Inside the Net-Zero Home

By | November 8, 2012

Matt Grocoff's "net-zero" home was the first of its kind in Michigan. (Photo courtesy Matt Grocoff)


A self-made guru of “net-zero” homes, Ann Arbor’s Matt Grocoff lives in a house that only consumes as much energy as it produces. And if he can make it happen in his 110-year-old folk Victorian, he says there should be no stopping most homeowners.

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Net-zero home guru Matt Grocoff.


Found Michigan: So, Matt, how exactly did you end up on this net-zero home crusade?

Matt: Well, I’m from Georgia and my wife is from the West Coast, and we moved to Ann Arbor when my wife was in graduate school. We really only intended to be here for a couple of years and then move back west. But we fell in love with Ann Arbor and realized that Michigan is one of the most extraordinary places on the planet when looking at how we will be able to live in the future. People will be looking for places like this to live, you know? I mean, where do millions of people in lower Manhattan go when that water doesn’t retreat? Not to say that you should live someplace to try to run away from Armageddon. But regardless, we found this old house we loved with a south-facing roof and really good bones, and we decided to use this house as a teaching tool.

FM: And what exactly were you trying to show?

Matt: I guess we wanted to go out there and prove what’s possible. I had been travelling across the country, giving and attending lectures about net-zero homes, constantly hearing these teams of engineers talking about how difficult net-zero energy is. People were talking about it like it was impossible even though it had already been done and can be done with off-the-shelf technology. But there weren’t that many people doing in it. In fact, originally, I intended to write a piece about net-zero homes and how it doesn’t matter how old the homes are and how anybody could do this. I was tweeting everybody, asking them to send me their stories of net-zero energy homes that were older than 1900 so I could do the story. And I quickly realized that ours was going to be the oldest home where someone had actually done this.

FM: Wow. But let’s talk specifics, though. I mean, exactly how do you take a 110-year-old house and retrofit it to be energy neutral? It sounds like a pretty difficult project.

Matt: I hesitate to even call it difficult because what you need to do to get a house to net-zero energy is not that difficult. The technology already exists, and it’s proven to be affordable if you look at the total time value of that money. A typical mortgage is for 30 years, for instance, so if you look at the cost over a 30-year period, going net-zero is actually far more affordable than not doing it.

But to get specific, the basic idea is this: People like to say that old houses need to breathe. And frankly, I’ll just say it: That’s bullshit. They breathe just because that’s the way they were built. They had cedar shingles on the roofs, no insulation, and they were leaky. And it’s a good thing they were because people were heating with coal-fired, pot-bellied stoves. You can only imagine the indoor air quality in those days. But today, regardless if you’re heating with a gas furnace or geothermal system, you want to keep that energy inside the house, where it can keep you warm, and then use a little bit of energy to ventilate the home.

FM: And so how exactly does that work?

Matt: Well, the basic mantra is “seal it tight and ventilate right.” In fact, sealing can be even more important than insulation. The idea is that you want to create an “envelope” around your house that’s as air-tight as possible. The analogy I give is this: In the wintertime, you can wear a jacket to stay warm. You can wear a jacket on top of that jacket. But if your shirt isn’t tucked in underneath, the air will get in and make your skin cold. Just like in a drafty house: You can crank up your furnace as high as you want and put on your wool socks, but if you sit next to a window that’s leaking, you’re going to be cold. So you’ve got to seal all that stuff. And that sealing is actually really, really affordable.

For instance, if you take an old window, and literally put a 50-cent piece of weather stripping on the inside, you’ll get a tight seal. And then if you put on new storm windows that are well-caulked, well-sealed and have the same kind of sealing mechanism that a brand-new window has, you’ll get the same kind of performance that a new window has—but at a fraction of the price. Then if you take a five-dollar bottle of caulk and go around your house and seal up around everything that’s leaking air, you can stop the airflow and energy loss from your house. And it’s little things that cost virtually nothing that can have the biggest impact. In fact, the first $6,000 that you spend will get you halfway to net zero. It’ll also pay for itself almost immediately and make your house so much more comfortable. It’s that second half, though, that’s a little harder and gets more expensive.

