How To Design A Green Community

The Veridian at County Farm in Ann Arbor is a great demonstration of how it's done.

Market morning

Designs by Union Studio / Renderings by McLennan Design

What would a truly green community, designed from the ground up, look like? It is something that many urbanists and architects have dreamed about and a few have tried. Now Matt Grocoff and the THRIVE Collaborative are having a shot at it with the Veridian at County Farm in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was recently approved by City Council and will be starting construction in the Spring of 2021. It's a very interesting project, both for the things that it does, and for the things that it doesn't.

Grocoff is known to Treehugger for his writing and his Mission Zero house, but has been quietly working away at the Veridian project for a couple of years, and it presses a lot of Treehugger buttons; Grocoff tells Treehugger that he is "rethinking everything, from feces to fossil fuels."

It will be located on a remarkable site that is part of the community; it was a "poor farm" since the 19th century and then became a youth prison in the sixties, while the community grew up around it. So you have this rare thing, green open space for development that is still walking or biking distance from shopping or the University of Michigan. Except, of course, Grocoff tells Treehugger that "nobody wanted this developed." But he collaborated with the community in an open process that ended up getting a unanimous vote of approval.

Living Community Challenge

Living Community Challenge 

It hits a couple of petals of the Living Community Challenge Standard, which promotes "nurturing and generous places that promote healthy lifestyles for everyone" and aims for being net positive for energy and water. Or as Grocoff tells Treehugger, "everything that's legal" – many aspirational targets of the Living Building Challenge, like gathering your own water or dealing with your own waste, are not permitted under most building codes (that's what scale jumping is for, those things that cannot entirely be done on-site); there is a good reason that it is called a Challenge. However, THRIVE and Grocoff are going to try and meet the "imperatives" of most of the petals. Imperatives are not a defined checklist; they are items that must be addressed by the designers. According to the standard: "The specific methodology used to meet the expectations of the Living Community Challenge is assigned to the genius of the design and planning teams, who are expected to make informed decisions appropriate to the community, its inhabitants and its bioregion."

Site Plan
Site Plan.


Grocoff noted that there are "many barriers to what a developer can do." For instance, he wanted to integrate the social housing component into the community but for financing reasons, the land had to be contiguous. He then tried to design it like a gerrymandered political district, winding in and out of the community, but that caused all kinds of servicing issues. In the end, the social housing is at the north end of the site, and the market housing at the south.

Siteplan technical


Then there is the issue of parking; in the ideal green community, one might not have cars at all, or park them around the perimeter like they do in Vauban, often called the model for sustainable urban development. But Grocoff is selling market housing in North America, so every house has parking, accessible from the rear of the house; the fronts of the houses face green spaces.

Porch Commons

Designs by Union Studio / Renderings by McLennan Design

"Bicyclists and walkers will enjoy European “woonerf” style streets shared with cars that are speed-limited by innovative design features. Laneways will allow convenient access to homes from the rear, while maximizing restorative green space and improving social interaction between neighbors and visitors. Pathways will incorporate innovative rainfall management techniques that mimic natural ecology."
Bike Barn
Bike Barn.

Designs by Union Studio / Renderings by McLennan Design

However the community will have bikes and cargo bikes available at the Bike Barn; Matt hopes that people will find that they don't need a car at all, and the garage spaces are designed to be easily convertible into living spaces. There is also a range of unit types to address different markets; there are small "nest flats" for singles, walk-up and terraced flats, and single-family houses.

Nature Doesn't Maximize, it Optimizes

Solar Roof layout


Grocoff has long been a proponent of the Electrify Everything movement, as can be seen in his own Mission Zero House. Veridian is a net-zero electric community with no gas supply at all; the rooftop solar generates up to 1.5 megawatts of power. He notes that he could have got more power by lining all the houses up so that the roofs all faced south, but a tree doesn't grow all its leaves on the south side either. "nature doesn't maximize, it optimizes." So while the houses do not have optimal solar orientation, they have winding roads and great interior spaces laid out by Union Studio.

The firm has roots in The New Urbanism movement, which promotes compact, walkable, mixed-use communities. It also alludes to traditional forms with front porches, facing a pedestrian-only route connecting to the big County Farm Park that is next door to the development.

The porches and greenways will be the center of social life connecting existing neighborhoods with Veridian. Enjoy a night with friends out by an open fire, or take a stroll to The Farmhouse for local produce, to the community gardens to harvest your own vegetables, or to the Barn for an outdoor summer movie.
Sunday Market Farm Stop

Designs by Union Studio / Renderings by McLennan Design

New Urbanism has lately been adopting "agrarian urbanism" as described by James Howard Kunstler:

The most forward-looking leaders in the New Urbanist movement now recognize that we have to reorganize the landscape for local food production, because industrial agriculture will be one of the prime victims of our oil predicament. The successful places in the future will be places that have a meaningful relationship with growing food close to home.

There is a lot of Agrarian Urbanism built into Veridian; 30% of the landscape is dedicated to food production, and an old barn is being restored and tired into a year-round grocery where people can buy local produce year-round.

Sunday market Barns

Designs by Union Studio / Renderings by McLennan Design

There is so much going on here. The Living Community Challenge is nothing if not challenging, and most North Americans have never heard of it. Meeting the needs of the challenge, the marketplace, and the municipal requirements for services, fire trucks, parking, is incredibly complicated. Even just selling a home where the front door opens on to green space instead of a road is turning things upside down. It is a remarkable project that makes a lot of risky moves.

Evening Festival

Designs by Union Studio / Renderings by McLennan Design

But the world has changed in the last year, and many more people are looking for healthier and greener lifestyles; people are dreaming about living like this. Those garages may well be turned into home offices and zoom studios. New Urbanism has never looked more enticing. Matt Grocoff and his THRIVE team may have taken years getting to this point, but their timing may be perfect.

More at Veridian at County Farm