Michigan Contemporary Farmhouse Update

April 19th, 2018 by Mary Schmelzer

In late 2016, two clients broke ground on a beautiful rural site in Michigan. Their energy-efficient farmhouse has been featured on the blog, first here and then again here. With the project being built hundreds of miles away, regular site visits are a challenge for me, so it was a delight to receive an email from the clients with updates. All the text quoted below is from the homeowners, lightly edited.


“The really good news is that the design of the house is working out very well. The layout provides good separation between public and private spaces. It’s great to roll out of bed and into the kitchen. The house is cheerful and full of sunlight. The small front foyer is a delightful detail that is enjoyed from the music room, and the staircase invites further exploration to the second floor. Sight lines are long but broken up by small angles and structural details. The great music room is wonderful: it can accommodate 2 lazy retirees or a small crowd of energetic children + dinner guests. The long narrow dining hall is perfect for buffet dinners; guests drift into the music room to have their meal, rather than hanging out in the kitchen (hooray for efficient galley kitchens). We are hard pressed to think of how to improve the design, given the challenges of the property with its drainage swales, cemetery and neighboring pipeline. Thank you Mary for your expert input, patience and perseverance during the design process. Yes, we finally got the stairs in the right spot!

“Roxel insulation [a kind of bat insulation made from stone and other minerals, and pictured above] has changed their name to Rock Wool. So far, we are oblivious of its existence: warm walls, no smells, no nothing. We have noticed a very nice reduction in sound transmission from outside noises. We missed an opportunity by not having it installed in some of the interior walls. Absolutely, we would specify it again.

“We are very sympathetic about the allergies. We have noticed a dramatic reduction in dust with the complete lack of carpeting. Hooray. The Sherwin-Williams low/no VOC interior paints are excellent: no smells or off-gassing. The Summit engineered wood flooring is wonderfully neutral. No smells. It is absolutely worth the added expense to specify the no-VOC materials.

Above, the custom-sized towel bars are just one of hundreds of details that make the house unique.

“In-floor hydronic heat is different. We like it. The neighbor’s children love it on their bare toes. Clean, no wind chills, no dust flying around. In spite of all kinds of pumps, valves and mechanisms spinning away night and day during December (pre-Christmas low = -14°), the electric bill was about $75. The propane bill was considerably higher! We need to get curtains in the windows to cut down on heat transfer. Yes, the wood stove really works to keep things warm, and the AC circulation fan does a good job of distributing the heat throughout the house. One consequence of hot water heat is a dry house. Good news: the house has finally dried out after last winter’s drenching, and we have gaps along the caulk fills all over the place. The other downside is a tendency to have scratchy noses; we just need to purchase a small portable humidifier to take care of that problem. After fighting the mildew in our Lakeville home, it is a vast relief not to have to live with that health hazard.

“We are anxiously waiting for spring and all kinds of major projects. Final grading to deal with ponds of water; gutters and downs; hardscaping and landscaping; lots of tree planting and gardening. Meanwhile, we are applying the final rehab details to our shower and hope to start using it in the next week. Progress.”

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Green still catching on

April 25th, 2011 by Peter Schmelzer

Today I renewed our membership with the US Green Building Council. We support the work of the USGBC in transforming the marketplace toward more sustainable materials and design.

It seems that Green is still catching on, but it is becoming more commonplace. On our boards is one residential masterplan including a deep energy retrofit of the existing home. Already in our portfolio are homes integrating passive solar heat, natural ventilation, super-insulation, daylighting, photo-voltaics, solar water heat, and geo-thermal heating and cooling systems. With each project, we consult with the owner to bring in strategies that fit the site, the budget and the owners’ sensibilities.

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Smart Remodeling

June 9th, 2010 by Peter Schmelzer

Which of these home improvements do you think can cause condensation on your windows and cause your water heater to back draft?

  • Replacing the old furnace with a high-efficiency furnace
  • Caulking and sealing windows and other wall penetrations
  • Increasing the R-value of insulation in the attic
  • Installing a new range hood or bath fan
  • Adding conditioned space to an existing home
  • Changing a fireplace
  • The truth is that they all have the potential to cause unexpected consequences, including condensation on the windows, carbon monoxide in the air, and mold in the walls.
    At the Smart Remodeling seminar in Rochester, we reviewed the interdependence of the systems in the house and how well-intentioned upgrade can cause a snow-ball effect in pushing an existing house toward and over the cliff to failure.


    All of our existing homes rely on energy to keep them stable and to manage moisture. Older homes may be stable for reasons that aren’t immediately obvious. For example, wood fireplaces traditionally allow a high volume of air to escape through the chimney. That air may actually be removing moisture from the basement in the spring. If you install tight doors over the fireplace and the air is not allowed to escape, what happens to the moisture? It stays in the house, causing odors, mold, and condensation, unless overall ventilation of the house is addressed at the same time. The same holds true for other seemingly innocuous renovations.

    The improvement ideas in the pop quiz above are all great things to do for energy efficiency and sustainability, yet experience has shown that they can lead to unintended results. These can be prevented through the right analysis and design process. We invite your call to discuss how careful planning can keep your remodeling project on track and improve your home’s performance at the same time.

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    US Green Building Council Membership

    April 27th, 2010 by Peter Schmelzer

    VIVUS Architecture + Design has renewed its membership in the US Green Building Council as an indicator of our interest in , expertise regarding, and support of the sustainable building movement in the United States.

    Ask us how we can help you measure how sustainable your project can be!

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    Passive House in North America

    April 6th, 2010 by Peter Schmelzer

    I’ve been reading about and researching the Passive House standard lately, and came across a good article on the topic through BuildingGreen.com.

