Saving Green by Going Green

Preservation + Restoration = Net Zero at this 1901 residence in Ann Arbor, Mich.

For Kelly Grocoff, a house that produced more energy than it consumed seemed like a fantasy. "The idea sounded like a hovercraft car," she says. "Sure, maybe someday in the future, just not now."

But four years after Kelly and her husband, Matt, purchased their 1901 Folk Victorian house in the Old West Side Historic District of Ann Arbor, that fantasy is nearly reality: The Grocoffs are confident that when 12 months of utility bills are calculated, their efficiency-focused restoration will have yielded a net zero residence that generates more energy than it requires. Instead of monthly utility bills, the couple will get an annual check from Detroit Edison for about $1,160 in reusable energy credits.

They started small in the autumn of 2006, replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent lamps and LEDs. With winter fast approaching, they quickly caulked windows, knowing that they'd tackle comprehensive window restoration later. They plugged all electronics into smart power strips, which shut off power to unused devices, and connected lights to motion sensors. Finally, the couple replaced energy-guzzling appliances with Energy Star-rated models.

"The first $6,500 you spend can reduce your energy consumption by 35 percent," Matt says. "So the biggest bang for your buck really is with the initial money you invest."  Matt is careful to emphasize the word "invest": "By spending a few dollars more in the beginning, you'll save in the long run."

Starting small isn't just the most economically sensible thing to do, it's also the best thing you can do for your house, says Doug Selby, co-founder of Meadowlark Energy, an Ann Arbor-based subsidiary specializing in energy-efficient renovations. "Your house works as a system," says Selby, who has worked on numerous LEED platinum-certified buildings and consulted with the Grocoffs on parts of their project. "You can't just throw on some solar panels and call it a day. You have to go in with a plan, and you have to get to know your house and how it responds to the smaller changes before making the bigger ones."

Matt and Kelly Grocoff employed Meadowlark Energy to assess their historic home and pinpoint problem areas. The company offers services for homeowners interested in green renovation, and representatives make site visits, complete energy audits, and suggest small- and large-scale changes. They prepare estimates that include projected long-term savings, and assist with the installation of energy-efficient equipment. Matt Grocoff's Internet channel, Greenovation.TV, also offers videos and tutorials on green renovation techniques, using his own house as a learning lab.

With less-expensive improvements in place, the Grocoffs moved on to bigger-ticket items. They installed a geothermal heating and cooling system (the unit cost $19,000), which helped reduce their energy bill from $350 in January 2007 alone to $550 annually.

Then they replaced two deteriorating roofs with new asphalt shingles and mounted SunPower Signature Black panels on top; the solar collectors have no metal gridlines and blend seamlessly into the new roof surface. From street level, you can barely tell there are panels at all—an important consideration for any resident living in a historic district.

For the renovation of the master bath, they chose a water-saving dual-flush toilet and low-flow showerhead, both of which cut consumption. Intent on reusing materials, they then scoured antiques markets and the Habitat for Humanity ReStore. (Recycled finds included a 1908 claw-foot tub advertised on Craigslist and wood and tile that now complete the small bath.)

Lead paint proved to be one of the highest hurdles the Grocoffs encountered. Scraping the paint from the exterior was like "setting off a lead bomb," Matt says, noting that much of the soil around the house became contaminated and will need to be replaced. "I had lead in my ears and eyes. It was terrible, but we learned a lot from the process." (He advises homeowners to cover the landscaping surrounding their houses while scraping paint, and to hire contractors who are certified under the EPA's stringent new lead laws, which took effect last April.) The Grocoffs were able to preserve all original clapboards on the house. The exterior was repainted with long-lasting, odorless paint with very low levels of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.

Last year, the Grocoffs finally took on the windows, restoring the old double-hung units, refurbishing the wood, and sealing all leaks. To further reduce drafts, they installed high-efficiency, low-emissivity-glass storm windows manufactured locally. The storms fit snugly over the double-hung windows and provide an additional air seal—a practical solution for homeowners who want to retain historic wood windows with character. All the hard work paid off: The Grocoffs reduced overall air infiltration by 70 percent.

"For a long time, I thought that we needed to change the way we look at historic windows and allow people to just get new ones," Matt says. "But I'm on the complete other side of that now. We've proven that you can restore your old windows and make them nearly as efficient as new ones, which can cost thousands of dollars more."

Matt Grocoff wants other home-owners to benefit from his restoration experience. In 2006, the former attorney founded Greenovation.TV, an Internet television channel dedicated to green home improvement. "I wanted to make our home an example of how we know we need to start living: using as little as possible, and whatever energy we do use, making it sustainable," he says. "And it's only getting easier and easier to do this." Today, homeowners interested in energy-efficient renovation can access countless resources. (See sidebar at left.) Banks and other lenders have also identified opportunities in the marketplace and are offering financing plans and other incentives to ease final costs. 

This project has not been without its disappointments. The Michigan State Historic Preservation Office recently denied the Grocoffs' application for a state tax credit, specifically citing the spray foam insulation they opted to use in the attic. "I think what Matt is doing is great, but the spray foam does not meet the Secretary of the Interior's standards," explains Brian Conway, State Historic Preservation Officer. "It can be damaging to a historic building, particularly in trapping moisture. And it's essentially irreversible, so if you do have a moisture problem, it becomes extremely difficult to fix." His office recommends cellulose or batt insulation, both removable materials.

Still, Matt says the restoration was a valuable and gratifying experience. Though he and Kelly did not consider themselves preservationists when they bought their house, they do now: "We've taken nothing away from this house that was a part of it originally. We've uncovered things that were lost or damaged, and we restored things that could be restored. We did all this because it was the environmentally friendly thing to do. Preservation and conservation go hand in hand."   

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