Environmental Issues: Veridian at County Farm in Ann Arbor is preparing to build its net-zero energy development – Advice Eating

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David Fair: This is 89 a WEMU, and after years of planning and work, Ann Arbor will soon be one of the first mixed-income net-zero energy communities in the country. The 130-acre project is Nestle Long County Farm Park and is known as Veridian at County Farm. I’m David Fair and this will be an all electric powered community. No gas lines will be laid. It will have many other sustainable properties. The development comes from a partnership with THRIVE Collaborative and Avalon Housing. And today’s guest will inform us of where we are and where we are going, both in the short term and longer term. Matt Grocoff is the Founder and Director of THRIVE Collaborative. And welcome back to WEMU, Matt.

Matt Grocoff: David, thank you for having me. And it’s been a long few years for all of us.

David Fair: We haven’t spoken to each other since the pandemic began. So let’s talk about it. The pandemic has obviously affected so many aspects of our lives. Has it affected Veridian’s progress at County Farms?

Matt Grocoff: It affected us as much as everyone else I think, you know, when we had to step back in the early days to see what’s happening here. But our work continued. The climate crisis has not paused the pandemic for as long as we all would have liked. So we had to continue our work. And because of the nature of this project and the passionate people who work with us and the partners we have, we’ve kept moving forward. Obviously everyone was worried early on about financing our real estate projects and refinancing in the middle of the pandemic and so on. And at the end there was so much enthusiasm. We actually had people, more than one, negotiating with us to fund the project. And so we are fully funded and ready to go and stimulate demand for it. And we get media attention from all over the world.

David Fair: All these things affecting the country as a whole, supply chain issues, rising material costs, a booming real estate market and inflation, these are factors that have pushed up the prices of everything. But you say that you are fully funded and that this does not affect your ability to continue?

Matt Grocoff: In fact, it improves our ability to keep going. You know, all these global supply chain issues that are happening right now and the globalization and the centralization of everything really underscores why something like Veridian is so important. Check out something like the Honey Locust Farm Stop that we’re going to have at Veridian, which is modeled after the Argus Farm Stop here in Washtenaw County in Ann Arbor. They have not been affected by the problems of the global food supply chain. When you came to Argus with your mask on in the early days of the pandemic they had everything you needed because they had direct relationships with local farmers, over 200 local farmers who supply this shop every day. And while Argus wasn’t built for the pandemic, and Veridian wasn’t built for a pandemic, it’s uniquely adaptable in all circumstances. If Veridian existed today, it would be an ideal place before the pandemic like COVID because of the multi-layered sociality, as you can have your private space with your family inside, but you can also go outside on your porch and still have a social distance too Your neighbors who are also on their porch or passing by on a public path. You can get together with friends or family, you know, around a fire, in a common room. You can go to the grocery store and the locust farm stop.

David Fair: This is environmental issues at 89 a WEMU. We speak to Matt Grocoff of the Thrive Collaborative about the Veridian net-zero energy development at County Farm. And again on Earth Day the cornerstone was laid. And you began taking reservations that day for some of the different housing options that would eventually become available. What was the first reaction?

Matt Grocoff: It was fantastic. We literally had hundreds of people interested in their property. We actually sold about 30 or 40% of them within the first 30 minutes. For that first group of houses, we were really, you know, we call them the founding neighbors of the project.

David Fair: And they are the three most expensive types of housing available in the community. And is it that that provides the resources to build the rest?

Matt Grocoff: It’s a bit of both. A lot of decisions went into it. But one of the most important was that everything about this project was literally redesigned from the ground up. So, the paths and driveways and where the houses go, we are all informed by the ground beneath the earth and where the water wants to flow. And then everything was designed around it. The first houses that should be built are in this central area, through which we will have a lot of water and all the biowells going to flow. They all have to be built first. Lawyers and engineers love boundaries, but water doesn’t care. Then we can somehow construct outward from there.

David Fair: And then there are 30 lofts. 22 apartment style units. And these will range in price from $185 to $340,000. At what point do we start with this?

