University Of Minnesota

Greening Minnesota ~ September 2011

Fall is in the air! The leaves are turning gold and red, but there are still some great green initiatives and events happening in Minnesota. There are plenty of people ad local communities working towards a cleaner environment for all Minnesota residents. Read on to find out more.

The annual report on organic farm performance from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and University of Minnesota said 2010 was a good year for organic farms. "Profits improved but were not outstanding." Balance sheets, however, were on average very sound as they headed into 2011. The report said that after a difficult 2009, the median organic producer earned a net farm income of $62,463 in 2010. That was a sixfold increase over 2009 and was consistent with returns earned in 2007 and 2008, which were considered very profitable for the organic sector.

As a Hopkins High School junior, Dustin Kloempken had the bright idea of getting solar panels installed to make his school more eco-friendly. It took six years, but the now-24-year-old's persistence has finally paid off. Six solar panels were installed at the school in September. Hopkins High School now is among just a few Minnesota schools with solar panels. One of those schools, Chisago Lakes Middle School in the north-metro, installed 44 solar panels two years ago thanks to several grants and donations covering the $73,000 cost. The 10 kilowatts of power save the school $1,600 a year in energy costs.

Grandview Tire and Auto's two-year-old building on W. 70th Street in Edina is a model of energy efficiency, with its insulated garage doors, white roof to cut heating and cooling costs and boilers burning waste oil to help heat the building. Manager Rick Murphy says the building would be even more efficient if it had solar panels. He'd like to add them and gradually pay them off over a few years as part of the property taxes for the business. Twenty-seven states, including Minnesota, now allow "property assessed...

Twin Cities Real Estate Statistics for June 2011

Pending home sales initiated in June within the Twin Cities area were among the highest in nearly five years. Buyers may be taking advantage of low prices and near-record low mortgage interest rates before they start to climb.

The Minneapolis Area Association of Realtors reports that though there are some good signs occurring in the local Twin Cities residential real estate market, there's still a ways to go. Though pending sales rose in June, closed sales fell 11.4% compared with a year ago. The median sale prices fell 9.3% from a year ago to $165,000. That is still better than March's low of $140,000.

It's unclear whether the latest uptick in buying activity is a blip or a sign of a sustained recovery, given an economy still struggling to gain traction and the extent of the foreclosure crisis still unknown. Stable employment, strong rent prices and relatively low foreclosure rates suggest that the market has seen the worst, said Herb Tousley, director of the Shenehon Center for Real Estate at the University of Minnesota.

"I believe there is reason for optimism," he said.

The biggest barrier to a recovery is foreclosures. At its worst, nearly 60% of all residential real estate sales in the Twin Cities metro were distressed sales, but it has fallen to 38% last month - the lowest level since June 2010! Additionally, fewer foreclosures are entering the market, with the 29%  of new listings in the Twin Cities during June that were either foreclosures or short sales being one of the lowest monthly totals in three years.

Still, the foreclosure problem isn't going to go away soon, giving buyers some time to get their down payments together before Twin Cities real estate prices begin a faster climb.

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The streets of the Twin Cities are lined with green gold

Those who live in or visit the Twin Cities probably have seen how many trees we have along our streets, avenues and boulevards. 

Recently, a first-of-its-kind study was completed that used high-resolution satellite technology to analyze the tree canopy of the Twin Cities. The study was carried out by a team of University of Minnesota researchers. High-resolution satellite technology was used to examine Minneapolis from above on a clear and cloudless day, recording and analyzing how much tree cover there, down to each individual property.

They study estimated Minneapolis' overall tree coverage to be 31.5%, higher than previous estimates using less precise methods. In St. Paul, the canopy cover rate was 32.5%.

Minneapolis' estimated 979,000 trees offer many benefits, including:

  • Cleaning the air
  • Sucking up water that would otherwise flood stormwater pipes
  • Increase the attractiveness of homes
  • Drive up property values
  • Reducing the need for cooling during hot summer days by providing shade

"In terms of energy conservation, it doesn't get any easier than planting a tree on the west side of your house if you can," [Minneapolis project coordinator June Mathiowetz] said.

The Lynnhurst neighborhood off the southeast shore of Lake Harriet had the most urban tree cover. Nearly 49% of its area is covered, which includes a portion of Minnehaha Creek. Other neighborhoods that rank high for shadiness have residential lots and extensive parkways, mostly along Minnehaha Creek in southern Minneapolis, West River Road, and along the city's western border.

The research will be helpful in multiple ways. The study shows gaps in the urban tree cover, which could help city planners and foresters target areas in need of improvement or develop low-cost programs to encourage more saplings on private land. It also provides a useful benchmark...

Where do you want to spend your old age?

Many people want to live at home when they grow older. The "Smart House, Livable Community, Your Future" exhibition explores the housing trend of "aging in place" through the development of products and adaptive technologies that allow people to stay in their homes.

