Modern History: America’s Oldest Net-Zero Home

By installing state-of-the-art technology and alternative energy systems, self-described “average couple” Kelly and Matt Grocoff transform their century-old house into a cutting-edge net-zero home.

| May/June 2012

Turning a century-old Victorian house into a net-zero home might sound like an ambitious goal for a young couple in their first home, but Kelly and Matt Grocoff, a self-described “average couple” from Ann Arbor, Michigan, did just that, and now own the oldest home in America to achieve net-zero energy. In 2006, when Matt and Kelly bought their 1901 home in a walkable, historic neighborhood, they knew they wanted to go net-zero someday, but they didn’t imagine they would be producing more energy than they use in five short years.

“It was just a fantasy at the time we started looking for a house,” says Matt, a longtime green-building enthusiast and net-zero energy consultant who founded and hosts GreenovationTV. “We wanted to find an old house with good bones and restore it, then work toward net-zero. I thought net-zero would be 10 years away, but before we knew it, all the stars aligned with incentives and everything else, and we were able to get our solar panels up in 2010,” he says.

Energy Basics

Matt and Kelly were motivated to take on their efficiency overhaul because they wanted to help reduce our nation’s overall carbon footprint. “There are 130 million homes in the U.S. right now, and they account for almost a quarter of our greenhouse gas emissions,” Matt says. “We realized that even if every single new home from here on out were built to net-zero energy, it would do nothing to reduce our current carbon emissions.” 

Through his interest and work in green building, Matt was aware that architects and builders were experimenting with ways to create new, cutting-edge green homes, but he didn’t see many models of how average people might be able to retrofit current homes to be energy producers rather than energy consumers. He and Kelly set out to show what could be achieved by following simple common-sense tips for creating a more efficient home. “It’s an old cliché, but the solution really does start at home,” Matt says. “But I didn’t see any models of how to make it happen. There are lots of teams of engineers and architects showing how to build a new net-zero house, but no examples of an ordinary home that reached net-zero energy without doing an expensive gut rehab.”

Like many young couples who buy their first home, Kelly and Matt were planning to put a bit of money and a lot of time into updating their home and getting it ready to live in comfortably. But where many of their friends invested money in cosmetic changes, Kelly and Matt decided to first focus their efforts on energy efficiency. Because they didn’t have tons of cash to infuse into the project, they assumed major purchases such as alternative energy systems were far in the future. But they knew most energy assessments recommend a list of inexpensive, minor changes that add up to big savings. “We said, ‘Let’s do the best we can right now and knock off each item on that list with the things that are optimally efficient for this house, and wait until solar panels make sense,’” Matt says.

They started with the simple things: swapping outdated showerheads for high-performance, low-flow ones; changing out incandescent bulbs for low-energy LEDs; buying powerstrips to fully power off not-in-use electronics and an energy monitor so they could see when and where they were using energy. Using renovation money they worked into their mortgage, they blew about $4,600 worth of cellulose insulation into the walls and attic and spent $3,000 purchasing and installing a 95-percent-efficient energy recovery ventilator (ERV). But they weren’t tearing their house apart. “This is not a gut rehab,” Matt says. “Everyone seems to get the impression that we did this extraordinary thing—that we’re somehow different from everyone else, but we’re not. We didn’t take out any walls. We didn’t do what was perfect. We have blown-in cellulose in the walls. Perfect on the sustainability side would have been to knock out the walls and put in 6-inch-stud walls with spray-foam insulation inside. We could not afford to do that nor did we want to. Plus, historic preservation guidelines prohibit gutting the original walls, and we wanted to preserve the house’s historic integrity,” he says.

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