Materials, Products + Finishes

Historic Hot Tub on 3rd Street

January 1st, 2008 by Peter Schmelzer

Third-Floor Hot Tub

With a smallish back yard and limited privacy, the owner of this home envisioned a new hot tub on the flat roof over the second floor three season porch. The project involved a master plan for converting the attic to a new master suite, bringing the porch up to four-season use, and remodeling an existing bedroom into a new bathroom on the second floor.

This was no mean task! The hot tub’s weight, including people and water, is about the same as the curb weight of a 2007 Volkswagen Beetle. Routing plumbing for the new restrooms without disturbing the existing first floor finishes also proved to be a challenge (that we were up to!) Add to that working out a feasible master suite layout in the attic with no knee walls and you’ve got a fine architectural adventure.

Working closely with the Owner, we found a way to make it all happen. More shots later of work in progress, but I just can’t pass up the insulation now.

Airkrete Insulation

The insulation shown here is a foamed-in-place cement product called AirKrete. It carries a relatively high R-Value, does not shrink after installation, and has great smoke and fire resistance. It will not burn, gives off no smoke or hazardous gasses in a fire, is insect and rodent resistant, and will not offgas. There is no petroleum in this foam, only cement, a foaming agent, and minerals found in seawater.

I’m currently checking with my insurance agent to find out if there will be any savings when we install it in my house. Whatever happens there, we will benefit from high performance insulation, safety and air quality from this product, just as the owners of this house will.

Posted in All Entries, Community, Materials, Products + Finishes, Portfolio + Projects, Sustainability Comments Off on Historic Hot Tub on 3rd Street

House Raising Underway

July 17th, 2007 by Peter Schmelzer

SIPS Home in Northfield MN

One of the great things about Structural Insulated Panel construction is that things go up quickly once the panels arrive on site. Yesterday only half of the exterior walls shown in this shot were up. This evening, the exterior shell is finished and awaiting interior bearing walls. Shortly, you’ll see floor trusses above and the second floor walls on top of that.

This home is located on Second Street in Northfield, on one of the lots that had previously housed the Northfield Hospital. We worked hard to make the design responsive to the existing homes on the block, yet be a modern home with a sense of itself and its time. Where the front foundations lie, a gracious front porch will provide contact with neighbors on the sidewalk. A hipped roof will mimic the historic four-square homes of Northfield while providing daylight to the central stairs.

Energy efficiency was high on our clients’ wish list. To that end, we located the garage to the northwest to provide some wind break; focused a large portion of the windows south for solar gain; calculated the overhangs to provide shade in the summer and light in the winter; utilized Insulated Concrete Forms for the basement walls; used Structural Insulated Panels on the upper walls; specified a whole-house fan to reduce air-conditioning needs and a air-source heat pump instead of natural gas furnace.

Stay tuned for more as the home is built.

Also, you might check Northfield Construction’s blog, where more photos will likely be posted as well.

Posted in All Entries, Materials, Products + Finishes, Portfolio + Projects Comments Off on House Raising Underway

Renewable Energy Fair Wrap-up

June 17th, 2007 by Peter Schmelzer

Wind turbine in Custer Wisconsin, generating renewable energy for the fair We returned to the Midwest Renewable Energy and Sustainability Fair this morning, under the gentle whirring of the wind turbine above the pines.

Today was a day of more workshops.

First, I brushed up on the issue of electric and magnetic fields in homes, spending two hours listening to Spark Burmaster talk about the simple errors in wiring that can have a big effect on fields. Like allergens, people have varying sensitivities to magnetic and electric fields. Careful attention to grounding, grounding, grounding can dramatically reduce fields in the home.

Next I bought a Solar Pathfinder, to help me advise my clients on the suitability of their sites for solar energy systems. The clever device uses simple reflection of the surroundings overlaid on a sunpath chart for the site’s latitude to inform the designer what surrounding objects (trees and buildings usually) will block the sun at what time of year. Photovoltaic panels are extremely sensitive to shading, so this device will help us quantify if your site is right for PV. Solar water heaters are less sensitive, but we can now help you better understand what the impact of that white pine tree will have on your morning shower.

Window in the Strawbale demostration hut

During a break, we checked out the straw bale demonstration hut, which will eventually house composting toilets for the facility. This hut is a load-bearing system, meaning that the bales actually hold up the roof structure.

Rammed tires for entry steps
The entry steps are (obviously) old tires filled with compacted dirt.

Artistic play in the plaster

And, of course, the plaster work provides a medium that can be artistically inviting as well.

The hut

Seeing the hut after yesterday’s seminar makes me want to design and build such a house. If you might be interested, let’s talk!

Posted in All Entries, Best Practices, Community, Materials, Products + Finishes, Sustainability Comments Off on Renewable Energy Fair Wrap-up

Tree Bark Siding for your House

September 26th, 2006 by Peter Schmelzer

Bark Siding

This is just too cool not to post. It’s the bark of the poplar tree, harvested by hand when a tree is cut down. The bark is then flattened, dried in a kiln, then graded for thickness. It is then sold as siding for your home.

Long lasting? Yes. According to Highland Cratsmen Inc., it can last up to 75 years. Green? Yep. It is even low-maintenance; no chemical treatments or sealers are required. Expensive? On the higher end of the spectrum. FHB reports costs in the $5-8 per square foot range.

Credits: Fine Homebuilding Magazine, Issue 182 put me on to the material, the photo came from the Highland craftsmen website.

Will interested clients, please step forward!

Posted in All Entries, Materials, Products + Finishes Comments Off on Tree Bark Siding for your House

Tile Mosaics–expand your horizons

June 28th, 2006 by Mary Schmelzer

mercury mosaics.jpg

If you think tile is only for the area between your kitchen cabinets and countertops, you need to see the innovative work being produced by Mercury Mosaics in Minneapolis. They use handmade tiles and can do custom textures and colors. If the common ivory plastic switchplates don’t excite you, you can now order their handmade switch plates off their website (rectangular and wow! they also do circular).

And innovative doesn’t have to be resource-intensive. Tracy says, “We also pride ourselves in material usage – having almost no waste since we can use tiles left over from a project for other mosaics. We don’t throw away clay, but continually rework it until it is used up.”

Consider a tile mosaic as a signature element for your next project–and move beyond the predictable.

Posted in All Entries, Materials, Products + Finishes, Sustainability Comments Off on Tile Mosaics–expand your horizons

Concrete Air Freshener?

May 17th, 2006 by Peter Schmelzer

It looks like an Italian company has worked up a new kind of air freshener, made of concrete!

By including titanium dioxide in the mix, they have found that the concrete will absorb both nitrous dioxide and carbon dioxide from the surrounding air. Both of these are emissions from automobiles, so it makes sense to absorb these gases.

Unfortunately, large quantities of CO2 are generated in the production of concrete in processing and transporting the components and the concrete itself.

They claim is can reduce urban air pollution by up to 40%, a tall order.

Stay tuned, and I’ll let you know if I find out more about how the absorption balances out with the production.

Via Social Design Notes: M&C Science and Nature

Posted in All Entries, Materials, Products + Finishes, Sustainability Comments Off on Concrete Air Freshener?


April 5th, 2006 by Peter Schmelzer

Wall paper

We come across a number of clients each year that are interested in doing-it-themselves. If you’re like them, here’s the wall finish you may be interested in!

Wallpaper like the paint-by-numbers kits I used to paint as a kid!

Posted in All Entries, Materials, Products + Finishes Comments Off on Wallpaper-By-Numbers