Going net zero energy: How one Ann Arborite embraced sustainability

Matt Grocoff hasn't paid a utility bill since 2011. Yes, you read that correctly—no utility bills in three years. That is because Matt lives in a Net Zero Energy house, which means that his home produces more energy (through solar panels and geothermal) than it uses. 

This past July, Matt and his wife, Kelly, completed one year of documentation showing that the house performed according to the rigorous standards set forth by the Living Building Challenge. Through this documentation, the Grocoffs hope to be the second home in the country (and the fourth home on the planet) to be officially certified as "net zero energy". The Living Building Challenge program calls for the "creation of building projects… that operate as cleanly, beautifully, and efficiently as nature's architecture." It defines the most advanced measure of sustainability in the built environment. 

Matt wears many hats—speaker, educator, producer, principal of the Thrive Collaborative, and a leading advocate for living buildings. He sat down with Concentrate to talk about what led to his various jobs, and what he wants to do to turn our region into a leader in sustainability.

You have quite a few cool jobs!  But I noticed that you, like me, have your law degree…did you practice law?
I did very briefly. My intent was to do something with environmental law and to use the law as a means of moving forward. I soon found out that this is not practical. You can do regulatory work or tort law, but that just punishes wrongdoers.

Right! I was sure I was going to get a job with the EPA when I graduated and save everyone.
And you would have spent your time pushing paper. (The law) doesn't get us to where we need to go environmentally. Instead, I started looking for levers to get us towards true sustainability. Everyone talks about "green" and "sustainability", and often as an option—something that would be nice to have, but let's look at the opposite of sustainability. Some antonyms include:  terminal, temporary, untenable, fleeting, harm, stop, deprive, injure, neglect, starve, weaken, discontinue, halt. Looking at that list, of course we need sustainable buildings, food, homes, communities…there is no other kind to have. So I started looking for larger and larger levers to get use towards true sustainability—towards the "good". If something is weakening space and weakening our ability to experience happiness, love and joy, then we should not be doing it.

After the law, you started working in television, right? Tell me about that path.
It was a long and torturous path, but ultimately a great one. I wanted to move the conversation (on sustainability) forward and the biggest lever for that is television. I started producing television commercials, did political media, documentaries, and eventually I was able to have conversations about doing home shows with "green" aspects. 

This was in 2002 though, and you couldn't even buy paint that didn't have harmful chemicals in it, so the idea of having a television show that would highlight how bad its advertisers were…just wasn't tenable. They eventually did start doing "green" programming, but it was done as a style or fashion—like putting bamboo floors in McMansions. You can put bamboo seats in a Hummer and you aren't going to make it green. 

What led from that path to one of a net zero energy home? 
My wife and I bought a historic home on the Old West Side in 2006. It had everything you could possibly want—lead paint, no insulation, a furnace from 1957…so we set a goal that, within a decade or so, we would make the changes to be able to harvest our own energy, our own water and to create zero waste. Within the first five years, we achieved net zero energy and now produce more energy than we consume inside the home. 

Every change had to make financial sense and increase the level of comfort…everything was a step to get us towards our ultimate goals. Once the price of solar panels made sense, we did it—and today, it would make even more sense! The price of solar installation has dropped by over half. 

What about someone of rather modest means? What would be a good, relatively inexpensive "first step" for an individual?
Just changing to LED bulbs. They are actually a good model for everything else—they are not the cheapest light bulb at the store, but it uses less energy, it gives you better light, and you will not have to replace them for 20 years so you see a return on your investment. The price for another bulb may be less, but the cost will be more.

The reality is that individuals can't do it on our own; we have to find a way to do this as a community. ...It could be generating heat that could move from one server farm to an office building across the street… and this is what I am trying to advocate… that we would network our energy supplies and network our water supplies and really decentralize the way we do everything. 

I can go online now and get a pretty sweet deal on a car loan. But if I try to get a bank to give me a loan for solar panels, I will have a hard time. What are you doing in your day-to-day jobs to change this sort of systemic thinking that exists not just with banks, but in other professions?
It's challenging for homeowners. There are some great programs through community solar and through EcoWorks. Through Michigan Solar Works, you can get solar for zero upfront costs and low interest rates.

