Modern in a lost city

Monday, December 15th, 2008

I have had the pleasure while doing this blog of sharing ideas and solutions with many people who have either done their own similar project or are interested in doing something like it in the future. Of the many people I have met during these various exchanges, one of the most interesting to me was Matt and Laura Tills. The Tills, like us, had recently added to their young family and outgrown their home at the time. Since Matt is an architect they began making plans to design and build their very own modern, green friendly home. Like us the tills were in search of resources to help aid them in the design and selection of the many materials they would ultimately use, and in the process we connected. Over the next, almost two years, we have corresponded back and forth, sometimes with questions for one another and occasionally just to commiserate with someone else who could truly understand the impact of taking on such a project and the impact that it can have on your life. Our connections have become much more random over the last 6 months or so as our projects have come to relative completion and both our families have adjusted to getting settled in. I sent an email to Matt and Laura recently asking to see some current images of their project in it’s completed form and if I could share their project with the readers of my blog, they graciously agreed to do so.

Matt and Laura didn’t do anything of the ordinary kind when it came to building their new home, not even the selection of their land. Although they are located within the city limits of Wisconsin’s Capital of Madison, their property is in what is referred to as the “lost city”, a part of the University of Wisconsin’s Arboretum. The section of land was not fitted with city sewer and they had to work to get the property rezoned to reduce the rear lot line in order to position the house in a place where they could avoid losing some large evergreens in the front yard.  Additionally, their property had the remnants of an old tennis court on it which would eventually serve as the site of their new home.

Matt designed the house with great care to consider the surroundings while introducing forward thinking modern and green friendly design and building practices. The exterior of the house which was constructed of SIPs and clad in steel, Prodema siding and stone seems to sit perfectly among the surrounding trees almost as if it had been their forever. The interior of the home with its carefully placed clearstory and large sections of windows invite sunlight into the space, creating a beautiful glow and blur the lines between interior and exterior spaces. The rich colors of the stained concrete floors are complimented by the beauty of the blonde woodwork and exposed beams of the roof and ceiling. The simple, elegant, modern fixtures that appear in the bathrooms and almost every lighting opportunity, seem to perfectly compliment the lines and form of the homes design. This home is truly an inviting and modern jewel to be discovered, in what was once known as Madison’s lost city.








Sunday, November 23rd, 2008


This past year our house was an award winner for energy conservation and design from SIPA (the national organization for the Structurally Insulated Panel Industry). As a result of this honor an author of several home books by the name of Sheri Koones contacted us in consideration for our house to be featured in her newest book about pre-fab homes. Our house isn’t traditionally what most people invision when they say pre-fabricated homes, but because the walls of our house were constructed of SIPs in a factory our house is consider a pre-fab.

Late last week I received my second call from Sheri Koones letting me know that our house had indeed been selected to be featured in her latest book. I will be provideing her a couple of different images of the house for publication. One of the images that was requested was that of the house being constructed of the SIPs panels while the second is a finshed exterior shot. Since the current leafless surroundings of the house are less attractive than some of the shots taken this past summer when we had full foliage, I’ve decided to include one of those images instead.

So what does this type of recognition mean. My hope is that 20 or 30 years from now some of the awards and recognition mean that our house is valued at more than if we would have built something a little more traditional, and a lot less energy efficient. I would imagine the energy efficiency part will prove to be true, but as far as the recognition paying dividends, we’ll just have to wait and see.

the 5ive house is a ten in my book.

Monday, September 22nd, 2008

The exterior of the house fits well with the natural surroundings of the lot.

photo courtesy of Jeff Gallo.

The interior of the house has an open floor plan, giving it a greater sense of size.
photo courtesy of Jeff Gallo.

This rendering of the site shows the integration of the landscaping and structure.
Although there seems to be a growing rise of green friendly modern homes going up across the country, few can claim to be as remarkable as the the Twin Cities own 5ive house. The project is the brainchild of Jeff and Salena Gallo, who after taking a tour of one modern modular home, set themselves out on a course to building what would become Minnesota’s first LEED certified platinum home.

The Gallo’s were not your typical couple entering into the process of building their first new home. They began with the decision to build something modern and environmentally friendly well before it had become all the rage. In 2005 the LEED for home program was just in its infancy stage, but the Gallo’s signed on to be pioneers in the program. They made a conscious effort to look for an architectural partner who shared their same set of values and vision, while being mindful of their budget when designing their new home. After a long thorough process, they settled on Minneapolis Based architectural firm Shelter Architecture. The project and the partnership would prove to be a fruitful one for both parties.

Green from start to finish.

