Project Profile: Southern Minnesota Lean-To


At a Glance: An underused and underwhelming patio space is converted into year-round living room on a historic home



What Happens Here?: Entertaining, relaxing, and growing

Location: Frontenac, MN

Size: Conservatory is 300 sq.ft.

Project Manager: Pioneer Renovations

Conservatory: Conservatory Craftsmen

This rambling Victorian river home was built on Lake Pepin, which is the widest naturally occurring part of the Mississippi River. Lake Pepin is located approximately 60 miles downstream from Saint Paul, Minnesota and is the perfect retreat for our clients. A pergola stretched out from behind the house with a beautiful, rustic view of a Minnesota State Park. Sadly, the pergola was very much underused due to exposure from bugs and weather. The extraordinary potential of this lush arboreal space, however, was easily recognizable by its owners, so they reached out to Jim Hewitt for a consultation. With the assistance of our expert team at Conservatory Craftsmen, a new vision for this space was conceived.

The existing space created a bit of a challenge for the design team. Tucked away inside a ‘U’ shaped area of the house, and under the second-floor windows, an opportunity existed.

Getting the structure to look ‘original’ to the home, and create a functional space was the goal of the new design. The team worked on plans, knowing that a single pitch, (lean-to) roof was the only option. The length of the roof rafters, however, required a ‘work around’.

It’s a matter of geometry. The longer the rafter, the more elevation drops over the run. If we had made the rafter attach to the house below the window and pitch 18′ to the front wall, the front wall would have been 5′ high. To solve this, Mike came up with the idea of a flat roof soffit along the house to bring the room out 4′ before the drop began.

Work began and once removal of the existing pergola was completed, footings were dug and a frost foundation was installed.

Architects – click for plans! MN Lean-to

Foam insulation was placed on the bare ground and hydronic piping was attached before the 3″ concrete slab was poured. The hydronic piping supplies the heat from a boiler for the in-floor heating system. The insulation keeps the heat from going down into the earth and forces it up into the concrete floor. Once the slab is warm, it holds this heat for a long time. Even a sunny day can work to warm the slab and keep the room comfortable well into the evening.

The crew framed the knee walls and the new soffit wall so the conservatory could then be installed.

The conservatory, a wooden, mahogany frame was painted a soft white in the paint booth of the shop to ensure an even coating, under controlled moisture conditions. This micro-porous paint application will ‘breathe’ and last for many, many years.

Installation of the conservatory itself was the easy part of this project! Now it was on to the finishing touches.

A natural field stone had been used as a foundation stone in other areas of the house, so we elected to face the exterior knee wall of the conservatory with stone to keep a unified look. As we framed and installed the gas fireplace on the interior of the room, we also used this field stone on the wall and surround of the fireplace. Ceramic tile was selected and installed. Ceramic is the natural choice on a concrete slab over in floor hydronic heat.

A mini-split air conditioner was installed on the house wall. Two ceiling fans were integrated into the soffit ceiling along with 3 new recessed lights. Removing the exterior door trim and replacing the trim in the room with interior trim gave the room a feeling of an inside space, not a space that was added to the exterior of the house. Millwork and sheet rocked walls were painted and we were good to go!

Pinoleum ceiling blinds were installed and automated. They gave a decorative touch to the room as well as shading the space from harsh sun.

Finally, all elements of the room were tied together with the automation system we now offer on every room.

The roof vents open and close with the side wall windows based on temperature of the room and weather conditions. As a safeguard, they are automatically closed by a rain sensor during inclement weather. The ceiling blinds will go up and down based on the time of day, time of year and weather conditions. The room will not heat up from solar gain with these blinds in place.

Did we mention the ceiling fans also are temperature controlled? When it gets warm and the vents open, the ceiling fans go on. During the cold months, they will spin at low speed in order to “stir” the air, ensuring even room heating.

Too hot for ventilation? Then the windows close and the mini-split air conditioner takes over.

