The Nation's Oldest Net-Zero Home Belongs to One Green Ann Arbor Family



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f you want to find Matt and Kelly Grocoff’s carbon footprint, you’ll need to call in Sherlock Holmes.

 

Their imprint is so faint that it barely exists, thanks to their net-zero energy house in Ann Arbor and a lifestyle that’s greener than grass. A net-zero home is one that produces as much — or more — energy than it consumes. The Grocoffs’ Folk Victorian house is 110 years old, making it the nation’s oldest net-zero home and the first in a historic district. In January, USA Today named it one of the Top Seven Green Homes for 2010. Matt says they will “never pay another utility bill again” because excess energy produced by their solar panels goes back into the utility grid. So now, instead of writing a check to their utility company, DTE pays the Grocoffs.


 

Today, except for solar panels on the roof, the modest sage-green house with cream and burgundy trim doesn’t look any different from the other homes in the tidy neighborhood.

It may sound astonishing that a retrofitted home as old as the Grocoffs’ could be so energy efficient, but Matt shrugs it off. “What we’ve done sounds extraordinary, but it really wasn’t,” he says. “We wanted to prove something by making an old home net zero and inspire others to do the same. Most net-zero homes — and there are fewer than 100 of them in the country — are brand-new, and most are million-dollar-plus homes.

“Ours is a Norman Rockwell house in a Rockwell-type neighborhood. The age of the house doesn’t matter; it could have been 700 years old.”

Still, in 2006, when the Grocoffs bought the 1,300-square-foot home in the Old West Side Historic District — one of a dozen such districts in Tree Town — it was an energy sieve. The windows leaked and were painted shut, asbestos siding covered the exterior, lead paint peeled inside and out, and the “insulation” consisted of one sheet of newspaper from 1902 on the attic floor, as well as old T-shirts plugged into basement holes. The furnace dated from 1957 and, Matt says, “There were mouse traps and ant traps in the basement and birds living in the attic.”

So the Grocoffs got down to business. The creaky furnace was deep-sixed and a geothermal heating-and-cooling system was installed, as was an energy-recovery ventilator in the attic. Foam insulation was sprayed on the attic rafters. Clapboards were temporarily removed on the exterior and cellulose insulation was blown in the walls. The original windows were restored, weatherstripping was added, and storms with low-e glass placed over them.

 

Energy Star appliances were delivered, and motion-sensor light switches (which turn off lights when no one is in the room), dual-flush toilets, and low-flow showerheads were installed. Compact-fluorescent and LED lights replaced incandescent bulbs.

Lastly, after gaining permission from the Ann Arbor Historic District Commission, solar panels were placed on the roof last fall. That was the final stage in their net-zero quest.

In all, the Grocoffs shelled out about $47,000 to reach their goal. But the payback will be well worth it, they say.

“Our return on investment is about eight years,” Matt says. “By then, we will have eliminated our energy bill for life.”

He figures they’ll eliminate $83,510 in energy costs over two decades and stand to earn an additional $24,000 in renewable energy payments from DTE over that same period. The couple received federal tax credits for some of their green improvements, including a 30-percent credit on the solar panels and storm windows and $300 for insulation.

 

Although they weren’t eligible when they installed their geothermal unit, the government now offers a 30- percent tax credit through 2016.

Matt, an Atlanta native, and Kelly, who was born in California but brought up outside Seattle, are of one mind about sustainability and respect for the planet. They met in California and moved to Ann Arbor when Kelly, now a clinical therapist, enrolled in grad school at U-M.

“We shared the same values, which is one of the things that connected us in the beginning, Kelly says. “It’s always been a dream of mine to own a historic house, but I’m always thinking: What are we bringing into the home? What kind of furniture? What kinds of cleaning products are we using? Once you make that commitment [to be green], it just becomes natural to live that way.”


Above: Matt and Kelly Grocoff flip through a photo album.

Matt adds: “We’re always asking: How can we make our lives better and, in the process, be restorative to the Earth?”

A former lawyer, Matt directs and produces TV commercials. On Earth Day of 2009, he and Kelly launched greenovationtv.com, an Internet TV channel devoted to green home improvement and energy saving. Matt also contributes to The Environment Report, which is syndicated on National Public Radio, as well as oldhouseweb.com.

During the renovations, the Grocoffs welcomed daughter Jane into the world. She’s now a talkative 2-year-old.

Living an energy-efficient life may sound ascetic, but the Grocoffs say it’s actually easy being green.

“We live very rich lives; we don’t live like monks,” Kelly says. “We just came back from staying with friends and family in Atlanta and California, and those houses weren’t nearly as comfortable as ours, and our indoor air quality is better. Anyone who stays at our house says it feels more comfortable than their home.”

  

In winter, gas-forced air can make homes dry and dusty, often necessitating a humidifier. But during an interview on a snowy day in January, it was apparent to their visitor how comfortable the air quality was. “That’s our energy-recovery ventilator at work,” Matt explains. “It brings fresh air and humidity in from the outside as the stale air is exhausted.”

Additional renovations were done with an eye toward the environment. The walls and exterior trim are painted with zero-VOC (volatile organic compound) paint. Much of their furniture is vintage, bought at the Ann Arbor Antiques Market. The coffee table was bought new, but is made from an old butcher block. The dining-room table is constructed from repurposed teak. A claw-foot tub is from Craigslist. The shower surround is made from recycled tile bought at Lowe’s. Even a rain-catching oak barrel outside was salvaged from Michigan’s St. Julian Winery.

Their clunky old stereo was nixed and replaced with a Lilliputian Bose system. “Our massive old stereo used more energy in the ‘off’ mode than this uses on,” Matt says.

The Grocoffs hired local contractors and bought as many materials in southeast Michigan as they could. The big-ticket items are American made; the solar panels were made in California, the geothermal system was built in Indiana, and the energy-recovery ventilator is from Ohio.

The antique furniture is mostly Eastlake (late Victorian), to match the home’s time period. The sash locks, doorknobs, and other hardware are original. The Grocoffs ripped out the carpeting on the floors and stairway, which revealed heart-pine planks. The wood, Matt says, was harvested when it was 300 to 500 years old. The couple hired a local company to strip the floors, which was refinished with natural oil. All the wood trim and shellac are original.

Everything in the house is electric, save for the gas stove. But Matt says it will soon be replaced by an induction stove. “Water boils in a tenth of the time it takes to on a gas stove,” he says.

In clement weather, the couple grow their own vegetables and collect fresh eggs from the chicken coop in the back of the house. They plan to plant fruit trees this spring to replace a felled maple that was blocking sun from reaching the solar panels.

Throughout the net-zero greening process, the Grocoffs endured jabs from naysayers who said it couldn’t be done.

“They still criticize us, but now we can prove it,” Matt says. “The fun thing now is that we can say, ‘You don’t have to believe us; believe our utility bills — or lack of them.’ ”

Which must make those doubters green with envy

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