Playing with fire is a good thing for Mike Van Buren
by Virginia Lindauer Simmon
Michael Van Buren, P.E., the owner of Blazing Design in Essex Junction, designs and fabricates the inner workings of fireplaces, fire pits, and aesthetic gas flames. He also produces a line of products and offers product design services to manufacturers and entrepreneurs interested in bringing conceptual hearth products to the North American market.
Michael Van Buren laughs as he confesses that he’s “an overachiever.” He might be understating the condition.
As the owner of Blazing Design in Essex Junction, specializing in high-end fireplaces, fire pits, and aesthetic gas flames, Van Buren works with architects, engineers, and builders to make sure the up-front design and installation are up to modern building needs.
But Van Buren’s interests range far beyond fire. “I was a swimmer at UVM, ran triathlons; then I got tired of all this training and decided to try something else. I like cars; I sail — used to crew on sailboats and was in a lot of races.”
A focus on construction seemed like a natural for him. In his native Newburgh, N.Y., his father owned a plumbing, heating, and air conditioning business. “Designing mechanical for buildings was something I knew how to do. It was also a way to support my habit of windsurfing, skiing, mountain biking, and snowboarding.”
His father took up skiing in his 30s, but Van Buren was a late-in-life child — his brother and two sisters are much older than he — so he remembers only two trips to Vermont to ski. When he was 14, he came with his parents to visit his sister — the youngest of his siblings — who was studying at Green Mountain College, and recalls thinking, “This is where I want to live.”
He worked for his father while earning his bachelor of mechanical engineering at the University of Vermont. After graduation, he was hired by Hallam & Associates, a Burlington engineering consulting firm. He earned his Professional Engineer’s license while he was there.
After six years with Hallam, Van Buren was offered the job of product development manager for Hearthstone Stoves in Morrisville. “At that time, the company had gone under and a Spanish company had bought them. I worked there developing products, both gas and wood, and after about two years, in 1995, was given the opportunity to become the technical director for the entire hearth products industry, working for the Hearth Products Association down in Washington, D.C.”
A few years earlier, he had obtained his real estate license and bought a fixer-upper house in Winooski. He arranged to rent it out and headed for D.C., where he worked for six years, during which time the association merged with the Pellet Fuels Institute, of which Van Buren was executive director. But he never forgot Vermont.
In 2000, a few months before he left Washington, Van Buren launched Blazing Design, doing consulting jobs. He was also hired by the National Chimney Sweep Guild to put together some educational programs, which he could conduct from a laptop. Knowing he could do consulting from anywhere, he took the summer to travel around the country.
“I bought a Volkswagen Westphalia and traveled — down to the Outer Banks, then west to the Columbia River on the border between Washington and Oregon, a windsurfing mecca, and spent about five months windsurfing and mountain biking.”
Having saved money while he was in D.C., when he returned to Vermont, working with a nephew who moved up to live with him, he began to put an addition on the Winooski house.
He took what he calls a “shotgun approach” to his career, “working with a couple of clients, trying to get more clients, doing product development with manufacturers of fireplaces.” He reinstated his real estate license and sold real estate for Realtor Paul Heald at Foulsham Farms for eight years.
He tried a brief (three-year) foray renting out Westphalias to folks wanting to travel the country in them, an idea he got from a Sunday New York Times story.
He named his business Vermont Campers, put up a website, people started calling, and pretty soon he owned four Westphalias that were traveling around the Northeast. “I had people flying in from France. I’d pick them up and they’d be on their way. I stored the vans in the winter over at the fairgrounds.”
The numbers, however, did not match the fun. “What does anybody say about a business that’s not successful?” Van Buren asks, and immediately answers: “I learned a lot. But that’s OK; I knew when to pull the plug. That’s when I got to working harder with Blazing Design.”
In 2004, friends introduced him to Sueann Waryas, and they clicked. Eventually they began shopping for houses in Essex Junction, where Sueann’s daughters were in school. They looked at an old Victorian on Pleasant Street that Van Buren knew had good bones, but he worried about Sueann’s opinion. “We left the house, and she said, ‘We have to buy this!’ I said, ‘Really?’”
They started renovations. One day when they were working on the house, Tim German, their state representative, stopped to chat. “We told him we had talked about getting married,” says Van Buren. “I said, ‘Maybe we should do it.’” The following Saturday, German arrived to marry them with Sueann’s daughters as witnesses. “I ran upstairs, put on a nice shirt and pants,” says Van Buren, “and after the ceremony, changed and got back to work.”
A year later, they celebrated with a “real wedding” at The Old Lantern. Sueann works in sales at Twincraft.
By 2009, the recession had hit and Van Buren knew he had to look at his business with new eyes. “The construction market was down, the market dropped, and there was no real business out there in product development,” he says.
He realized that construction had changed, making houses very tight, and if clients wanted to fire up their masonry fireplaces and not have smoke in the house, some prior thought had to be given to the design. “It wasn’t being done,” he says, “and who really gets stuck holding the bag on this is the general contractor.”
He expanded his business to “better serve the buildings” by working with architects to figure out what’s needed to make a fireplace burn correctly. He fabricates the pieces, then works with the builder in the field, putting in the gas products and other components. “Then I’ll go in and work with the mason so I can come in and place my burner. I’m sort of a plate-spinner.”
He’s had help at times, such as industrial designer Paul Henninge in Burlington. “Paul is good with the aesthetic and the design, and I’m good with the function.”
Van Buren met Henninge in the ’90s through friends, and he was Henninge’s boss at Hearthstone. “Mike is always looking out for someone’s interest. When he moved back to Vermont, we began working together, him with his engineering and me more with the design.” Their most recent product, Henninge says, was the Wittus Flat Fire, a gas stove that mounts to the wall and looks like a picture frame.
On occasion, Van Buren has had interns from UVM and Vermont Technical College. One of the things he did during the “slow time” in 2009 was create a product to sell on his website. “Instead of sitting around twiddling my thumbs, I came up with the Beach Fire.”
The Beach Fire is a circular gas burner for people who want to have fires on the beach without leaving ashes. It comes with an eight-foot hose and a shovel for the sand, packed in what Van Buren calls “a nice yacht bag.”
He also invented Fire Starters, made from the leftover candle wax gathered from the 1,000 jack-o’-lanterns at the Haunted Forest, combined with sawdust from TimberNest Loft Beds in Williston. He sells them through local stores and donates burners to Haunted Forest for fire pits in exchange for the candles.
For three years, Van Buren rented space on Commerce Avenue in South Burlington, in the building that houses Peregrine Design Build, another client. “He’s a very, very nice guy,” says Tim Frost, the owner of Peregrine. “He certainly has kept on top of the curve with green homebuilding, specifically the issues related to the lack of natural air coming in as you get a home tighter and tighter with insulation and so forth.”
Last fall, Van Buren built a two-story, two-car garage, and has moved everything home. He still owns the Winooski house and rents it out.
He and Sueann now have a 6-year-old daughter whom he gets ready each morning, and they bike to school using a tag-along. He’s spending more time than he likes in the office, but has come to terms with it.
“Last March, I went to St. Maarten for the Heineken Regatta to crew with a bunch of chimney sweeps,” he says. “I’m into motorcycles. If I have a job in summertime and don’t need tools, I’ll jump on my red Kawasaki.”
Overachiever, indeed. •