steps. And that was at the end of the video, but I think it’s, it’s the starting point for where I wanted to talk.

It’s really kind of stunning, the revelation he makes at the end of the video that the next step for this company is the development of software that they’re going to make open. And there was this comment from Jeffrey B who wrote this, and I didn’t have a very different response than Jeffrey. He writes, I legitimately tiered up a bit when he said, We’ve been developing this for quite a while, and immediately thereafter says it’s going to be open source.

Everything about this video was beautiful. Those exterior walls were just astonishingly beautiful in their thickness design and the efficiency of the fabrication process. My wife and I want to build a geodesic dome house. Goodbye, 90 degree angle, thermal bridges and wind pressure differentials. But we want to employ all of the net zero design elements.

We just bought our first home, so it’ll be several years before we can try to make this leap, but we’re fantasizing now, so I’m right on board. I kind of was, my jaw kind of fell open. Yeah. When he said, We’ve been working on this for a while, and I thought, That’s a lot of investment of money. You could just like hear the kaing in the background as he said that like, we’ve been working on this for a while.

Like, okay. And they’ve got now a, a design, a software design team on board. Mm-hmm. . So like okay, that’s a lot of time and money in this kind of industry in particular cuz they’re going up against very well known floor plan design software that’s been used for years. But trying to create a new environment, trying to create a, a change in the foundational aspects of the industry, which is what he’s trying to do, making it open source is a remarkable leap.

Yes it is. It’s huge. I don’t know if you saw it in my, my, my face in that part of the interview. Yeah. Like I was kinda like, Whoa, . Cause I did not expect that to happen either. It caught me off guard. Got me really excited. Yeah. I didn’t include all of my conversation with Ted. There was too much to the conversation.

But the interesting thing about him is his big motivation for when he started Benson Wood Homes, which. Spun off a unity, which is what I went with. His whole motivation around building was trying to build generational homes, like he was frustrated as a builder. You see these homes that are just like churned out and they last 50, 60 years and then need major work to make them.

Continue last longer. Yeah. Cause they, they’re not well built and they don’t last. And there are homes like in the New England area that are hundreds of years old, there are homes in, you know, Europe that are a thousand years old. It’s like, we need to be able to build these better building science and build homes that are meant to last generations.

And he wanted to do that. So he, he’s big into timber framing, which I know there’s a whole thing in my comments about why is America so, so, you know, building woods, But he’s big into timber framing and building these generational, long lasting homes. And so that was his whole motivation around Bensonwood.

And then the whole reason he started Unity was Benson Wood’s, very premium, very expensive. And he wanted to give something that could go down a level so that more people could get it or access to it. And then even within Unity, when I was touring there, I. Jay Lele, who’s the foreman, the head of the, the whole FA facility, he was kind of chastising me for my house.

I didn’t go with their penalized roof because they make, they make roofing panels just like their walls that then go on the roof. And I went with the traditional, you know, joist structure that’s assembled on site. Mm-hmm. , they cut all the wood ahead of time, but then they assemble it on site and it makes the assembly time.

So it’s like with penalized roof, it might be four or five days. With my style of roof, it might be seven, eight days to complete my house on site. Mm-hmm. . And he was like, Why you should have gone with that. And I just point blank said to him, they’re like, Well, I didn’t, because it was more expensive. It was like it was gonna add 40 grand or something like that to the cost of the house.

And I was like, it didn’t make sense to go that route. And then he was like, Well, fair point. And he just, he raised just like what Ted talked to me. They’re trying to drive cost down as much as they can. Yeah. Jay was saying, Yeah, we’re coming up with new techniques and things we’re doing to try to make those roof panels even cheaper.

Cuz we want that to be the no-brainer choice that nobody would wanna go with the old style, they’ll go with the penalized roof cuz it’s, it’s better and it’s cheaper. So it’s like their, their whole motive motivation in, uh, at Unity is to get these long lasting generational homes affordable so everybody can get one.