The first wave of 70 million baby boomers living in the United States will reach age 65 this year. With this generation predicted to live longer, planners are examining ways to create homes and communities that are more senior-friendly. The new exhibit at the University of Minnesota's Goldstein Museum of Design is an interactive display of what a Smart House of the future might look like.

The exhibition will look like a small, attractive home inhabited by fictional, 65-ish homeowners, Jim and Sarah. Visitors will be encouraged to try out everything they see, starting with a welcoming flat-threshold doorway. Jim and Sarah have renovated their 1960s home so that they can continue to enjoy their active, engaged lifestyle. Visitors can sit in a power-lifted chair, handle easy-to-use-kitchen utensils, scoot around the kitchen on a wheeled chair to try out lower counters, operate an easy-open window, sit in a fully-adjustable desk chair at an ergonomically-designed desk, and observe wall colors and lighting that ameliorate the impact of changing vision. The bath will feature a walk-in shower and reinforced wall for grab bars. Visitors will learn about a Fall Guard alert system, auto-dispensers for medications, special environmental controls, and tools and technologies that allow Jim and Sarah to do the activities they enjoy and keep them connected to the world.

The exhibit opened on February 5 and can be viewed through May 22, 2011. The museum is open Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday from 10:00am to 4:00pm, Thursday from 10:00am to 8:00pm, Saturday and Sunday from 1:30pm to 4:30pm. It is Closed Mondays and all University Holidays.

This exhibit is curated by...

This Old Home Picks Minneapolis' Prospect Park as Most Timeless

This Old House magazine recently published its fourth annual list of North America's most timeless neighborhoods from each of the 50 states. Minneapolis' Prospect Park was chosen to represent Minnesota.

 

 

House hunters and residents alike delight in Prospect Park's mazelike streets, which are lined with trees planted nearly a century ago and homeowners' pristine gardens. "In Minnesota, we're serious about our gardens, and in Prospect Park you can ratchet that up quite a bit," says Joe Ring, longtime resident and historic preservation committee chair for the Prospect Park East River Road Improvement Association. Sandwiched between the University of Minnesota campus and the border of twin (and rival) city St. Paul, this neighborhood has loads of character—and characters. "People here have an exceedingly unique mentality," Ring says of a community that celebrates its political and economic diversity. "If you want a debate," he adds, "come here."

Loved by students and professors because of its proximity to the University of Minnesota, the Prospect Park neighborhood of Minneapolis is well-known for its "Witch's Hat" water tower and beautiful vintage homes. In fact, of the nearly 800 dwellings here, an astounding 92% are considered contributors to Prospect Park's historic integrity. Nineteenth-century Stick Victorians can be found neighboring mid-20th-century bungalows, many of which feature original architectural elements. Fully restored 2,000-square-foot homes can be found for less than $400,000, while bargain hunters may find deals as low as $150,000 for a 1,200- to 1,500-square-foot house in need of some work.

St. Cloud was last year's Minnesota winner. Check...

Greening Minnesota ~ February 2011

With all eyes looking towards spring, there have been some environmental developments happening around the Twin Cities and Minnesota, particularly in regards to parks and natural areas. Here are some of the community-related green news and stories that broke in February.

All over the Twin Cities metro, registration for local community garden plots has begun or starts quite soon. Community gardens are popular right now, due to tough economic times and a desire for chemical-free, home-grown produce. People applying for community plots include homeowners, apartment dwellers, senior citizens, immigrants, people who are trying to save money on food and gardeners looking for green-thumb fun. The size and cost of renting a plot varies from city to city. In most locations, plots range from 10 by 15 feet to 20 by 20 feet and cost between $15 and $35 for the summer.

Workers have finished installing new pollution control equipment on the 58 older buses in Robbinsdale district's 114-bus fleet. The $87,000 project didn't even cost the school a single dime. The equipment and installation were funded through Project Green Fleet via the Minneapolis-based Minnesota Environmental Initiative. Green Fleet funnels grant money from such sources as the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to retrofit the state's school buses and other diesel fuel-burning vehicles. The vehicles get new mufflers designed to cut down emissions coming out of the exhausts. The new mufflers can reduce diesel particulate matter emissions by 15% to 30%. They can also reduce emissions of hydrocarbons. The idea is not only to contribute to cleaner air in general, but to more specifically improve the health of student passengers.

Butch and Ruth Rechtzigel of Inver Grove Heights are protecting the habitat they love by selling 66 acres of land to a state nature preserve. The sale has been about a decade in the making and connects two other protected parcels within the 330-acre Pine...

Greening Minnesota ~ January 2011

There have been some interesting environmental development happening around the Twin Cities and Minnesota. Here are some of the community-related green news and stories that broke in January.

An in-depth survey of 3,000 households in Ramsey and Anoka counties is providing environmental researchers at the University of Minnesota insight into what it would take to get people to make more of an effort to reduce their impact on the earth. They asked about thermostat settings, number of children, cars, bedrooms, miles driven to work, lawn size and fertilizer use, even whether there were vegetarians in the house. As it turns out, most people really do care about their impact on the environment. But what really drives them to change is knowing how they rank on their own personal pollution scores, how they compare to their neighbors, and where they can improve. In the end, the researchers hope to find out how best to influence social norms and change behavior toward a more eco-friendly culture.