I see my job as doing everything to work towards this. Part of it is speaking on these issues. I travel around the country, I am hired to speak at conferences and to green teams and such. 

We are also working to create examples. These things really work when you see examples of them. [It's happening] on the West Coast mainly because designers, engineers and architects see examples. For example, downtown Seattle already has buildings in the Living Building Challenge and they are harvesting their own energy and water, and they are managing their own waste on site. So the building across the street sees that and says, "hey, we can do that too". 

I've partnered with Nate Brown, who founded Polymath Development Company in Detroit. We are working with Polymath to network the process of construction and development. Right now it's very linear, from the way you hire subcontractors, to how you get materials, to the way you get energy once the building is done…it's not resilient, especially in places like Detroit that have a crumbling infrastructure. If we can create a new system that harvests material from the city by deconstruction, to rehab existing buildings and also build new buildings. We would do all of this as net zero energy buildings. We would own and manage them, and then lease the space to renters who would have no energy bills. 

The materials, the energy would be harvested from Detroit, the labor is from Detroit and all of the money and resources stay in Detroit. The water would be harvested in the city and the waste would be managed on site—that is the ultimate goal for these buildings….In this way, Detroit could become a model for what a truly sustainable community looks like. 

How is the financial aspect being worked into this?
Banks are starting to buy in. Banks in New England and on the West Coast are already capitalizing on this new redistribution of energy model…. And by working with the model that we would be property manager of our buildings, we could -- with the right capital and investments -- show that if we spend $750,000 rehabbing including the net zero energy, we can show positive cash flow from day one. This makes absolute sense for people who are financing building. And I do want to mention that we are seeking investors.

Part of the Living Building Challenge is net zero water. How does that work?
We are working with the College of Engineering and BLUE Lab, which has started a Living Building challenge team for our house. We offered the house to them and are giving it to them as a place to experiment. Basically, there is a certain amount of rainfall that hits our property, and that's our water budget.

Given that we live surrounded by so much water, what has been the response to this?
People ask why are we doing this, when we are surrounded by water and when water and sewage is virtually free. But the fact is that groundwater is being depleted to levels that are as shockingly low as some of the states in the southwest. We are depleting groundwater at a far faster rate than it is being replenished. We have the plume so we can't tap into our groundwater and so we get our water from the Huron River... if we pollute that water, we are in big trouble.

Have you heard about the Energy Freedom bills that were recently introduced? 
I have, although I don't know all the specifics. I strongly support the idea and the ability to create microgrids to own and sell your own energy. Why shouldn't U of M be able to be its own energy producer? Because it's not a regulated utility. And our law professors would have asked, why do we need regulated utilities? Well, because 100 years ago, we needed the monopolies but we don't any more. We can harvest energy on site, put it back into the grid, and sell it to someone else…but that's illegal in Michigan. (For example), the Kerrytown Farmers' Market produces more energy than it needs but right now it is illegal for them to sell that energy to the Kerrytown Market right next door. And there is no reason why they shouldn't be able to do this. 

Here is where I struggle with myself ... I am a fan of historic preservation, but those homes are often just awful when it comes to environmental issues. How do you get preservationists on board? What do I say to myself when I am arguing with myself at three in the morning?
There's a quote from Wendell Berry where he says "when looking back makes sense, we move forward." 

There is technology that can use to improve these old buildings. They have a sense of beauty, sense of place that is lacking in suburban communities—things like front porches, proximity to downtown areas. We can combine the best of the old and then use new technologies to rehab these old buildings, maintain their historic character within historic preservation standards, and then use examples of these older buildings as a way of building newer buildings, too. 

Thoreau asked, what is the use of a fine home if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on? I paraphrase him to ask, what is the use is a historic home if we don't have a tolerable planet to put it on? 

Patti Smith is a special education teacher and freelance writer who lives in Ann Arbor and who blogs about beer atwww.teacherpatti.com

All photos by Doug Coombe

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