Green Roof installed in Rice County, Minnesota

September 15th, 2009 by Peter Schmelzer

Green Roof

The plants are in place on our first residential green roof!

green roof

Now in their first season, the seedums are taking root and getting established. A soaker hose is being used to water for now As they fill out, the erosion control mat will become less visible, and the roof will retain more rainwater than it currently does. We estimate that the roof should reduce runoff by 50% a that point; however, other portions of the roof drain onto this roof through downspouts, so we are asking a lot of these plantings!

The homeowners installed the multi-layered system and planted on top of the rubber membrane provided by the contractor. They blogged about it in two parts: Part One and Part Two. Take a look, they’ve done well in explaining the process.

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VIVUS upgrades Project Management capabilities

July 13th, 2009 by Peter Schmelzer

We have been learning a new software system lately at VIVUS Architecture + Design.

One of our primary goals is to provide our clients with creative, responsive design solutions. At the same time, we pledge to do our best to manage each project well. Like much in architecture, an inherent contradiction lies here: managers and artists often wear different hats.

To allow us to focus more on creative design, we have decided to upgrade our in-house management tools. Recently, we installed a new server and an extensive management application that will help us deliver your projects more efficiently and effectively. Already the benefits of software enhancements are evident: reduced time preparing and managing time, documents, communication and contacts. This will allow more time to be spent on the creative side of our work and helping us deliver our primary goal.

Sincere thanks to the City of Northfield, the Economic Development Authority, and the Northfield Enterprise Center for the funding received through the Clemens-Shearer Microgrant, without which this upgrade would have had to wait an indeterminate amount of time. The microgrant program supports emerging businesses in Northfield, Minnesota.

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To turn the country around, turn the building sector around.

June 2nd, 2009 by Peter Schmelzer
House for Sale, Northfield

Here’s a typical post-war house. Windows: Single pane, aluminum frame. Wall insulation: R-11 at best. Ceiling Insulation: R-19 at best. Ventilation: none. Foundation insulation: none. In short, this is not an energy efficient home, and neither are the hundreds of thousands like it across the country. Given the housing crash, it is unlikely to receive an equity loan for upgrades. Given the economy, its owner could be facing reduced salary or unemployment, further decreasing the odds of improvement.

Meanwhile, the government is spending billions to help out corporations.

Of the people, by the people, and for the people. Shouldn’t the focus be on the people, not the corporations?

That’s what I like about this article. It makes a compelling counter-proposal to stimulate our economy, helping corporations by directing stimulus to individual households.

Nutshell: Government provides banks with funding for energy efficiency upgrades to existing homes. This will boost home values, tax revenues, construction employment, renewable energy manufacturing and homeowner savings.

Estimated return on investment: fourteen fold, and the stimulus pays for itself in the long run.

Great idea. Great example of how investing sustainably is also investing wisely.

Thanks, George, for the link.

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The Inside of Your Home: Time for New Thinking

April 28th, 2009 by Mary Schmelzer

This article also appeared in the April 15, 2009 Home and Garden insert of the Northfield News.

This great room is divided by curved ceiling treatments

This great room is divided by curved ceiling treatments

It isn’t news that the housing market is drastically different. Houses aren’t selling overnight and the flexibility of moving just isn’t there. This means it is time we think differently about our homes and how we wisely make them our own.

Sarah Susanka’s building approach, “The Not So Big House” is celebrating ten years of success. The theory resonates with many home owners: it values quality over quantity and creating a home for yourself, not a generic sales market. Most people who come to Vivus Architecture + Design subscribe to these principles and want design solutions that provide personalized spaces that are right-sized with features that make living easier and more beautiful.

Breaking down the above principles into strategies, these are some of the local interior trends we are seeing:

People are doing all the planning up front, and then allowing the projects to take place in a logical and manageable sequence. Often this allows the homeowners to occupy the house during construction and doesn’t require the same upfront financing. Planning also prevents undoing good work that was previously accomplished or the budget-busting “while-we’re-at-its.”

Useful spaces that save time and money are always assets. Organized closets optimally placed save frustration and repurchasing of items that can’t be found. A good kitchen layout makes cooking, cleanup and entertaining easier and more enjoyable for everyone. By designing efficient living spaces, we are often able to reduce the square footage previously anticipated for an addition. This planning is rewarded by construction savings.

