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.

Posted in All Entries, Best Practices, Sustainability Comments Off on Virtual Model Homes

Co-Housing alive in Northfield

February 18th, 2009 by Peter Schmelzer

On Sunday afternoon, I joined the Buffalo Commons Co-Housing group for a work session. The group is alive and well!

The meeting was facilitated by Cindy Robinson, who did a nice job of keeping the meeting on task and on time. Discussion was lively on important formative issues like timeframe, site selection, group governance, values, deal-breakers, and the role of consultants in the project. Originally targeted for a specific lot in Northfield, the group has decided to investigate other lots, too, to determine what will best suit the group.

Co-housing is an interesting and viable option to standard residential development. Residents get to know each other before the project is designed through a process of determining how the community should be formed by the interior and exterior spaces that will be created. Cohousing usually consists of smaller than average dwelling units clustered on a site sharing a common house and parking areas away from the residences. The common house usually features a commercial-grade kitchen, dining and lounging areas, a children’s room and other shared amenities as the group so desires. Shared meals are optional, but become a central feature in strengthening community and easing the pressures of domestic life. Privacy is as ample as each resident wants it to be, with easy access to community (a tougher asset to find these days.)

Financially, it has proven to be viable, too. Lenders see the value of having units sold before construction begins (condominium or cooperative models have both been used.) Cohousing units tend to increase in value more than single family homes. And residents can receive benefits from amenities that are only available by pooling resources.

Sustainability can also be achieved more readily through the cohousing model. Smaller units mean less materials and less impact on the landscape. Clustered homes allow for larger open spaces, shared gardens, and social activities on site in the common house. Shared walls reduce heating and cooling costs, often to the point of having a shared heating plant for multiple homes. Cohousing communities also tend to foster efficiency in other ways such as carpooling.

If you are interested in learning more about cohousing, let me know and I’ll connect you to the best of my ability!

Posted in All Entries, Community, Sustainability 1 Comment »

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.

Posted in All Entries, Best Practices, Sustainability Comments Off on Pyramid of Conservation

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?

Posted in All Entries, Best Practices, Community, Sustainability Comments Off on Farming impacts Sense of Place

One Green Step at a time…not enough

January 28th, 2009 by Peter Schmelzer

Last night I carpooled to the AIA Minnesota Committee on the Environment meeting in Minneapolis. The focus of the meeting was on sustainable integrative design.

It is exciting to be part of the effort to forge a more sustainable future, but it is sobering to hear the scientific facts about our global situation.

Exciting: The AIA is working hard toward reducing carbon emissions from our buildings. Our goal must be about 35% from today’s levels immediately, which will bring us back to the emissions levels of 1990 (or thereabouts.) This is doable! The ongoing challenge is for all new buildings to be carbon neutral.
Sobering: Even carbon neutral buildings aren’t enough in the long term. We need to be renewing our environment to absorb and sequester carbon if we hope to reverse the damage already done.

Exciting: Reducing electricity use can make a big difference in both carbon emissions and in water usage. This can be done by design.
Sobering: One kilowatt of electricity reportedly consumes about 0.4 gallons of ground water. Most of the Twin Cities Metro counties are already using more water than the ground provides. We’re not as water-rich as we thought we were.

Alright, enough sobering. Let’s think about the good stuff!

Exciting: We received a call to arms to reduce carbon emissions by upgrading our existing building stock. Our work is primarily in additions and remodelings, so we are well-stationed to accept the challenge.

Exciting: Sustainable Integrative Design is a process through which environment, social issues, and economic issues can be addressed. VIVUS already incorporates these strategies in our design work.

Exciting: The Obama administration has reportedly done more to address climate change than administrations in the last 16 years!

So, what does all this mean?

We have been working with our clients to take steps in the green direction as budget and interest allow. We will continue to do so, but we will urge you to consider going further. Babysteps are not enough to meet the baseline goals set for carbon emissions reductions. What is needed is a greater commitment to reducing our reliance on fossil fuels for power and heat to near zero. We can help you with design of such a building. Federal and state efforts support these measures, making it easier. And, in the long run, a net zero home will be better for your health, the community, and your pocketbook.

Solar home

This new home is big step in the right direction. We added onto and upgraded the existing home. It now utilizes a 9.8 KW photovoltaic array on the barn to provide more electricity than the house can use. The electricity also powers a ground-source heat pump to provide both heating and cooling for the house. On the roof to the left are two solar domestic hot water panels. Our expectation is that the house will use little or no fossil fuels, with the possible exception of the gas range and the backup boiler (required by code) for those really cold days. The Great Room will require little or no electric light during the day, due to a ceiling and high-performance windows that allow light to wash the space.

While the upfront costs of the technologies employed here are out of reach of most homeowners, the basic design approach remains the same for all buildings.

We welcome your call.

Posted in All Entries, Best Practices, Community, Sustainability Comments Off on One Green Step at a time…not enough

LEED House Design Underway near Northfield

December 11th, 2008 by Peter Schmelzer
LEED-H House

We’ve got a good start on the design of a new home outside of Northfield. This is an exciting project for us for several reasons.

On the macro scale, it is the first house in a new conservation development. The development features enhanced wetlands, native landscaping, community trails, natural common spaces, pervious pavements, onsite renewable energy, community septic system, smaller lots, and a community geothermal heating and cooling system. No fossil fuels will be required for the operation of the development nor the homes in them (unless a homeowner decides on a gas appliance or vehicle.)

On a micro scale, the house will be LEED certified; the actual target is Platinum, and we meet with a LEED-H provider on Monday. This home will be the poster child for the architectural vision of the development:
– Historically sympathetic modern home design
– Architectural design on all sides
– Energy efficient design
– Emphasis on sustainable and renewable materials
– Front porches to foster stronger community
– Smaller homes on smaller lots, allowing larger green community spaces (over 65 acres)
– Native and low-water-use landscaping
– Rainwater harvesting and reuse

Stay tuned as the project develops further!

Posted in All Entries, Best Practices, Sustainability Comments Off on LEED House Design Underway near Northfield

AIA Convention Time One More Time

December 2nd, 2008 by Peter Schmelzer

November is the month of the Minnesota American Institute of Architects annual convention and this year was no exception. I attended some very interesting seminars and learned about some exciting new products, too.

Two themes were very strongly present in all of the seminars: Sustainability and Leadership.

The AIA has embraced sustainable design with both arms, requiring AIA members to acquire continuing education hours in this regard. FYI: 2030 Challenge and 2030 Toolkit.

Leadership has been a sub-plot of the architectural community for a long time, but this year it was underscored for me, both by James P. Cramer, the founder of DesignIntelligence and by a local architect with whom I had lunch. As we chatted about our work, and he offered (unprompted) that the leadership of his major client has made all the difference in their success as a national restaurant chain.

These were heartening ideas for me, given my involvement in the Boy Scouts of America and my interest in designing low-impact buildings.

Posted in All Entries, Sustainability Comments Off on AIA Convention Time One More Time