Cold day today? No problem. On cold days the blinds go up to conserve heat and the in-floor heating takes over. As a back-up for heat in the room, the fireplace will kick on to keep the room from freezing.

Now, what if I want the blinds down for some star gazing? All functions in this room are controlled by either your smart phone, or a series of smart switches on the wall.

Lastly, our staff is available to monitor day to day functions remotely from our office. If any function needs adjustment due to seasonality, it is easily adjusted remotely.

More information is available on our web site or by calling us at 888 345 7915


Project Profile: Building the Queens Farm Museum Greenhouses Phase III

Long before we were able to bring the new greenhouses to the Museum, the old greenhouses had to be removed. Carefully, removing the remaining glass to avoid injury was a challenge. The competent crew of Conservatory Craftsmen got the job done without a scratch.

Dumpsters were filled for recycling the wood products and glass. Metal parts were carefully removed and cataloged. Measurements were confirmed again, and numbers were sent to the shop.

As window frames were produced, glass measurements were taken and tempered, safety glass, was put into production. Each opening had a location ID and a dimension of its own.

The roof glass became quite a matter of discussion. In the ‘old days’ greenhouse glass was lapped, like fish scales. Since large sheets of glass were unavailable, small pieces that lapped over each other fit the need. So, we had to come up with an efficient glass, that was strong and safe and could lap.


We designed a glass panel using 1/8″ tempered sandwiching two pieces of glass together over special lamination. This effectively made the glass in the roofs of the greenhouses stronger than the glass on the windshield of your car.

The installation of the glass, the step we call glazing was a blast from the past. We installed glazing putty (pretty much not used in glazing in 50 years) to set the glass. Then we used special, stainless steel brads with a unique tool to hold the glass in place. Finally, we used a specially formulated silicone to seal the glass from the exterior. Each step took a glazier about half an hour and there are 400 pieces of glass on each roof!


Roof vents were carefully designed to open with the gearing but close tight to seal and drain away water. In today’s world, that would be a simple matter with rubber seals. For historical purpose there are no gaskets of any kind on this project, each piece of the greenhouse had to be carefully fit to make sure water did not enter the greenhouse and it drained away from the greenhouse.

The project was also featured on, Click Here to read more.


Project Profile: Queens County Farm Museum Phase II

Call Us Today 888 345-7915

Phase II began with the process of determining what materials would be best for the restoration. As with all historical restoration projects we attempt to use the same or similar materials used in the original structure. However, we also need to take into consideration environmental/climate conditions, durability and public safety.

We began this process by first looking at the wood that would be used to reconstruct the frame of the greenhouse. Cypress was one consideration as it has been used for many years in the construction of greenhouses and conservatories. Cypress wood is readily available and highly resistant to moist environments due to its natural built in oils that act like preservatives.

However, a new timber product Accoya was favored and ultimately chosen for the project. This project was featured on their website Click Here to read more. Accoya has been widely used in Europe for many years, and is now becoming popular with designers, builders and architects in the United States. It is a sustainably-sourced wood that has under gone a non-toxic acetylation process. This process produces a material that is environmentally friendly, extremely strong and durable. Accoya is also the perfect medium for the paint coating, Technos, we planned on using for the surface. Once painted the historically correct color the greenhouse will be restored to its original state and ready to withstand another hundred plus years.

Once the material for the frame was selected the pain-staking process of dismantling the original greenhouse was begun, carefully removing and categorizing each piece. Like an architectural dig, each piece was carefully measured and drawn to scale so the CNC machine could then copy the designs and create exact duplicates.

When it came to the replacement glass for the greenhouse, public safety had to over-ride historical significance. The original roof frames were made to hold 2 layers of 1/8″ annealed laminated glass. Laminated glass works like that of a car windshield – if it breaks it won’t cause extensive harm. We felt very strongly that the glass, especially the roof glass, should all be tempered. Tempering the glass meant that the entire project would have to be modified to accept thicker, more durable glass. In the end, current safety standards won over historical.