Quality cabinetry, flooring and counters save money in the long run

Quality cabinetry, flooring and counters save money in the long run

We are now seeing fewer projects that are short-term solutions: homeowners are installing high-quality cabinetry, flooring and finishes. This may mean an owner will take on a smaller project, but the enduring appeal and life span of the materials make the decision a good one. Navigating through the available selections takes effort and planning, but it pays in the long run when a remodeling lasts for decades.

Family spaces
Families are just as busy as ever, and demand much from their homes. More homes locally are planning for mudrooms. Mudrooms answer many needs: storage, organization, information/scheduling, pet spaces, and sometimes laundry.

Kitchens are designed with built-in places for homework, home offices, entertaining and specialty cooking. Homeowners are upgrading appliances, cabinetry, lighting and flooring to create hard-working and good-looking multi-use spaces. Open connections between rooms can offer new opportunities for entertaining and family connectedness if they are adequately designed to do so.

A "command center" has its own nook formed by the stairwell

We are seeing less square footage added as more owners opt to create rooms for the whole family: reading, watching TV, playing games and using the computer. Built-in nooks and work counters perform many functions without requiring much floor space. One well-planned hard-working room can replace several others. Instead of a dedicated home office, we often allocate space in or near a common room.

More and more green elements are being incorporated. Energy savings, carbon reduction, kindness to the earth and health are driving factors. We address these desires by designing a tight envelope (good windows, doors, insulation), selecting efficient heating/cooling, and recommending eco-friendly products. Efficiency and durability are strategies that also help “green” a home. Renewable energy systems are an option, too.

Don’t be afraid to make your home your own. The homes we remember are those with interesting nooks and crannies, fun features or rooms beautifully appointed. It takes a careful hand to decipher what is universally charming and what is over-the-top. We often recommend the unusual strokes be items that can be removed: paint, furniture, accessories. Well-done focal points, quality built-ins and beautiful woodwork are features that appeal to everyone.

Bold tile makes a colorful statement in a concentrated area

Bold tile makes a colorful statement in a concentrated area

Color can enhance woodwork and furniture, set a mood, and optimize natural light. Today’s spaces have touches of bright colors mixed with neutrals. Rooms are planned to have color opportunities: backsplashes, stained glass, and walls that sport a focused hue. Local colors include darker, saturated earth tones (mustard yellows, clay reds, brown-based greens) and deeper neutrals.

As you think about making your current home work better for you, employ the trends listed above to make wise choices about your updates. Planning ahead and good design will reward you with usable and enjoyable spaces that will serve you for many years. Let us know how we can help.

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Take the MN Energy Challenge

April 7th, 2009 by Peter Schmelzer


Take the challenge!

The challenge is to reduce your energy footprint. The benefits are cost savings, a more comfortable home, a cleaner environment, and possibly improved physical fitness, to name a few.

The challenge begins with simply bench-marking your current energy usage. Your home mechanical systems, your plumbing, your composting practices, and your vehicle usage all come together in your benchmark carbon dioxide emissions.

The next step is to look at suggested ways to save energy and reduce your carbon footprint. From a list, pick those ideas that seem most readily achievable to you and commit to them. Come back in a year and check your progress. As you select a strategy to employ, the online Member Dashboard will reflect the money and emissions you have saved. Mine says I’ll save $683 per year and reduce my emissions by over 18,000 pounds of CO2.

You can also join an Energy Challenge Team, to see how quickly your individual actions compound into big results. For example, 315 Northfield residents are currently on the Northfield team, saving over $283,000 and 2.4 million pounds of CO2 per year. That is a big impact!

Team Northfield is currently eighth in the rankings, but within easy reach of Fridley, Plymouth, Bloomington, and Prior Lake. Join the MN Energy Challenge and help pull Northfield to the top!

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Solar Panels Operational!

March 6th, 2009 by Peter Schmelzer

power inverter

This week, Mary and I visited a client’s home to review the solar power and hot water systems thet were recently installed. Here is the power converter, which received DC power from the solar panels and converts it to AC power, and Greg, the installer. This is one of two inverters installed inside the old barn, which proved to be a fine place to mount the photovoltaic panels.

Access Challenges

Access is only occasionally needed, so the inverters were installed close to PV panels. The inverters are truly a minimal intrusion into the barn space.

Photovoltaic panels

The panels face south at about a 35-degree angle to match the existing roof slope. They are unobtrusive on top of the silver metal roof. We advised our client to locate the panels on the barn instead of the house due to the existing trees around the house and the fine solar access afforded on the barn, as shown below.