    Passive House was launched from Germany under one basic premise: Invest in the building’s envelope to save energy. Through an air-tight, highly insulated building shell, heat transfer is dramatically reduced, requiring less energy to heat and cool the space. Ideally, the envelope’s high performance would offset the need for a large central heating/cooling appliance and that savings would offset the higher cost of increase wall thickness, added insulation, and imported windows and doors. Cooling would be provided through ventilation and supplemental heat could be added to the incoming fresh air when needed. It is a compelling argument for low-energy homes.

    One question in my mind is about our severely cold winters in Minnesota. Is it cost effective to avoid a heat plant? There are decreasing returns on efficiency with extreme insulation and with the continuous use of fresh air for ventilation, outside temperature has a larger impact. How does an architect strike a balance and still meet the criteria?

    The article suggests that Germany and Minnesota are not equal and may require different standards, whether the Passive House Institute agrees or not. In the end, the goal is low energy, sustainable housing. Passive House is a leader in promoting low-energy homes, but the jury is still out for it’s widespread use in Minnesota.

    We look forward to our first chance to embrace and test the Passive House standard.

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    200,000,000,000 gallons

    February 5th, 2010 by Peter Schmelzer

    That’s the number of gallons of surface water sucked into power plants each day to generate this nation’s electricity.

    Per DAY. That is a staggering number, even in the land of 10,000 lakes.

    What does that look like?

    That’s over half of the daily flow of the Mississippi River through New Orleans.

    That’s like filling and draining the Metrodome four hundred forty-five times each day, including the arc of the dome.

    Or, consider 4.6 times the water that crests Niagara Falls each day.

    When you think of conserving electricity, think of conserving our waterways, lakes, and streams.

    This colossal hidden cost lurks behind each kilowatt on your monthly utility bill for steam-generated power, whether coal or nuclear.

    Ask what you can do to conserve electricity in your home and business.

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    Northfield to Minneapolis on the Metro Express

    November 12th, 2009 by Peter Schmelzer

    This week, I’ve taken the Metro Express bus to Minneapolis then home again.

    The occasion is the 75th annual Convention of the Minnesota American Institute of Architects, favored by architects near and far for quality opportunities to learn about current practices, philosophy and materials in the industry.

    Metro Express appealed to me as a supporter of sustainablility and as a guy who would prefer to avoid driving in rush hour traffic.

    It has been a pleasant experience. The driver is polite and conversational, the ride is smooth and continuous, taking just less than an hour to downtown Minneapolis. The walk to the convention center gives me a chance to stroll Nicollet Mall and take in the local architectural vistas.

    At $10 to ride (each way), the cost is very competitive with driving myself ($10 parking per day plus about $11 in gas). After a long day of seminars, it has been very nice to have travel time to process information and unwind instead of pumping the clutch through stop-and-go traffic.

    The departure times work well for all-day events downtown.

    I recommend you give it a try when you get a chance.

    Thank you to the Northfield Transit Initiative for your work in making this bus route an option!

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    Looking for a few good homeowners…

    November 4th, 2009 by Peter Schmelzer

    LEED for Homes

    VIVUS would like to help a few good homeowners to achieve a LEED for Homes certification. This could be new construction or a significant remodeling of your existing home.

    LEED for Homes helps us measure the sustainability of your project through a point-based rating system. At the same time, it encourages market transformation within the construction industry toward more sustainable materials and practices.

    We would like to hear from you if you desire a greener home.

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    Solar Energy Finance Option

    October 21st, 2009 by Peter Schmelzer

    Vice President Biden will take some cues from Berkely and institute a financing plan for solar panels linked to property taxes.

    This will allow homeowners to get into solar energy and avoid the sizeable upfront costs of the system.

    Many of our clients are interested in solar energy but find the initial expense to be too large when added to construction and remodeling costs. Our strategy has been to design “solar-ready”, so the systems could be added at a later date. This financing option may help clear that hurdle. We’ll stay tuned as the story develops….

    Link to the San Francisco Chronicle article

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    Cohousing in Madison, Wisconsin

    October 7th, 2009 by Peter Schmelzer


    Last weekend, we visited two cohousing developments in Madison, Wisconsin. This photo shows Arboretum Cohousing, a newish community who hosted the Northfield Cohousing Community‘s contingent of visitors. (Thank you, Arbco!)

    I stayed is a guest suite at Arbco. It is part of the “common house”, of which members own an undivided share. The rooms were spacious and clean, and easily accessible to the common house. Gail and Dan gave us a wonderful tour of the facilities and grounds, followed by an informational conversation about startup challenges and a wonderful potluck lunch. I was impressed by their gracious hospitality and relaxed manner, which permeated the place.

    Arbco consists of 40 living units, including six single family homes. Structured parking is provided below the living spaces, which was a nice amenity required by the tight urban site. This combination allows the development to nestle into its neighborhood context nicely.


    We also visited the Village Cohousing Community, just five blocks away from Arbco.

    The village is a bit smaller, with 18 living units, including both existing homes and new townhomes. It was built in the early 1990’s, so Village has had time for landscaping to mature and it, too, blends nicely into the neighborhood. Karen took us through the buildings and shared ideas about how the community handles shared tasks and the like. (Thank you, Karen!)

    The trip to Madison was part of the Northfield Cohousing Community’s effort to research cohousing and to prepare for our development in Northfield. These shared efforts help build relationships and understanding among the members as we prepare to design and build a neighborhood for ourselves.

    Cohousing offers opportunties for a more sustainable lifestyle and a stronger connection to neighbors.

    For more about cohousing, please attend my presentation at Just Food Coop next month:

    5 November 2009: “Cohousing Design”
    Just Food Coop meeting room, 7:00pm to 8:30pm

    You’ll have a chance to meet others interested in cohousing!

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