A Chat with Cameron Sinclair of Architecture for Humanity

April 27th, 2006 by Peter Schmelzer

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Monday night, my brother Paul and I sat down for a long visit with Cameron Sinclair, the founder of Architecture for Humanity.

He is a passionate guy about my age who saw the need for a conduit between designers and people in need. So, he started Architecture for Humanity to create that conduit. It has become a global organization with about 3,000 participating architects working on issues of housing, basic sanitation, and disaster recovery.

Founded in 1999 by Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr, Architecture for Humanity is a grassroots nonprofit organization that seeks architectural solutions to humanitarian crises. Through design-build programs, competitions, educational forums, and partnerships with community development and relief organizations, Architecture for Humanity creates opportunities for architects and designers from around the world to assist communities in need. Where resources and expertise are scarce, innovative, sustainable, and collaborative design can make a difference.

The conversation was great. Cameron seems to share Paul’s passion for art and my passion for architecture. It seemed that we could have talked the whole night away.

I’ll post more later, after I’ve sorted through all the topics we discussed. Also, you may see some of it in print in the future, since Paul is an accomplished writer.

In the mean time, check out the AFH website and look for their forthcoming book “Design like you give a Damn”.

There is a Minnesota chapter, which I’ve got to look into, at http://www.afh-mn.org/.

Is there any interest is starting a local chapter in Northfield?

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Biodiesel Experiment Report

April 27th, 2006 by Peter Schmelzer

-Mileage Chart-

It’s about time I post the gas mileage chart for my biodiesel experiment. This chart shows the fuel economy for my 1996 Passat TDI since I bought it in July 2005. The top line is calculated Miles per Gallon, the bottom line is the cost of fuel.

Initial economy was up in the 40 MPG range consistently through the warm months of 2005, then dropped off during the winter. During the warmer months, I was making regular solo trips to Brookings, SD, so that may have helped hold the mileage up a bit.

There was a fairly steady decline through January 2006, which might be attributed to the cold weather and heavily-loaded trips to visit family in adjacent states.

All of this was fueled by petroleum diesel, the left 2/3 of the chart.

On Valentine’s Day 2006, I filled up with B-50 from the Northfield Biodiesel Buyers’ Club. That’s about Since then, we’ve run a motely mix of multi-source B-50 and petroleum diesel as availability demanded (trip to Chicago and minor fill-ups in South Dakota). This week, I filled by first tank of B-99, so we’re entering a new era.

The long and the short is this: fuel economy seems lower with biodiesel, but that may be unbalanced due to weather conditions and driving habits. Stay tuned, and I’ll post a revised chart later this summer!

We’re very happy with biodiesel; the car seems to run smoother on it and the smiles on our faces do make a difference. And when I filled with B-99, I paid $2.60 per gallon, versus $2.85 for petrol diesel at the pumps!

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My sweater design is published!

April 25th, 2006 by Mary Schmelzer

Photo of sweater

For those of you who may not know, in addition to being an interior designer, I also design knitwear and knitted projects. I am excited to say that I have a design available on the internet through a company called KnitPicks.
From the site you can see the project, order the pattern and yarn to make it. Fiber and fabric have always interested me and it is very rewarding to be able to use them for people’s homes and clothing.

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Minneapolis Institute of the Arts Trip

April 24th, 2006 by Peter Schmelzer

-Minneapolis Institute of the Arts-

Friday, I chaperoned the St. Dominic School 5th Grade trip to the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts. We bussed up, then spent an hour with a doscent, reviewing art work from the Art Adventure program (for which Mary volunteered as a classroom instructor). It was neat to see the kids recognize the art from photos they had studied in the classroom and the excitement they showed as they realize the true quality of the original in comparison.

We saw paintings, sculptures, artifacts, mummies, weapons, and tapestries, but my favorite was the Japanese Rooms.

Michael Graves designed the new wing, which has not yet opened. The kids played tag on the labyrinth in the sculpture garden in front of the wing. As I watched, I was caught up in my own architectural critique of what I could see. In a word, I was not impressed by the form, materiality, or composition of the facade. No wonder area residents aren’t enamored with it!