Jeff and Selena had purchased a lot on Minneapolis’ west side that was occupied by a home in disrepair. The lot was cleared of the old structure, but Jeff and Salena made sure that everything that could be saved or recycled, was (about 60% of the old structure was recycled). They then began to break ground on what would come to be known as the 5ive house. The Project would include a variety of alternative materials and building practices both inside and out, all geared toward a green friendly building. Like many green projects, the 5ive house had a focus on making sure the building envelope was as energy efficient as possible. This included pre-cast Thermomass® walls with an R-31 rating, and Energy Star windows and doors. Additionally, they made the exterior elements of he house work for them as well. This included a landscaping plan that was for prairie restoration, a 93% permeable site and rainwater harvesting and irrigation systems.

On the inside of the house the green theme continued. Highly efficiency faucets and toilets, that use a fraction of the water of most household fixtures. A 97% efficient hot water heater was put in, and Jeff and Salena were conscious to select Energy Star Appliances and lighting fixtures. Even cosmetic elements such as countertops, paint, window treatments and even plumbing were selected for their No or low-VOC (Volatile organic compound) ratings, helping to ensure that the homes indoor air quality lived up to the houses environmentally healthy image.

As Minnesota’s first LEED certified residential project and a winner of the Minnesota RAVE award 2008, the 5ive house has also become an incredible resource for other people, including home owners and architects, looking to do the same on their projects. Just another way that this house has had an impact on our future environment.

By the numbers
R-31 insulated walls
R-60 roof
75% drought tolerant landscaping
93% permeable landscape Over 40% construction waste recycled
Over 60% of of land clearing waste recycled
16 SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) cooling
9 AFUE (Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency) heating

Condensation on Windows

Sunday, September 7th, 2008

Have you ever seen condensation on your windows in the summer time? I’ve recently noticed that the windows on the south side of our house have developed condensation on them, early in the morning. Since we made such a large investment in windows, and in particular low-E, triple pane glass, I was concerned that there was something drastically wrong. I know that interior condensation occurs in the winter time and usually is a sign that the cold air is making it’s way into your home, through your windows. When the cold air meets with the warm interior air it results in a condensation on the interior surface of the glass. Besides being a sign of poorly performing windows this condensation can also result in rot and mold issue inside your home. However, the condensation that I’m seeing on my windows is happening on the exterior not the interior, so it got me to wondering why?

After a few web searches, I came across a series of similar explanations to my window condensation issue. The explanation I found to be most clearly stated, was on the website of RLC Engineering, LLC. from Craig DeWitt, PhD, PE, who writes:

“…condensation occurs when a surface falls below the dew point temperature of the air. The outside glass in an energy efficient window will be closer to the outside temperature, and the inside glass will be closer to the inside temperature. The glass in an inefficient window will be more heavily influenced by both inside and outside temperatures. A Low-E coating (that reduces radiant heat transfer) will tend to warm the inside surface in the winter, and the outside surface in summer sunshine. A Low-E coating will also lower the outside surface temperature at night in the summer. Therefore, a low-E coating will reduce the potential for winter condensation, while creating more potential for summer condensation situations (especially if the inside thermostat is set near or below the outside dew point temperature.)”

Based on the information stated above, I’m sure that the condensation issue in our house is a combination of our highly efficient, low-E coated windows in conjunction with the fact that our house envelope is incredibly energy efficient maintaining a more consistent temperature, therefore magnifying the difference between the changes in inside air and outside air temperature. Although the issue was mildly concerning when I first notice it, I guess that it’s a reassuring sign that my windows are doing their job, and apparently doing it quite well.

You can see the slightly frosted appearance of our widows, as condensation has gathered on the outside of the glass.

In this shot, you can actually see some of the dew running down the face of the window exterior. The condensation usually disappears shortly after the sun rises and the exterior temperature begins to rise.

Architecture as functional Art

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2008

In recent years, fans of modern home design have been looking for ways to get the style and character often associated with an architecturally designed modern home, which can run in upwards of $400 per sq ft. on a more value engineered budget. The result has been an ever growing trend of modern modular pre-fabricated homes, designed by architectural firms.

One of the pioneers of modern modular Pre-fab housing has been Twin Cities based FlatPak. Founded by Charlie Lazor (one of the founders of Blu Dot furniture) who named the company after the term used to describe knock down self-assembled furniture, that can be shipped flat in a box. However, the The Flat pack system is really an intricate and customizable system using a standard modular 8ft wide wall system, which can be clad in variety of materials from wood, to metal to glass panels. The standardized wall system allows home owners to leverage the economies of scale (about 20-30% less expensive than a traditional architect designed home), while the interchangeable nature of the materials, exterior panels, offers them the freedom to create a uniquely styled home, often times only seen in custom designed homes.

Recognized as one of the pioneers of Modern Modular housing, FlatPak homes have received recognition from the design community in the form of magazine, TV and extensive blog coverage. However, this July a FlatPak demo house reached one of its highest honors to date, as a featured longterm installation at the Minneapolis Walker Art Center’s Sculpture Garden. The 576 sq. ft. structure had been used as a display in several other design demo applications over the past few years, but in those cases it was displayed inside, so the structure received some slight modifications (including a real roof) to make it water tight and weather ready, for its latest appearance at the Walker. The FlatPak in the garden is the first long term architectural design installation since the Walker featured the Idea House II in the summer of 1947 as an exhibition of modern living. This time the structure will be used to house works of art, host information for visitors, along with a variety of activities and special events throughout the year.