FM: And so in total, then, how much did you spend on your renovation to get your home to net-zero?

Matt: The total cost of everything was about $50,000. But that included the solar system for our roof, because remember—the whole idea with net zero is that you’re producing as much energy as you use. And it also included the geothermal system for heating and air conditioning. And again, if you consider the cost of that over 30 years, with all those upgrades, we’ll have eliminated $263,000 in energy costs. That’s given 7 percent for energy inflation. I mean, we took out a 5-percent loan for the solar, and in three years, the solar loan will be paid off and we’ll have no utility bill for the rest of our lives. Look at our current energy bill, actually, and you’ll see we made $88 last month.

FM: That’s incredible.

Matt: Yeah, and while that $50,000 might sound like a lot, mind you—that’s about the cost of an average kitchen renovation. A basement remodel will cost you $42,000. A family room addition will cost $50,000. The difference is with any of these major renovations—even with the best-case scenario—you’re only going to get a 72-percent return on your investment in resale value. Solar, on the other hand, has well over 100-percent return on investment, depending on where you live. But even in a cloudy place like Michigan, it pays off. In fact, there’s no place on the planet where solar costs you money.

FM: I’ve gotta say, it feels like you cracked some kind of code or something. I mean, if you get on the internet and start researching options for net-zero homes, the conventional wisdom seems to be that it’s a lot more difficult than this and a lot more expensive.

Matt: Well, like I said before, I hesitate to even call it difficult because the technology is all there. What makes it difficult is the policy. The example I give is when you buy a car, you don’t go out and buy it piece by piece and build it from scratch. But that is how you buy energy efficiency and renewable energy right now. And the incentives are changing every single day. If someone asks me, “How do I buy solar panels and make it affordable like you did?”—if I want to tell my next-door neighbor how I did it, I can’t, because things are totally different now. Getting back to the car analogy, we need to figure out how to make it as easy as going out and buying a Chevy Volt. Because it took us two hours to buy a Chevy Volt; it took us five years to get to net-zero energy. And it doesn’t have to be that way. Everything we did was simple, off-the-shelf technology. So what we’ve proven is that you can take a 110-year-old house, and get net-zero performance.

Another thing that confuses people is that we have all these measurements and performance indicators in the building trade—things like LEED or ENERGY STAR, that are all based on random numbers and pretend, arbitrary targets. ENERGY STAR, for instance, says the product has to be 20 percent better than code. Well, code changes every year. And what is code, anyway? And how much energy does a code house use? So, you see, these are just arbitrary numbers and arbitrary targets. Really, the only number that matters is zero. It’s all or nothing. If we want to sustain the climate to which we adapted—that allows humans to exist on this planet—all the science tells us we have to get to net-zero emissions. So that’s why that was always the goal with our house.

FM: Okay, one last question. Do you see this as being a big part of how we, in Michigan, can cope with the kinds of things that climate change is throwing at us?

Matt: Yeah, of course. I mean we’re still the only documented net-zero home in Michigan, which I find very frustrating. And I don’t even like to talk about that because people think we’re zealots who bathe in our pasta water or something, which is not true. We have all the same appliances as everyone else: We’ve got laptops, we have a stereo, we have air conditioning, which is based on geothermal. And if you look at the three residential projects I’m working on now with my net-zero consulting firm, one of them is a pretty high-end luxury home, one is a remodel of a 1950’s ranch, and another is an affordable housing complex. There are net-zero homes for $150,000. There are net-zero homes that have been built for $2 million. There are net-zero office buildings. And while there aren’t that many right now, it doesn’t have to be that way in the future. If there is one, then to me, it’s been proven that it’s possible. So it’s coming. And it’s one of those things where everybody is going to be asking for it very, very soon.


Matt Grocoff lives in Ann Arbor and is the founder of Thrive—a net-zero energy consulting collaborative. To find out more about Matt’s net-zero house or for video tutorials on how to make your own home more energy efficient, go to Matt’s website,


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