Variances, Local Woods, and Solar Energy

November 16th, 2006 by Peter Schmelzer

It’s been a busy couple of days for VIVUS Architecture and Design.


Monday afternoon I met with the Coulee Region Sustainable Wood Products Group at the Northfield Library. We’re a group comprised of foresters, land owners, lumberyard representative, contractors, DNR employees, craftspeople, and designers. Our mission is to create a network to promote management, certification, and use of sustainable wood products from the Coulee Region of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois.

This was our second meeting, and it remains very interesting. There are many opportunities to improve just about every aspect of how local sustainable wood products move from forests to mills to lumberyards to contractors through specifications to finished products of all sorts. With representatives from each step of the way, we have engaged in some lively discussions and come up with some first steps. Stay tuned for more as we continue in our efforts.

Monday night I attended a Conditional Use Permit Hearing in Prior Lake. A client asked us to help with the Zoning Ordinance review, a Conditional Use Permit, and an Application for Zoning Variance. This is a service we provide of which people aren’t often aware. We were successful, and received unanimous approval. Next we will work together to improve the building for occupancy.

Tuesday morning I attended the Minnesota AIA Convention, which is always an enjoyable and educational experience. If you follow sustainability, I would recommend you check out the AIA’s website. The AIA, or American Institute of Architects (of which I am a member), has committed to a significant carbon reduction in buildings we design in the next 25 years.

I attended a class on residential solar energy systems, both photovoltaic and domestic hot water. It was an excellent overview of systems, local application guidelines, and sizing recommendations. One point that really struck home: Solar Energy is free. It is estimated that an efficient system can pay for itself in seven or eight years. After that, it can be considered a retirement account: free energy for the rest of your life (some maintenance required, just like your IRA).

I also learned about the acoustician’s role in designing concert halls, including the Disney Hall. Acoustics is an intriguing blend of history, computer modeling, mathematical modeling, and intuition. The complexity of the issue is mind boggling! Each orchestral instrument projects its sound in a different direction depending on the range in which the note is played, which obviously varies constantly. Each instrument’s location is unfixed from performance to performance, and optimal sound is usually desired for many hundreds of seats, which may or may not be occupied depending on box office sales. When the presenter said we simply don’t have the computing power to model all the variables, I was stunned, especially in this day and age. Acoustical design is truly and art, albeit highly informed by mathematics and science.

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