Matt Grocoff: That’s what we’re trying to figure out right now, and we want to move forward as quickly as possible. We actually have a few people who have already said they’re willing to reserve one of these homes when we release them. We are in talks with our lawyers about creating documents that will allow people to reserve these in advance. So hopefully these are coming sooner rather than later, but we’ll have more information on them in the coming months or weeks.

David Fair: Once again, WEMU’s Issues of the Environment continues, as does our conversation with Matt Grocoff. And we’re talking about Veridian at County Farm. Now let’s talk about impact for a moment. How do you assess the environmental and climate benefits when they are in operation and fully populated?

Matt Grocoff: That’s a great question. There is no such thing as sustainable perfection in a home or neighborhood. Our success will be in using this neighborhood not just to sell all the houses and have people who can afford to live there or are lucky enough to get into one of the Avalon housing units. But we’re really using all the partnerships that we have with our equipment manufacturers and their faucet manufacturers and lumber and everything else to take the opportunity to really try to bring together the entire construction and development and construction industry and planning commissions and city councils across the country along with us to show them what we’ve done. Why we found it difficult, but it’s not rocket science, and it shouldn’t be that difficult for everyone. What worries me the most is that it is not replicated.

David Fair: Well, that begs the next question. Is this something you would like to use as a blueprint for more similar developments in other areas of Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County, or Southeast Michigan?

Matt Grocoff: 100%. Only the blueprint gets better every time. Just as in the natural world, this is the first of many, many iterations of what we can and should be doing. Every day we talk about what we’re not doing right at Veridian. What can we do with the next project? We have the technology and the knowledge and the desire to create affordable housing that is truly integrated into the neighborhood at every layer and in every way.

David Fair: You say you feel like it. You think the good folks at our utilities think the same way?

Matt Grocoff: I do. Well, again there is a difference between huge entities and individuals. And there are many, many individuals. And I think everyone understands at this point that we need to push towards electrification. It remains to be seen how quickly they will react to this. It’s going in that direction. And anyone who doubts that will face financial and moral difficulties in the years to come. It is absolutely clear that neighborhoods will be fully electrified and powered in the very near future.

David Fair: So, if we look at Veridian as an infant step of sorts, when will humans start moving into this evolution and when will it be fully populated?

Matt Grocoff: The target date for moving in is next year. Fall 2023 will be the first set of houses, and we think we should be tying up and packing up by late 2024 or early to mid-2025, which puts us five years away from that 2030 deadline. The city of Ann Arbor and other people around the world have set a target for the date when we really need to decarbonize. So this is the decade of action. It’s 2022. We’re doing it. We prove it. But now we have to make sure it’s replicated and that others do the same because we won’t be ready until 2024 or 2025. At this point, all new builds must be fully electric. No fossil fuels required, a grid beneficial, renewable and equitable.

David Fair: That is a conversation I can invite you back to and we can discuss whether there is the political will to get this done in a reasonable timeframe. That would be fascinating to explore.

Matt Grocoff: Absolutely. So many exciting things are happening. We’re working with a battery company right now, a really innovative battery company called Salient Energy. See what opportunities there could be for this next generation of power supply as a democratic and affordable and connected renewable energy system.

David Fair: Matt, thank you for taking the time to speak to me today. I appreciate it. And we’ll keep you posted on how it goes.

Matt Grocoff: Absolutely. And people can go to the Veridian dot community and keep in touch with us. Sign up for our updates. And we’re going to be doing all sorts of webinars and stuff on various topics related to energy microgrids, zero waste and affordable housing throughout the rest of spring and summer. And anyone, even if people don’t live at Veridian, will be able to participate in these conversations. So we’re looking forward to that. And again, it’s Veridian’s dot community. And you can see floor plans and all the other good stuff there.

David Fair: And you can link directly from the WEMU website if you haven’t had a chance to write it down. This is Matt Grocoff. He is the Founder and Director of THRIVE Collaborative, building one of the first net-zero energy, mixed-income developments in the United States in partnership with Avalon Housing. And it’s a step into the future. I’m David Fair and this is 89 a WEMU FM and WEMU HD a Ypsilanti.

Resources:

Thrive Collaborative

Veridian on the county farm

Avalon housing

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