Barn with Solar Panels

solar domestic hot water panels

The solar domestic hot water panels, however, fit easily on the roof of the home, where they will receive plenty of sunlight. The hot water storage tank thermometer read 125 degrees despite the 38-degree outdoor temperature.

Innovative Power Systems designed and provided both hot water and photovoltaic panels systems. Our role has been primarily advocacy and consultation on the solar systems, which were added late in the design process. Where appropriate in all our projects, we incorporate “solar ready” strategies into our projects so that our clients can easily and affordably add these systems when the time is right. In this case, the SDHW systems dovetailed with construction and the PV system followed shortly thereafter.

Click here to see some portfolio images of this project, which at this point are largely planning images. We hope to add more photographs this spring.

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Virtual Model Homes

February 19th, 2009 by Peter Schmelzer


In the past, residential developers have built model homes with which to showcase their product and craftsmanship and to attract buyers. This has been an expensive approach in recent times; construction costs are high and model homes have felt the slowing market, forcing the developer to both front the construction cost and to bear the ongoing cost of ownership.

We propose a more sustainable alternative.


Using our digital visualization tool, our interior designers and architects can create a virtual home, complete with furniture, accessories, tile patterns, and wood trim for display and walk-throughs with potential homeowners. This gives them the chance to understand the floor plan, the views, and the nature of the home, especially if given the chance to interact with the designer. Changes to better suit personal preferences can be shown and studied at low cost if the homeowner so desires.


The developer wins, too. Upfront costs for a virtual home are a small fraction of the costs of a model home. Online presentation limits staff time at the model home and makes it more available to potential buyers. Marketing images are easily extracted from the virtual home for brochures, a website or mailings. Animated fly-bys and walk-throughs add energy and life to the marketing efforts. Drawings for construction are derived directly from the virtual home, so this is not an extra step in the process.

Experience has shown that lenders appreciate virtual homes, too, which are easily appraised and understood from the virtual home and its plans. Contractors appreciate the reduced number of change orders on the job, since most are covered in cyberspace.

And the virtual model is easily reused, recycled, remodelable, repaintable, and reconfigurable for different sites.

We welcome inquiries from builders and developers interested in building a virtual model home.

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Pyramid of Conservation

February 12th, 2009 by Peter Schmelzer

Minnesota Power has developed a helpful diagram to help homeowners understand home energy efficiency.

It’s called the Pyramid of Conservation, and it offers both the place to start and a suggested progression toward more complex, more costly solutions.

The base of the pyramid is understanding, suggesting you get a home energy audit done for your house. The peak is renewable power. In between are the more approachable options which address lighting, controllable thermostats, appliances and the like.

So take a look and see how your home matches up to the pyramid. It’s the right thing to do.

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On Hiring an Architect….

January 30th, 2009 by Peter Schmelzer

A sugar broker may have ideas about a portrait but he won’t try to paint it himself. He will commission a portrait painter, in whom he has confidence, to make a likeness of his wife or child as the case may be. Even more necessary are the services of an architect when building or remodeling a house. Trying to be your own architect is as foolish as drawing a sketch of little Jerry on canvas and then calling in a house painter to smear on a daub of blue for his coat, a bit of yellow for his hair, white for his collar, and just anything for the background. At worst, though, this futuristic result can be taken to the attic, turned face to the wall and forgotten; but a botched house won’t let you forget. You have to live in it along with your mistakes, day after day and, possibly, year after year. When and if you finally call in an architect and have them remedied or obviated, the cost will be considerably in excess of what his total fee would have been in the beginning.

So, find the best man practicing in the vicinity where your future home is to be located and cast your burdens on his drafting board.

“If You’re Going to Live in the Country”, by
Thomas H. Ormsbee and Richmond Huntley 2006

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Farming impacts Sense of Place

January 29th, 2009 by Peter Schmelzer

Here’s an interesting research summary that bridges my interest in the aesthetics of place and food production.

It seems that in Canterbury, there is disagreement about how farms should appear.

Conventional farmers prefer a neat and tidy geometric look, which, in their eyes, reflects the strong work ethic of the farmer. Organic farmers prefer a more natural, overgrown landscape; this reflects their respect for nature and their use of native plants to manage pests and weeds.

Interesting: conventional farmers generally view organic farming as too labor-intensive.

This is a good chance to think about your position on the aesthetics and sense of place of your hometown. How much does the way we want things to look reflect our values and guide our decision making? Do our ordinances (Northfield Land Use Advisory Group) reflect the overall goals (Comprehensive Plan) of our community?

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