As with the frame, all the metal gearing and structural components had to be cataloged, removed and sand blasted before powder coating and re-installation. Many of the components were missing and created quite a hunt for historic greenhouse parts in various ‘boneyards’ around the country. In order for the original metal gearing to work the greenhouse needed to be reconstructed exactly as the original structure was. Site measurements were taken once, twice and then again to make sure every part and partial would be an exact fit to the original.

The work begins. These large piles of rough looking wood are the Accoya. We carefully create the image of the wood items to be made, enter them into the computer and the CNC takes these rough piles of wood and turns them into the finished product.

Three coats of Technos, shop painted and we are ready to install.

Next: Constructing the greenhouses.

Project Profile: Queens County Farm Museum- Phase 1

In early 2014, we were contracted by the City of New York for a very special greenhouse restoration project.

The historic,and much needed, greenhouses at the Queens County Farm Museum outside of New York were falling apart and dangerous for visitors and employees.

We were told the original structures were built about 100 years ago with a renovation project sometime in the 1930’s.

By 2016 the wood frames were rotting so bad the roof glass was completely falling loose and crashing to the ground. Farm workers had infilled window spaces with plywood or plexiglass, but even these were falling out place!

Many birds took advantage of the open and rotting space and built nests in the mechanical fixtures near the roof.

The greenhouses served a vital role of the working farm. This is where employees plants the seeds to start many of the vegetable and flowers used at the farm every year.

I visited the farm around harvest time and honestly couldn’t quite capture what I was feeling. I’m there for business, assess the damage, offering advise, taking pictures and measurements but when we wrapped up I had the opportunity to be a spectator of a truly magical place that most New Yonkers don’t even know exist!

The quiet peacefulness of a a farm with the grazing of cattle, the rustle of corn stalks and the buzzing of honey bees was unmistakable. The pumpkins-millions of pumpkins! City kids learning about agriculture and farm animals. Couples seeking the perfect venue for I-Do’s. Even Hollywood scouts searching for the next location shoot.

One thing was certain; these greenhouses needed to get up and running again and I had to come back.

To “replace” an old structure in NYC really means “restore”. Restore means it has to be original.

This presented a wee bit of a challenge since no one today builds a greenhouse exactly the way it was done 80-100 years ago. A couple of specific challenges presented themselves to us immediately.

The glass was thin and dangerous.

Today’s glass is tempered and laminated. Back then the glass was simply annealed float glass which means, when it broke, which it easily did, it created a dangerous falling shard which could really harm a person.

The mechanics of the room were operated by hand.

Gears and levers connected to roof vents and side wall windows. These were opened and closed by hand. Today’s greenhouse would automate such features, but in a restoration, alas, the farm workers were going to have to continue their vigil.

We were up for the task and eager to restore these stately structures that meant so much to the City of New York both in their historic significance and also the contribution to the livelihood and perpetuity of the farm itself.

I invite you to follow along as our plans and the restoration began.

Gardening – Step 1: Making Soil

Metal Scoop with soil in it

Making Soil

We call the medium in which plants grow, “soil”, Dirt is what you get on your clothes!

Dirt and soil may both be the same thing to you, but believe me, to your plants there is a world of difference.

The best soil mixture for starting your seeds indoors, or using in your square foot garden is:

1/3 peat
1/3 vermiculite
1/3 good quality compost.

Let’s talk about compost first.

I compost in my backyard. It’s a great way to recycle kitchen scraps, leaves, grass, anything plant organic. Notice the word “plant”. Put your dog poop in the garbage.

When we compost, the organic matter (kitchen scraps, leaves, grass) is broken down by bacteria. You need a moist (not wet) place for the bacteria to thrive. The bacteria releases heat as it digests the plants. If the internal temperature gets hot enough (140º – 160º) long enough (15-20 days), it can kill weed seeds in the compost. The problem is that in the home compost bin, there is often not enough heat generated to kill off the bacteria. So, the compost that you make in the backyard may not be sterile.