And I, I just love that. And the fact that they open source that. Shows that they’re putting their money where their, they’re putting their, they’re not just preaching this and saying, Oh, this is like a company vision. It’s like, No, this is truly their motivation because he’s trying to open source this to create a whole system of any architect could use this software and design a house.

And then imagine that there could be factories like this one in King New Hampshire. What if there factories like this all over the country that are just kind of agnostic right then and churning up the parts? Parts? Yeah. Right. So an architect can then design it and then they can send this the file over to this factory that’s close by and then that factory manufactures it.

You get shipped to the, The person’s property. Yeah. So it’s like you can see where there’s a vision. At, at play here that Ted’s got. Yeah. And the entire motivation of the entire Unity team, it’s in lockstep, right behind Ted. It was pretty cool.

Yeah. And it also, some of the things that were demonstrated in the video I thought were such common sense, almost like if you, if you have an idiot’s guide to building a house, if a house is built by Ikea, what are the instructions gonna look?

And it’s like, take this, there’s no words and slot into slot B. And the fact that that one section where it’s the, the beams are going into slots that are prefabbed into the horizontal support so that they just fall into place and then you just three nails to hold it into place. And it’s like, yeah. One person with enough time could put this together.

Mm-hmm. like, okay. That’s like these things come together. The design of where the bolts go to hold it into the foundation. Yes. The fact that he’s pointing out, like, we realized that we needed to get that inside the insulation bubble so that it’s not dragging your heat from your home and putting it into the floor.

Exactly. Like, Wow. Just little things like that. Really kind of pushing common sense back into the building process so that you’re no longer just, Well, this is the cheapest way to build a frame. This is the smartest, cheapest way to build a frame, and I really, really Exactly. I really, really like that. Yeah.

Some of the other things that stood out to the viewers and these things popped up in the conversations and the comment. Included this one from Dom NYC who wrote, One of the best things I noticed, I noticed this as well, and I appreciated Doms pointing it out. One of the things I noticed is how this company plus the process, keep in mind the health and safety of the workers tenfold.

Yes. Every single station had some type of assisted device that took a two to six person job down to one. Not a single person had to bend down to get something or hold a nail gun for a 16 hour shift. It really did look like the work floor that you were going on and, and one thing that stood out to me, you and Jay were on the work floor.

You could tell it was active, the sound in the background. You could hear the machines running in the background. You could hear hammer strikes and stuff like that. Nail guns going into things. The two of you were walking on the floor. You didn’t have hard hats on. The workers were not all bundled up with protective gear.

Everything looked not only safe, but ergonomic. And as Doum points out, nobody’s bending over. In your video, you actually had, I don’t know if it was stock video that you used, but there’s a video where you, you were mentioning your voiceover was like,

and that

was, and it saves on costs. And the video is a guy throwing a bunch of pieces of wood and then Oh my back.

And I was just like, Is this a commercial for Advil? What am I watching right now? But

Asper Cream, that was

evident on the work floor. It was really, it was very, very, just well thought out of how do you keep your workers healthy? And it looked like all of the guys working on that floor were shuttling wood on and off of large rollers that were at work height.

They were doing things in ways with those machines. The machine that was even suctioning wood. Yeah. Not the one that had the windows looked like, Yeah, it was holding probably 600 pounds of glass. And so you’re like, Yeah, let’s get a machine to do that. But the one that was holding the wood panels, putting them into place, I was like, That’s a three person job right there.

But they’ve removed that element and it really, really looks smart.

Yeah. I’m glad that you and other viewers picked up. Because in my original draft of one of the original drafts of the script as I was putting together, I had a section about that because it impressed me when I was there. And in fact, when I interviewed Ted, one of the first things I said to him was, I was blown away by how ergonomic your setup was for the workers and worker safety and worker comfort, how important it was.

Mm-hmm. , and he and I talked about that for a little bit. But I kind of cut it out cuz it, it kind of didn’t fit with everything I was talking about, but I tried to make sure that we were showing clips Yeah. That drove that home. And I’m glad you picked up on it because it, it was impressive. All the machinery, it’s like you have one guy that has this machine that he’s just like picking up entire pieces of zip sheathing just with this suction cup machine.

