Deconstructing the past for a zero-energy future

After 30 years of neglect, two century-old Ann Arbor homes are being salvaged, nail-by-nail, for use in a new commercial net-zero energy building. How cool is that?
Tired, derelict homes come down to make way for bigger, newer buildings all the time. It's an common enough story in and around Ann Arbor's downtown. This week, however, there's a development project that's added a new twist, making use of the old to create the best of the new.

Work crews are in the process of deconstructing two 100-year-old houses on North Main Street in Ann Arbor this week. The materials from the buildings will be reused to construct a brand new spa focused on sustainability next year.

"Typically these buildings that are falling apart are bulldozed and thrown into a landfill," says Matt Grocoff, a partner in Polymath which is handling the deconstruction.

The houses, 319 and 323 N Main St, are avoiding the landfill, however. It's not because there's anything particularly noteworthy about the buildings. One property is in foreclosure, the other is simply dilapidated. Few people would blink an eye if they ended up as lunch for a building eater given their current condition. 

"They both became rentals about 30-40 years ago," Grocoff says. "The owners kept adding on and not updating them. They became so bad there was a tarp on the back roof of one that people were living in."

Peter Woolf recently bought the foreclosed building with the idea of using the lot for his new Sun Baths spa. It didn't take long for his team to figure out they needed more room. It didn't take much convincing to get the owner of the derelict rental next door to sell.

"We were able to get both of them," Woolf says. The combined footprint of the two lots will allow him to construct a new 2-story commercial structure that will measure out to a little more than 10,000 square feet ...and emphasize renewed living through green architecture.

"It's not just the people who are being restored but the whole surrounding community," Woolf says.

The spa is constructed as a net-zero energy structure, meaning it will harvest its own energy and water, and manage its own waste. Woolf's team (which includes Polymath, A3C Collaborative Architecture, Catalyst Partners, and Meadowlark Builders) are building it to be certified to Living Building Challenge standards, which is essentially the next step up from an LEED platinum rating. To do that the new commercial space will generate its own solar electricity, use rain for its water needs, and be extremely energy efficient by using a variety of sustainability features.

"It's a disruptive way of thinking about the building industry," Grocoff says.

It's even more impressive that a spa, the type of business with a reputation for being an energy hog, will essentially become the greenest building in town. Grocoff and his team are salvaging everything from the old bricks to the hardwood floors to the structural studs to be reused in the Sun Baths building as well as other future projects. Much of the wood came from Michigan's virgin forests a century ago, meaning its of a higher quality than what is currently available in stores today.

"There are extraordinary materials in these buildings," Grocoff says. "There are lots of good uses for these materials."

Finding good uses for those materials is part of the overall philosophy behind the new building and the business that will inhabit it. Woolf sees it as a chance for renewal for everything from the building materials of the historic homes that once stood there to the people who will walk through its doors.

"I want them to think about restoration of themselves and their community," Woolf says. "That should be the primary thing on their minds."

Jon Zemke is the news editor with Concentrate and its sister publications Model D and Metromode. He is also the managing editor of

Photos supplied by Matt Grocoff.
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