More U.S. consumers and developers are turning to factory-built housing for speed, quality and energy efficiency. The prefab market is positioning itself for major growth when the housing industry rebounds. Several prefab newcomers, including ZETA, Minnesota-based Hive Modular and Florida-based Cabin Fever, report healthy annual increases in the number of homes they're building. Several prefab newcomers, including Minneapolis-based Hive Modular, report healthy annual increases in the amount of homes they're building. The prefabs take 5 to 12 weeks to manufacture and 4 to 8 weeks to assemble and finish once it is delivered on site. Prices range from $200 to $250 per square foot. Several carried the Energy Star label and one earned the top, or platinum, rating from the U.S. Green Building Council. Not finding a home that you like that's also energy efficient and earth-friendly? Perhaps buying a lot and a prefab is the right way to go.

The Varney Lake stormwater retention pond in White Bear...

Life In Richfield May Be Your Ticket To A Shorter Commute

Looking for the best community in the Twin cities for a relatively quick trip to work? Look no further than Richfield. Residents of this city, located at the heart of the Twin Cities' transit and highway system, get to work an average of two minutes faster than average state residents.

According to U.S. Census date released in December, Richfield MN residents had an average commute of 20.2 minutes, while Bloomington, St. Paul and Minneapolis trailed at 21 to 22 minutes. Commutes were much longer in outer-ring suburbs and bedroom communities such as Marine on St. Croix at 34.6 minutes, Chisago City at 35.1 minutes, Bethel at 37.7 minutes and Waverly at 39 minutes. Statewide, the average Minnesotan's commute to work takes 22.2 minutes.

The data come from 2005 to 2009 estimates from the American Community Survey (ACS), which measures population characteristics in detail. Some of the questions focus on how people get to work and how long it takes them to get there.

While it seems self-evident that commuting times are shortest when workers are near employment centers, the data indicates that other issues may complicate the commute. Minnesota communities with the longest commutes also had no public transit systems.

Lee Munnich, a transportation expert with the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, said long commutes from the fringe of the metro area reflect people's search for affordable housing in the last 20 years. The farther people went, the cheaper houses got. But industry and employment didn't necessarily follow.

"It's part of the cost of housing moving further out," he said. "There is a lot...

Super-Sized Homes Are Out, Super-Small Homes Are In

The American home got supersized during the housing boom. In the era of the McMansion, a ginormous house was a symbol of status, but to current home buyers they are the epitome risk and high overhead. Today's home buyer wants something a little smaller.

After decades of expanding, the average size of new single-family American homes completed in 2009 dropped to a nationwide average of 2,438. That's about 100 square feet smaller than 2007, according to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB).

"There's so much more concern about very big homes," said Robert Lang, director of Brookings Mountain West, University of Nevada-Las Vegas. "People used to buy as much house as they could afford. Now they're saying, 'Even if I could buy that, do I really want to?'"

The recession and the availability of money is obviously part of why homes have shrunk. Smaller houses cost less to heat and cool, with the added benefit of being easier on the environment. Even those who can still afford supersized homes are scaling back. In the realm of real estate, Americans are trending toward valuing quality over quantity.

"We were bloated," said Tom Fisher, dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota. "It made architects cringe, there was so much wasted space. There's a shift back to 'What do I really need?' vs. 'What will impress my neighbors?'"

Some people are taking the trend a step further and living in micro-sized houses. Tumbleweed Tiny House Company produces miniature homes that pack a range of amenities in spaces smaller than some people's closets for $40,000 to $50,000 ready-made. Alchemy Architects' prefabricated weeHouse concept, introduced in 2003, now represent half of the firm's business.

According to Geoffrey Warner, principal architect. "It's fueled our practice," he said. "A home may be one's castle, but is...

U of M Solar House Has No Buyers

MPR recently reported that University of Minnesota students have spent months trying to sell their prize-winning solar-powered house. They're having trouble finding a buyer for the 550 square-foot house.

As part of its "Sustainable Shelter" exhibit, the house is on display across the street from the Bell Museum in Minneapolis. The house is shaped like a typical Minnesota family home, but the roof is covered in solar panels.

The house placed fifth internationally in the Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon last year. Although building costs reached $1 million, including a $100,000 Department of Energy grant and many donations, the house's market value has been set at $550,000 based on the cost of materials and labor.

Project coordinators put the home up for auction at a $200,000 minimum bid in the spring -- slightly higher than the median value of a single-family home in the metro area at about $185,000.

Though the price tag is reasonable for its quality, the house has sat untouched in the market since spring. The weak housing market is partly to blame. Secondly, "Location, location, location! is the soul of the real estate market, yet this solar house doesn't have one. Yet another deterrent is that once a location is found, the house's five parts requires self-assembly.

About $20,000 in moving expenses are already included in the purchase price.

The Bell exhibit opened Oct. 16 and will run until May 15.

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