Old is the New Green: Forget the Prius, Renovate That Old House!

By: Matt Grocoff , Contributing Writer
In: Old Houses, Green Renovations

Editors note: Happy Earth Day, old house lovers! We thought it would be fitting to introduce a new voice to this blog on this particular day. The Old House Web is excited to welcome our new contributing blogger, green renovation guru and founder of Greenovation.TV, Matt Grocoff. In honor of National Preservation Month, which kicks off on Saturday, The Old House Web will be partnering with Matt Grocoff to bring you tips and advice on making your old house greener. This year’s National Preservation Month theme is “Old is the New Green.”

Restoring History - Protecting Our Future
by Matt Grocoff

When my wife Kelly and I bought our 110 year old Folk-Victorian home in Ann Arbor’s Old West Side Historic District, it was a dream come true: drafty old windows, lead paint, zero insulation, a half-century old furnace, asbestos siding, a gas powered mower in the shed and even a few pieces of coal scattered around the back yard.  What more could a couple ask for?

Matt Grocoff's old Folk-Victorian home

Matt Grocoff's old Folk-Victorian home

From the start we knew that homes use an astonishing 22% of energy consumed in the U.S.  In fact, your home uses far more energy than your car.  Home energy costs have skyrocketed to an average of $2200 per year.  Old homes use even more than their fair share of the energy pie.

When we first inspected our attic we found that the only insulation was a single layer of newspaper dated 1902 (and it was covered in a layer of coal soot).  There are 58 million homes like ours in the U.S. with zero insulation.  None.  Nada.  Zippo.


But using resources to build big new “green” homes to save resources just seems ironic.  There are 130 million existing homes in the U.S.; half were built before 1972.

So, retrofitting America’s old homes is not just about preserving history, it is indeed about protecting our future.

A casual visitor to our home would never recognize our house as a “green” house.  And that’s the point.  We’ve restored as much as we could and used salvaged materials and antiques for the rest.  When buying new was the only option, we looked for recycled content.  Only the solar panels on the roof will give away our secret that this is no ordinary historic home.


Thoreau once said “what use is a fine house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?”

By creating Greenovation.TV Kelly and I want our home to be a restorative part of our community.  Once we add solar to our ultra-efficient home, we will produce more energy than we consume and become the oldest house in America to achieve net zero energy.

We want prove that, even on a limited budget, you can have a home of unparalleled comfort and style while spending less on utilities than your neighbors who live in less comfortable homes.


Any target of net-zero energy use from the grid must begin by reducing your load.  Efficiency is the cheapest power plant in the world.  Once you reduce your load as much as possible, then you can look for sustainable renewable resources to produce what is needed for the remaining.

As owners of great old homes we all need to make a promise to ourselves, our neighboring communities and to generations that follow that we will eliminate any negative impact our old homes have on the environment.  Mission Zero.

It’s a simple but vital goal.  Our Take-Make-Waste economy is not viable.  Every decision we make in our houses must be guided by this compelling, realistic vision.

Mission Zero begins at home.  Your home.  I hope Kelly, our little Baby Jane and I can inspire you to create your own Mission Zero.

Don’t be overwhelmed.  We’re proving that it’s possible.  Saving our old homes and civilization is not a spectator sport.  First, do something.  Anything!  Then do something else.  And something else.

Undoubtedly, your actions will then become an example in your community. We hope that our new website www.Greenovation.TV will inspire and empower you to make your old house more comfortable and affordable.

In my next post I’ll list ten steps to help you eliminate the negative environmental impact of your old home.

Remember that, in the end, we all share the same home.

Matt Grocoff is an attorney-turned-producer and founder of www.Greenovation.TV.  He is a regular contributor to The Environment Report syndicated on NPR stations nationwide.  He and his wife Kelly are renovating an old Folk-Victorian which will soon produce more energy than it uses.


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  1. 17 Responses  to “Old is the New Green: Forget the Prius, Renovate That Old House!”

  2. Aug 29, 2011
    Dear Matt, I saw the article about your Old West Side home in Preservation magazine. You and Kelly are doing great things! I've shared the article with several of my friends on the Old West Side or in Burns Park. So, what's next? Would you be interested in installing energy saving cellular window shades with side tracks in a room and then monitoring the energy advantage? If yes, we'd love to talk to you about that. Best Regards, Gayle Thomas Creative Windows
  3. Ferris Kawar
    Aug 29, 2011
    I've watched your progress on this house and am impressed by how you've made it all look so doable. Thanks for giving the rest of us inspiration to tackle the biggest part of our footprint...our home. It's amazing how group think can give us a sense that inefficient and wasteful is acceptable and even normal. Your project creates a paradigm shift in how we think of the structures we call home.
  4. Sandy
    Aug 29, 2011
    What a beautiful home. Wish more people would renovate older homes in more efficient ways. Good luck Matt :)
  5. Aug 29, 2011
    Thanks for the comment, Phyllis (aka Mom)! As my mother and a frequent guest at our soon-to-be net zero home, she can attest to its comfort!!
  6. Aug 29, 2011
    Matt and Kelly are doing a phenomenal job in making an impact on this earth and this generation's obligation to protect our environment. Keep up the good work
  7. dahlia travis
    Aug 29, 2011
    Great Post. We were living in a 1940's house for a while that was asbestos-ville and leaked heat like a deflating balloon. If we'd stayed there this would have been super helpful. As is, we'll see what houses the future will bring us!
  8. jane casselman
    Aug 29, 2011
    This an inspiring as well as a reassuring article!
  9. jane casselman
    Aug 29, 2011
    This is a great article reassuring
  10. Aug 29, 2011
    Thanks for all the great comments!! I hope you'll join us on Greenovation.TV - Looking forward to inspiring more of y'all to recycling our old homes!! Matt
  11. Tom Brudzinski
    Aug 29, 2011
    I congratulate you and your family on your efforts. My wife and I (with some assistance from our grown kids when visiting) have been updating/restoring/greening an 1892 cottage on the coast of Maine for some time now. Unless we win the lottery, it is a seemingly never-ending process. Still, it has been fascinating. Figuring out just understanding what we have under the skin (aka horse-hair plaster-BROWN), what we would like to have, what we can afford to have and in what order we can/should have it has been a great experience. The fact that I am involved in green-building professionally is perhaps an advantage. It does not take much insight however to understand that even in it's current, mostly uninsulated state, it is greener than most homes being planned because it is HERE ALREADY. Keep up the good work. Sharing successes and failures is valuable. I hope to learn a lot from your efforts!