And he, it doesn’t take physical effort on his part, which means he can work a long shift without being exhausted. Right. And then there the, those 32 foot long. Pieces of wood that at the beginning of the tour mm-hmm. , I didn’t get to see it in action, but they have a suction cup kind of machine that works on those, cuz they’re, they’re massive.

Yeah. And so it’s this big crane. I saw the crane. But the crane can come out, comes down, picks up the wood, takes it over to the CNC machine where the guy, then he just has to like, just push it into the machine. The machine then takes it through and does all the cutting. So. , everything in that factory was just totally geared around the human workers and making sure that they’re not straining themselves, that they’re comfortable.

Everything’s within reach, everything’s safe. And the only thing we had to have was safety glasses, because I’ve got these, these were good enough for, for safety reasons. Mm-hmm. , But that’s all they had. We’re just, Everybody’s just wearing safety glasses and that’s all you needed Very. .

Yeah. There was one point in the video where you were being shown the wall section of your home and he was pointing out where the bolts will go to hold it into the foundation.

And the worker was in the background and I thought with the toughest part of this guy’s day, maybe waiting for you guys to get the hell outta the way cuz he looked like he was ready to go and he was looking at Jayla. Well, I’ve gotta wait for him to finish talking. So, yeah, ,

if the toughest part the day

is your boss getting out of the way, you’re having a pretty good day.


well, behind the scenes thing actually happened, Sean, which was we had arrange for me to come into the factory to see my house being built. This was all like prearranged that. It’s like we were working out, let’s get your house gonna be built here, so can you come next Monday or Tuesday? I was like, I’ll be there Monday.

This whole thing. Then I got an email saying, uh, we were able to get to your house sooner than we expected, and it went faster than we expected, so technically we’re almost done. So we’re actually gonna hold off a handful of your panels so that we can actually do something while you’re here so you can see your house being built.

Right. So it was kinda like they actually had to slow down my house build because otherwise they were too efficient, completely done by the time I got there. That’s very.

It’s like, uh, yeah, we’ve, we we’re gonna deliver that baby for you on the 14th. Oh, by the way, the baby’s already almost out. Your wife’s been in labor for six hours and you didn’t realize it, but we’re pushing the baby back in so that we can finish that up.

Last comment I wanted to share was this one from Elite jn Elite Rights. I rarely buy what a YouTuber talks about, but you, sir, are likely going to cost me more money than any YouTuber in the past, present, or future. When I move forward with this home construction process, you’ve sold me. Well done. This is every design element I have wanted, executed with precision, and I absolutely love it.

I think that that’s the biggest takeaway for me, and I imagine it’s the takeaway from a lot of viewers that you provide a bird’s eye view to a type of home building that just demonstrates if you’re looking at things with an eye toward. Ethical impact, lessening impact, and really sustainable. And that’s the thing is like the question mark of why do Americans keep building with wood?

What is, at least if you source it properly, sustain? So, and it’s cheap. And so it’s like, that’s really cheap. Like the, the approach here really does seem like this is a, a trend with this company to make decisions that are for the betterment of the whole community, the whole, the whole home buyer community buying into something that is being done.

Longevity in mind with impact in mind and with the community in mind as demonstrated by their offering their software as open source in the future to try to expand this kind of thinking. That’s really impressive.

Yeah. So I also want to, Yeah, I just, before you go, I also want to, I’m trying to document what my experience is going through this.

So if I experience rough areas and rough edges and things I don’t like in the coming like six months, year, five year timeframe, it’s like I wanna document that so that other people can learn from my experiences and not make. The same mistakes I might have made, or they might get inspired by something that I’m doing that maybe they don’t go the exact same path I went, but it inspired them to think about something else in a little different way to find a solution that works for them.

So that’s, that’s my whole motivation here, is just to share what I’m learning and what I’m experiencing so that you can make a decision for yourself. I think

that’s all really well thought out and really critical. So, listeners, what did you see here or hear from us now that. Struck a chord with you. Any surprises, let us know.

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