Gloved hands holding piles of soilCommercial and city compost yards are constantly monitoring the temperature of their compost piles to make sure the compost gets hot enough to become sterile. So, when you buy the compost, ask questions. Is this sterile compost? If they can’t assure you, move on. Our local compost company has a big sale in the spring and that’s when we buy the whole season’s worth.

Next, Sphagnum moss (also called peat or peat moss).

This is organic in nature, is harvested from peat bogs in which it has been layered for centuries in the ground. It is acidic in nature and absorbs tons of water. Bales or bags of peat from the local garden store can be heavy. Buy sizes you can manage. Remember the peat expands when you open the bale.

Finally, vermiculite.

Interesting stuff. Actually a mined mineral. It has many uses for the gardener, besides being 1/3 of the best soil less mixture ever. With this mineral in the soil, water is absorbed and when starting seeds, very little watering is needed. This mix provides great root growth and is loose and friable, meaning the plants grow easily in it. This loose nature allows air to be available to the plant which is more important than you might think. Vermiculite is also an accepted medium for hydroponics.

Superhero Note*** In the fall, do you dig up your dahlias? Well storing bulbs, onions whatever in vermiculite keeps mold and mildew from growing on the bulbs. It does not take up moisture from the bulb, but it does pull moisture from the air and prevents rot from occurring during storage.

metal wheelbarrow filled with soil

Using our recommended soil mix in the garden can mean no weeding!

Really, no weeding. There are no weed seeds brought in with it (remember what we said about the compost?). Weed seeds can be dormant in the soil for years and years, so in normal garden soil you are always pulling weeds.

OK, so now you have to mix this all up! keep your batches small, because it can get to be a lot of work. The materials are quite dry, so you may want to mist some to keep the dust down, just don’t get it soggy, or you won’t be able to lift it.

A cement mixer is ideal, but not everyone has a cement mixer. A wheelbarrow and a shovel can do the trick too.

Happy planting!

P.S. – Are you looking for tips on growing in a Commercial Greenhouse environment? Contact us for help!

Conservatory Glass for Bird Lovers

We live in Minnesota. Yes, the home of huge piles of snow, mosquitoes, and of course, the Minnesota Vikings. As you may know, we are building a new multibillion dollar Vikings football stadium that is the state-of-the-art in stadium design and is already scheduled to host the Super Bowl in 2018 and the NCAA final 4. However, an environmental issue came up in the construction as to all the glass on the stadium and what happens to the birds?

Well, we did some research and had a bit of an epiphany ourselves when it comes to song birds and glass. Each year in America, hundreds of millions of song birds are killed when they fly into glass. In our research, we also discovered there are crews of people who clean the sidewalks of Minneapolis at 4:00 AM of dead birds, before the public wakes up to see the carnage.

Really? This is needless, as we find out from our discussions with Ornilux, a manufacturer of bird friendly glass. Glass is transparent to birds and they see reflections of trees or sky in the glass, fly into the glass and are killed. Birds perceive no barrier as they fly into the glass windows. Birds do see Ultra-Violet. Researchers discovered that spiders spin their webs with an Ultra-Violet color to them so birds don’t crash into them and ruin their webs.

The challenge was to incorporate UV into glass, as it would remain invisible to humans, but visible to birds. Ornilux was developed in Germany. They built a 30’ tunnel and put two types of glass at the end of the tunnel. One with UV coating, one without. (they also put nets in front of the glass to protect the birds in flight). Crazy as it is, they tested 17 species of birds and with 80 tests each became certain from the results that birds will not fly into Ultra Violet glass. They manufacture a UV film that is sandwiched between two pieces of glass. That glass is now like the windshield on your car, and is termed ‘laminated’. Laminate glass is a safety glass required on many buildings and also used to make bullet-proof glass.

We’re proud to report that the new stadium will be using Ornilux glass in its construction. It should save countless numbers of birds flying into the glass and being killed by the impact.

And you ask, so Jim, what about the conservatories? Well, as you might expect, this glass costs a bit more, but we now offer bird friendly, Ornilux glass to all of our customers for their conservatories and their beloved song birds.