Ann Arbor's net-zero neighborhood breaks ground

This is part in an ongoing series about Michiganders working toward climate solutions. Know someone we should write about? Hit reply!

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Construction recently began in Ann Arbor on a new solar-powered, all-electric, sustainable housing development. The ecovillage, planned to open in 2023, will host a local food grocery store, a farm, electric-powered bikes and cars, and possibly even its own microgrid.

Called Veridian at County Farm, the community will be one of the country's first mixed-income, net-zero housing developments. It’s steered by real estate firm Thrive, founded by longtime Ann Arbor resident Matthew Grocoff.

“What we're doing here is different from conventional development, but it's not rocket science,” Grocoff told Michigan Climate News.

The development is proof of a possible climate solution today, he said. Across the country, housing accounts for 20% of annual greenhouse gas emissions. Experts say all housing needs to be carbon neutral by 2050 to limit warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius, but today, less than 1% are.

“​For every Viridian that's getting built, hundreds of conventional developments are being built,” Grocoff said. “Every time you put in a new building with gas infrastructure, or every time you put in a new building that is reliant on fossil fuels, that immediately becomes a building that needs to be retrofitted from the day it opens."

"Why are we still doing this?” he said. “That's an essential component to solving the climate crisis.”

The guiding question behind all of the decisions for Veridian, Grocoff said, is: “If we're going to meet all of our climate goals, what should we be doing?”

It’s a question they take seriously, evident in the bylaws where combustion and gas infrastructure are prohibited. The development was designed in conjunction with nature, down to the smallest details, like using a biophilic light shade on outdoor lights to mimic patterns found in nature.

Thrive will use a third of the land at the site for food production and take measures to reduce the impact of sound from heat pumps on local wildlife. The development will be a certified Living Building Challenge, an international certification for buildings that produce more energy than they use. Thrive is also trying to establish a microgrid, a decentralized energy system.

In June, Ann Arbor residents celebrated the groundbreaking. Attendees could tested out the electric bikes the housing community will have when it opens and took home 200 trees. All-electric demonstrations for lawn care, cooking, and driving were also included. U.S. Congresswoman Debbie Dingell was in attendance.

The project is also a model for how climate solutions can be justice-focused. Unlike many developments or products that are only accessible to the wealthy, some Veridian’s housing units will be affordable to lower-income residents. The units start at $180,000, well under Ann Arbor’s median housing price of $498,000.

And developers will set aside a portion of the units for people experiencing homelessness, with an on-site community hub to offer support services to those residents.

Twenty percent of the homes are already spoken for, while the rest are available to be reserved. Thrive is looking to start another project. A few miles away from Veridian, Thrive hopes to build another project consisting of multi-family housing below a canopy of 85-foot-tall trees. The goal is to build dense housing while preserving older and vital trees and habitats.

“When I see what's going on in the world right now, where it's 104 degrees in London, where there's flooding in certain parts of the world, where others it's unprecedented fires – if we talk about it only in this gloom and doom scenario, we're not going to get to the solutions,” Grocoff siad. “We can’t allow for the lack of imagination. We have to show that the future we're talking about is not just something free of pollutants and fossil fuels. It's profoundly beautiful in its own right,” he said.

“Veridian is more beautiful – it's quieter because compressors are on the inside of the house with geothermal. The materials are healthier, the air is cleaner, the vehicles will be quieter. The maintenance equipment won’t smell, won't have the same disastrous effects, and just locally gross impacts that conventional fossil fuel-based things do,” he said.

He said Veridian is “a profound new paradigm for how we live that is better and healthier, and more beautiful.

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