Home, rethought as theater and stage

Tedd Benson sees a house as a long-lasting structure (theater) and a transient interior (stage).
Tedd Benson sees a house as a long-lasting structure (theater) and a transient interior (stage). (Bensonwood Homes)
By Katherine Salant
Saturday, December 19, 2009

Everyone agrees that housing should be more affordable.

New Hampshire home builder Tedd Benson says we need houses that are both affordable and high-performance -- that is, houses that are built to last with high-quality materials.

High-performance houses usually cost more. To make them affordable, Benson says, we have to rethink the whole process: the way we build houses, the things we include in a mortgage, and how we assess value when we decide to buy a house or take a pass. On a more fundamental level, Benson challenges our very concept of "house."

For most people, a house is a house, a single entity with many constituent parts. For Benson, a house is two distinct entities, one that is permanent and built for the long haul, the other transient and intended to serve the immediate needs of the present owners.

He calls the permanent piece the "theater" and the transient one the "stage." As it would be on Broadway, the stage should be flexible and easy to change while the bricks and mortar -- the theater itself -- should be built to last for 250 years.

Benson's ideas come from his life experience, he said in a recent interview. In New England, many houses, including the one where he grew up with 10 brothers and sisters, are at least 100 years old and have been repurposed many times.

When the Bensons moved into their house in 1955, it had already been through four "incarnations," first as a house, then as a boarding house, later as apartments and finally coming full circle to become a house again. What do Benson's ideas about "theater," "stage," "affordable" and "high-performance" mean in terms of a real house?

"Affordable housing" generally refers to low-income housing that is subsidized by the government. Benson's affordable house is privately purchased by people who can obtain conventional financing but who are by no means wealthy.

He makes his houses affordable without skimping on quality because he does not provide what he calls "tricked-out interiors," which often are trendy and quickly outdated. Instead, his interiors are modest, and more than half of his construction budget is allocated to things homeowners cannot undertake themselves or do without a loan, such as buying home building materials and engaging various trades to do the site work; erecting the foundation walls and building frame; enclosing it with an exterior "skin"; and installing the electric, plumbing, and heating and cooling systems.

What about the "high-performance" part? The big-ticket items that the mortgage covers in Benson's houses are high-quality, durable and installed with a high level of craftsmanship. Energy efficiency is also a priority because it will reduce utility bills for the initial homeowners and for every subsequent owner.

Benson's heating and cooling equipment has efficiency ratings that far exceed local code requirements, as does his insulation. The house is made as airtight as possible so the owners are not heating and cooling the great outdoors, and the flashing is carefully done to ensure that water does not leak in. All these high-performance features are affordable because the interiors -- Benson's stage -- are modestly outfitted in a way that can easily be upgraded over time and paid for out of the owners' paychecks.

For example, Benson said, a floor can be tastefully finished by sanding and sealing the plywood subfloor. Or, for a few hundred dollars more, you could make a finished subfloor look more upscale by using 1-by-6-inch wood planks instead of plywood. Benson noted that oiling the planks before sealing them will enhance the look by adding "depth."

The kitchen in most new-home budgets is "a very big line item because the owners want to impress their families and friends," Benson said. But in his affordable house, he has the owners install the appliances they were already using. His countertops are plastic laminate with oak edging, the type he had in his own house for 25 years. He cuts cabinetry costs by 40 percent or more by installing only the cabinet boxes and drawers, leaving it to the owners to add doors later. Though unorthodox, Benson said this gives owners all the storage they need, and the informality it creates can be surprisingly inviting. Benson said that any builder or architect willing to think outside the box could come up with similarly easy and tasteful cost-saving solutions.

Benson's emphasis on permanence over transience flies in the face of how most buyers assess value. For most, this is based on what they can see and touch: The to-die-for kitchen with granite countertops and upscale appliances, Brazilian cherry flooring in the main living areas, and a master bath with his-and-hers everything. What buyers don't realize, Benson said, is that when all these goodies are included in an affordably priced home, the rest of the house gets short shrift and the quality of the materials will be mediocre at best.

Most builders will scoff at Benson's approach and claim that he'll never get many buyers to give up the eye candy. But Benson counters with a persuasive financial argument: "You'll be paying for everything that's included in your mortgage for the next 30 years. If you opt for the trophy kitchen and cheap windows that fail in 10 years, you'll still be paying for [the windows you had to junk] in your monthly mortgage check, as you assume the cost of their replacements. Likewise with a 'just good enough' roof, furnace and every other thing that goes into a house that must be replaced sooner rather than later if the initial quality is low. Does this make any sense at all?"

A final and perhaps clinching argument for Benson's approach: What most of us remember most clearly about the places we have loved is not what they looked like. We can't recall Grandma's matching art deco living room set with any degree of clarity, but the stories that she told while we sat on her lap on the sofa and the way she laughed will stay with us forever.

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