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The Next Economy
Mixed-Income, Net-Zero Community Under Development in Michigan

THRIVE Collaborative designed Veridian from an honest look at what is actually required for a housing community to achieve net-zero goals.

One of the world’s first communities designed for climate neutrality is under construction in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

THRIVE Collaborative — an Ann Arbor-based real estate development, design, building and consulting firm dedicated to creating the life-enhancing communities and cities needed for the 22nd century — is transforming the site of a former youth prison into a mixed-income, net-zero, biophilic community. Powered by 100 percent solar energy, all-electric appliances and energy storage, Veridian is one of the first purpose-built development projects designed to contribute to a sustainable future.

Veridian will boast bucolic elements conducive to a slower, more conscious approach to daily life: Meeting spaces are integrated into the community, and bike and EV shares are available for longer-distance travel. A farm-stop grocery store will offer year-round access to fresh meats and produce sourced from over 200 local farmers. The center also will feature a cafe, beer garden, and many other social gathering spaces.

A pre-antebellum barn is being restored as an additional community space for social activities within the community — which is adjacent to a 130-acre public park with indigenous virgin forest, hiking trails and other opportunities for outdoor recreation.

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THRIVE Collaborative designed Veridian from an honest look at what is actually required for a community to achieve 2050 net-zero goals; it used ILFI’s Living Communities Challenge and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to create a roadmap for achieving 2050 net-zero goals, and designed Veridian accordingly.

But putting all of this net-zero goodness into practice — including renewable energy, battery storage and ecologically sound building design — was met with incredulity. Initially, THRIVE founder Matthew Grocoff wasn’t sure such a community could exist in southern Michigan. But market trends, tech and policy changes began smoothing out some of the salient sticking points — such as what to do about electricity intermittency and competition with cheaper fossil fuels. But as time passed, Grocoff became convinced that net-zero living communities are absolutely achievable in the present.

“This is all possible now,” Grocoff said. “Why are we talking about doing it in 2030 or 2050?”

Net-zero energy was the linchpin of the Veridian vision, which included eliminating fossil fuels entirely. Each high-efficiency home will get its power from a rooftop solar array. Batteries will solve the intermittency and outage problem, too, and provide a great use-case example of distributed energy resources that become a net producer and buffer for the grid.

“Veridian is fundamentally different, because we’re in it for the end game of where we need to go; and we’re committed to those targets unconditionally,” Grocoff said.

Holistic approach to climate and community wellbeing

Historically, socioeconomic status largely depends on zip code. If a child grows up in an impoverished neighborhood, the likelihood of that child’s grandchildren growing up in poverty is high, too. Affordable housing is often located far from affluent zip codes, something Grocoff calls a “mono crop of solutions.”

“It’s really a segregation of incomes at every level,” he said. “Developers will typically build a neighborhood of homes all at the same price point … Every neighborhood becomes isolated and economically segregated.”

With that in mind, Veridian is being designed with inclusivity in mind: Two-thirds of the housing is being developed for market-rate values; and a neighboring parcel will be developed by a local nonprofit for low-income renters and those exiting homelessness.

Integrated income levels make happier, more upwardly mobile people, Grocoff said. But the financing mechanisms for developers and mortgage options for homebuyers don’t favor development of mixed-income communities.

“The financing system is broken; and de facto redlining still exists,” he said.

Opening the door to wide-scale deployment of truly livable, resilient communities will require an institutional shift away from how Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac rely on housing comps to ensure investment properties are valued the same as adjacent properties — which Grocoff identifies as a relic of redlining that still disproportionately hurts low-income and BIPOC communities.

Beyond people

Developed lands will never be the indigenous, virgin lands they once were. But they can be carefully developed — or redeveloped — to support a slew of life-giving opportunities.

“We’re not going to restore everything to the way that it was; but what we can do is integrate nature into the human-built environment,” Grocoff said.

On that front, THRIVE Collaborative got granular: For example, Veridian doesn’t use chrome fixtures, which are made from dangerous chemicals; and they opted for ABS piping over PVC pipes, which are made from toxic vinyl chloride. This finessed socio-environmental approach permeates Veridian at every level.

“If you’re using PVC, you’re causing the shipment of this toxic chemical that’s not necessary. And it’s not just about the health of our homebuyers — it’s also [for example] the people of East Palestine,” Grocoff asserted, referencing the Ohio town where a recent train derailment spilled dangerous amounts of vinyl chloride.

Veridian’s design goes deeper still to include beneficial touches for its smaller, non-human residents: Future geothermal heat pumps will eliminate noises associated with outdoor compressors, making the place quieter for birds and insects.

“At Veridian, we hope to establish a community not just for human life, but for all life — to really invite life back into the human-built environment,” Grocoff said.

A similar approach is being used for lighting. Rather than over-illuminating outdoor spaces, Veridian’s outdoor lights reflect leaf patterns on the ground that dim on and off when people approach.

“All of the parts are sustaining the whole instead of the other way around,” Grocoff said. “You’re either sustainable or you’re not. If you follow that as your baseline, then it’s no longer about sustaining, but thriving; and that’s a much more exciting thing — to strive more for thriving than just a choice between ‘sustainable’ and ‘unsustainable.’”

THRIVE is scouting other development opportunities to build on its work on Veridian. The firm’s future developments will emphasize mixed-income housing, net-zero energy and ecological harmony. Grocoff is confident his firm will put to good use the tough lessons learned at Veridian in order to create even more thriving, potentially even regenerative communities.

“If you only travel the path that leads to conventional ‘success,’ that’s all you get,” he said. “You get no innovation, no progress.”