I recommend a visit nonetheless; the exhibits are very engaging and a good time was had by all.

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Municipalities again McMansions

April 20th, 2006 by Peter Schmelzer

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According to an online article I just read, our suspicions have been confirmed: American houses are getting bigger. No big surprise, but here are the stats:

Average American home size in 1950: 983 square feet
Average American home size in 2004: 2,349 square feet

That’s a notable increase! Moreover, it is not uncommon to hear about houses twice to four times the 2004 size!

Since the mid 1980’s the term “McMansion” has been used in describing houses that are large and about as different for one another as Big Macs are from each other.

As the article points out, many municipalities are fighting to keep McMansions from coming to their towns.

So, what’s the big deal about McMansions?

They’re usually built cheaply and front-loaded, meaning that the budget allocation is highly skewed toward “curb appeal” and monumental entrances rather than efficient, liveable, usable space. I’ve always thought they were built for the next buyer, not the current occupant.

Then there is sprawl. Most of these whoppers have been built in the suburbs, surrounded by acres of grass. The environmental impact of this sort of development is less than positive: irrigation, heating and cooling costs, energy inefficiency, herbicides, pesticides, high material costs, septic systems, commuting pollution, and the like.

But now, the trend is to come back into in-town neighborhoods, to tear down existing houses to build new, bigger houses. This happened in my Grandparent’s Chicago Suburb–two beautiful homes are gone, now replaced with a much bigger single-family home. It looks very out-of-place and weakens the fabric of the neighborhood, but that’s not all. Density has been cut in half. Available housing inventory has been reduced. Two homes are now landfill. Two long-time residents are displaced (perhaps volutarily). Property taxes go up and push out more residents. It’s a new kind of gentrification, but it doesn’t preserve any architectural heritage; perhaps the opposite.

But really, my grandparents’ suburb is a fairly affluent one. The dollar cost of such a project will keep it to a minimum there, but not is less well-to-do areas. In poorer neighborhoods, homes and lots will be cheaper. Displace residents will have fewer options for housing, and the lower-income housing stock is already in shortage world-wide.

Then, given the cost of energy these days, I’ve got to wonder how long the McMansions will survive before their own size and inefficiencies will bring them crashing to the ground, allowing them to rest in landfilled peace next to those that fell to clear their way.

What about our town? Our local building official says our average new home size in Northfield’s current average new house ranges from 1,800 to 2,500 sf (finished space), but 75% of all basements are unfinshed initially, accounting for another 750 to 1,250 sf. But I am aware that developable land around town is limited. Should our local ordinances pay attention to over-sized homes to protect our housing inventory and taxable values?

By the way, I found the article via archinect.

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Cub Scouts report Raptor sighting at St. Dominic’s

April 19th, 2006 by Peter Schmelzer

Cub Scout Pack 300 hosted the University of Minnesota Raptor Center last week at St. Dominic Church’s O’Gara Social Hall. About 80 boys, parents, and siblings from Packs 313, 300, and 344 came together to see and learn about raptors and to see them up close.

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Micah did a great job of showing us a peregrin falcon, a red-tail hawk, a great horned owl, and a bald eagle. For each bird, he told us about the species and the particular bird, then fielded questions.

Then, one of our Weblos volunteered to illustrate the biological adaptions of the great horned owl. Note the large eyes, the scooped feathers around the ears, and the numerous vertebrae (symbolized by the necklace beads!)

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The evening was fun and informative for everyone, and is a great example of the kind of things Cub Scouts get to do. Join us!

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Of Cub Scouts and Cars

April 19th, 2006 by Peter Schmelzer

A couple of weeks ago, Cub Scouts from the area converged on the Northfield Middle School for the annual Rolling Hills District Pinewood Derby. There were 130 or so cars to race, most of which included a family pit crew. The excitement was high as the races transpired!

Pack 344 of Northfield hosted the event and did a fine job. Pack 300 sported both Official Class and Open Class racers, but we didn’t bring home any trophies this year.

Here a few shots of the event, which was really fun.

If you’d like a chance to race or you’re interested in Cub Scouting, give me a call at 507-645-9020!

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