Here in Oak Park and River Forest we’ve seen our fair share of “passive house” construction, thanks to architect Tom Basset-Dilley, who first introduced the villages to the concept of constructing a home with rigorous energy efficiency standards and a tight house envelope to minimize heat and energy loss while also minimizing the environmental impact from using fossil fuels.
In fact, his recent projects in Oak Park on Clinton Avenue and in River Forest on Jackson Avenue partly explain why the Passive House Institute US recently held its 10th annual conference in Chicago.
While passive house construction may be considered the ultimate in green building techniques, historic homeowners may wonder what steps they can take to make their older homes green without tearing down and starting over.
Jason LaFleur of Eco-Achievers has dedicated his career to helping homeowners and businesses make structures, both new and old, more eco-friendly. His own Oak Park bungalow, which he recently placed on the market, is a model of theory put into practice.
Green Star certification
The Passive House designation is limited to homes constructed from the ground up following very specific standards, but for older homes, such as LaFleur’s 1912 house on the 600 block of South Humphrey, Green Star certification indicates a home that has met certain goals in green practices.
LaFleur, who has lived in the home for 11 years with his wife, noted that Green Star standards are ideal for remodeling.
“Green Star looks at everything from the site of the home to water and energy efficiency to materials,” he said. “It’s a program designed for remodeling. You could just have a room certified or the entire structure. Green Star considers both the health of the structure and the energy use.”
Balancing efficiency with good health effects was always a part of LaFleur’s calculations in what to do in his own home.
“For example,” he noted, “a green osmosis filter is good for your health in that it filters impurities from your drinking water, but it uses more water in the process.”
As a consultant to others making the green journey in their homes or offices, LaFleur decided to document his home’s journey on his blog, a practice that came in handy later.
“If you have documentation and proof that you have taken certain steps,” he said, “you can be retroactively certified Green Star. I kept a detailed blog of all the work we did on our home, so the evidence was right there.”
Green Built home tour
LaFleur’s home, along with 15 other Chicago-area homes was featured on this summer’s Green Built Tour of Homes. In order to show off all of his home’s green improvements to tour participants, LaFleur identified green features throughout his home with signage that remains in place today to show potential home buyers all of the extras that come with the home. But while making the additions, he was also careful to preserve historic features that he felt were integral to his home’s character.
On the front porch, for instance, LaFleur heated and insulated the walls and floors, but did not replace the three walls of original windows.
“There are 37 panes of glass here,” he said. “I didn’t want to ruin the historic identity of the home. I like the way the wavy, vintage glass looks.”
The living room retains its Oak Park vintage look with arched doorways, stained glass and built-ins surrounding the fireplace, but one of the big modifications LaFleur made in the living spaces isn’t visible to the naked eye.
“One of the things every house in Oak Park needs is better air sealing,” he noted. “It’s one of the most fundamental things to investigate because it’s all about control of air quality. Homes don’t need to breath; people do. A lot can be done with older homes to improve air quality and temperature through insulation and sealing.”
When LaFleur and his wife removed carpet and restored their hardwood floors, they took care to seal the room and restore the quarter-sawn trim which gave them more control of air quality in the living spaces.
In the home’s three bathrooms, LaFleur incorporated smart exhaust fans, activated either by motion or turning on the light switch. Throughout the 10-year renovation project, he took care to reuse older framing and doors throughout the home and made sure no exotic woods were used in the home.
In the kitchen renovation, which was featured on the Today Show, LaFleur added spray foam soy insulation, which reduces noise from outside the home while also providing much improved temperature control. Zodiac quartz counters are low VOC (volatile organic compound) while also being durable and maintenance-free.
The home’s basement includes a kitchenette, two bedrooms and a full bath, but it’s the mechanical room that garners the most attention on home tours.
A tankless water heater provides efficient, on-demand hot water to the home. A fresh air delivery system, a Renew Aire Energy Recovery System (ERV) provides fresh, indoor air. LaFleur also added a passive radon system to promote higher air quality. Low-flow plumbing and an efficient HVAC system were other important upgrades.
Green innovations are not confined to the home’s interior. LaFleur integrated an on-site storm management system through the installation of a rain garden, French drain and multiple rain barrels. The yard was professionally landscaped with native plants with the help of The Spirited Gardener landscape architects.
The LaFleur family is ready to move onto their next project and have listed their five-bedroom, three-bath Humphrey Avenue home for $439,500. LaFleur noted that the next owners will benefit from his job in the industry.
“We have three different types of efficient toilets in our bathrooms,” he said. “Before I can recommend a product to clients like plumbing fixtures, solar tubes or the Ecos Paints no-VOC line of paints, I have tried it out here to make sure it works.”