But the installation of this project at the Walker, is not an end state for FlatPak. With a list of growing projects around the country and potential interest on a global scale, don’t be surprised if you see one of these wonderful, modern, modular homes in a neighborhood near you some day.

This corner shot shows the variety of substrates that can be applied to the FlatPak exterior to give it a unique look.

The FlatPak house sits in the Walker Art Center’s sculpture Garden and will be used as a visitor center of sorts.

Even the interior of the FlatPak house features a nice mixture and variety of wall panels, from composite wood, to frosted glass, giving the interior a warm, yet modern feel.

The ChairChair, a Blu Dot classic adorns the interior space.

Rendering of the latest FlatPak project, being built in Golden Valley Minnesota.

Eco-State Fair

Tuesday, August 19th, 2008

It’s that time of year again, when thousands of people from all over, flock to St. Paul to the Minnesota State Fair. Somehow over the past several years between the funnel cakes, concerts, rides and events 350,000 people have taken the time to tour the Eco Experience in the Progress Center Building, making it the single largest event of its kind in the country. The Eco Experience is a collection of resources, experts and exhibitors showcasing a variety of cutting edge green technologies surrounding it’s key attraction the Eco House. The Eco House itself is a collection of green technology alternatives as they may appear in a real world application.

This year I had the honor of receiving a tour of the Eco Experience’s featured Eco House, just days before it’s opening to the public. The 2008 Eco House was designed by Minnesota based Architectural firm Sala Architects and is based on a 2000 sq. ft. modern style home, that SALA designed for a client who became more interested in green building during last years Eco Experience.

The Eco House (at roughly 980 sq ft) is a little more like a cross section or sampling of a home, then it is a complete home, but none the less extraordinary. Constructed in just three weeks, by Showcase Renovations Inc. and Panel Works Plus, the Eco house is designed to give visitors to the Eco Experience examples real life applications of ways that green building can be implemented in both new construction, renovation or remodeling. This years building features structurally Insulated Panels (SIPs) to make up it’s core structure. It’s exterior is a combination of green friendly material including cementboard siding, Richlite, and glass. The structure is designed to be passive solar with the majority of it’s triple paned Marvin Windows facing the southern exposure. As well as active solar, through the use of solar thermal hot water heating, solar photovoltaic, and solar hot air systems provided by Twin Cities based Powerfully Green. Even the landscaping is designed to showcase green construction at its best. A permeable paver patio system, along with front steps made of Vast recycled rubber paver blocks, a rainwater capture system, rain gardens and a green planted roof. The interior, not to be outdone, includes Richlite, linoleum and Vetrazzo (crubside recycled glass) countertops, reconstituted veneer cabinets, bamboo and linoleum flooring and recycled glass tiles, all provide by Natural Built Home of the Twin Cities.

Although the home is filled with a collection of green friendly products, my tour guide for the day, Architect Marc Sloot (of Sala Architects), pointed out that green goes beyond substrates and surface materials, and directly to design itself. From site placement to key features, like a high usable ratio of square footage to wall and roof surface area, contributing to better energy efficiency. Additionally, Sloot observed that although any home style can utilize green building techniques, modern design often lends itself to the use of simple, readily available materials, resulting in reduced material use and waste. Sloot also noted that by making sure that the home is not only functional but beautiful, you will most likely better meet the needs of the home owners and give the home a longer lifecycle — definitely green.

So my big question of the day, and one I’m sure several readers are asking —so how is a temporary home green? Well even that question was something the people at the Eco Experience were ready for. Sala Architects paid careful attention to make sure that all the windows used in the Eco House could be re-purposed in the original projects layout. As well, all the SIPs panels, flooring, cabinets, lights and just about everything else outside of sheetrock and some cut pieces of flooring will be accounted for at the completion of the project. But maybe more importantly, the impact that this short lived project and it’s materials may have on the way people look at building in the future, makes it all a little more green.

A rendering of the Eco House at the Minnesota State Fair, Eco Experience.

The Exterior of the home on Minnehaha Creek that served as inspiration for this years Eco House.
The Exterior of this Years Eco House at the Minnesota State Fair Eco Experience features a modern design and green materials.

Triple paned Marvin windows and metal awnings help to harness and shiled the sun for a passive solar effect.

This Solar hot air panel is one of several active solar devices this years home will feature.

The kitchen will feature high efficiency appliances along with alternative cabinet materials such as reconstituted veneers, linoleum countertops and recycled glass tiles.

The fireplace was wrapped in thin steel sheeting (an inherently recycled material)
to give it a really cool visual effect.

When the project is completed on Wednesday and ready for fairgoers this wall section will be filled with a variety of green friendly alternative insulation —here you can see one example, denim insulation.