On a construction site near the University of Minnesota campus, a stake with a bright red flag gets lost in the chaos of bulldozers. But a feng shui master has asserted its significance to an upscale apartment project being built on the U's West Bank.

"When we do a groundbreaking, we want to get the spirits to be aware of what we're doing and to appease them," said Andrew Hong, the Twin Cities feng shui consultant who put the stake on the site.

For the developers of 7west, a 213-unit apartment building, the project goes far beyond spiritual forces. They've turned to feng shui -- the ancient Chinese practice of balancing the energies of any given space to assure the health and success of its inhabitants -- to make the building stand out in a competitive market.

Local feng shui practitioners say 7west is unique. And while Hong's imprint on the project will be almost imperceptible when the building is done next year, his influence has been deep. He's used the Chinese almanac and a special compass to advise developers on everything from where to locate the front entrance to the most auspicious day to break ground. And in many ways, he's forced the developers to rethink the way the project is being done.

"Feng shui is a differentiator," said Robb Miller, vice president of TE Miller Development, which is partnering with Solhem Cos.

In the Twin Cities and beyond, feng shui is typically practiced by those who are remodeling their homes. But many developers nationwide are using feng shui to get the energy flowing for their own commercial projects. In northern New Jersey, feng shui was incorporated into several new buildings, including a $2 billion housing and retail project along the Hudson River waterfront.

While feng shui is meant to promote harmony, Hong's contributions have been somewhat at odds with the recommendations from other experts and tradespeople who have worked on the project. Before Solhem founder Curt Gunsbury and Miller hired Hong, they'd already started working with architects and designers who drew up plans for the building. But where the building sat wasn't in harmony with all the other elements Hong considered.

The building's entrance was in the wrong place because the qi, or energy, that traveled along one of the streets flowed into the wrong spot. And because the building is at the confluence of several streets at an intersection, aptly called "Seven Corners," finding the right spot for the entrance wasn't easy.

"Seven Corners is like an ocean with tributaries of energy," Hong said.

Gunsbury and Miller agreed with Hong's recommendations, but that meant significant changes, including reconfiguring and lowering the elevation of the entire building by a foot. No one is sure how much feng shui is adding to the cost of the project.

"I'm the largest cost-center for them," Hong said.

Gunsbury and Miller haven't seemed to mind. They see his contributions as an exciting way to try something new and to make the building appealing to a large population of Chinese nationals who live in the area.

"It follows a changing market," Gunsbury said.

The building is also following an increasingly competitive market. Throughout the metro area, thousands of apartments are under construction and many more are planned.

Much of that construction is being fueled by demand from people who are embracing renting as a more flexible option than buying. And because many of those people are renters by choice, many developers are trying to fulfill that demand with upscale rentals that contain the kind of resort-style amenities that will be available at 7west.

The five elements (metal, fire, water, earth and wood) that enhance the qi (positive energy) in a building are being introduced in various ways through color, shape and the placement of various objects, including mirrors, trees and boulders.

Indeed, 7west will be unique, said Jessica Hoelzel, communications coordinator for the Feng Shui Institute of the Midwest. She said feng shui is typically used by homeowners who are trying to remedy a health, financial or career problem by addressing bad energy in their home.

Though Hong recently applied the principles to a commercial building and a cemetery, he hasn't quit his day job. He was first introduced to feng shui in Singapore by his grandmother, Madam Poon Szee, when he was 7, but he's a full-time financial adviser for Ameriprise.

David Graham, principal at ESG Architects, a firm that has designed hundreds of apartments throughout the metro area, applauds all attempts to make housing healthier and more thoughtfully designed, especially at a time when consumers are becoming increasingly aware of things like energy efficiency and green building techniques.

"We're all trying to create more livable environments and applying these principles is another way to do that," he said.

"I think it's great that somebody is pushing the envelope."

Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376