When the Park District of Oak Park decided to tackle a much-needed expansion of the Carroll Center, 1125 S. Kenilworth Ave., officials decided to think outside of the box. Way outside. 

They brought on local architect Tom Bassett-Dilley for a basic addition, but with the urging of their board and the help of a significant grant, the basic addition morphed into a one-of-a-kind passive energy addition and retrofit of the existing building.

Chris Lindgren, superintendent of parks and planning for the park district, notes that the project was driven by a growing need for childcare. 

“We’ve seen a large growth of children, particularly in south Oak Park,” Lindgren said. “After-school care has been a big need. We’ve filled every site we have.”

Lindgren says that rather than decommissioning Carroll Center, a move that at one point was seen as the best answer for the aging structure, the park district decided to expand it to help tackle the growing community need. 

The original Carroll Center, which was designed by noted architect John Van Bergen and dates to the 1920s, had been the recipient of a few additions over the years and was in need of updates.

“We went to build an addition but we didn’t have a lot of money,” Lindgren said. “It was basically going to be a box. We went to Tom [Bassett-Dilley] because he can make a box look great.”

Before the project got underway, a park district board member asked what it would take to make the addition sustainable and put in a geothermal heating and cooling system. 

After meeting with Bassett-Dilley, the board was inspired to explore Passive House certification, a voluntary standard for energy efficiency in any building, not just homes, which reduces the building’s ecological footprint and results in ultra-low energy use. 

Passive House construction is something Bassett-Dilley and his team are well acquainted with, having designed award-winning passive energy homes and buildings throughout the Midwest, including the park district’s Austin Gardens Environmental Education Center. 

In general, Passive House methods don’t come cheaply, but Bassett-Dilley was able to point the park district towards the Illinois Clean Energy Foundation’s Zero Energy Grant process. The grant covered over $570,000 of the roughly $1.7 million total cost of the project.

“If you can get to net-zero, you can get a lot of costs covered,” said Bassett-Dilley, who has seven certified Passive House projects and more that are pre-certified. “You have to demonstrate that the project is net-zero, and you have to get third party certification. One of those certifications is Passive House, and I’ve done a lot of those.” 

He says that while having the new addition meet Passive House standards was all in a day’s work, the trick was bringing the old parts of the building up to the strict energy-efficiency standards as well. 

The older parts of the building were cracked and not insulated, so making the building air-tight and insulated came first, followed by an energy-efficient air-handling system, lighting and appliances.

In a first for Bassett-Dilley’s firm, at the park district’s request they agreed to be the construction manager on the project. Timothy Eberline, a project manager with Tom Bassett-Dilley Architecture (TBDA), managed the project, and Lindgren, who has experience as a general contractor was able to aid in the construction process.

The finished addition includes a room with a movable partition that can be divided into two rooms for morning daycare needs and then opened up to become a larger space for after-school groups.  

Bassett-Dilley, says the project has been garnering a lot of attention both nationally and internationally, primarily because of the retrofit of the almost 100-year-old building.  It is the first Passive House Source Zero renovation project in Illinois and one of only a handful of zero-energy public buildings in the state.

Amy Henderson of TBDA points out that during current pandemic, the clean air standards of Passive House building can be a real positive (see tbdarchitects.com/2020/06/covid-19-focus-on-homes.)

“We’ve been focusing on healthy indoor air quality for a long time,” Bassett-Dilley said. “Some of that is focused on healthier materials, and a good portion is the air quality the ventilation system requires. This is part of what’s on peoples’ minds as we look at going back into buildings together again. It’s no guarantee, but at least it’s a better situation.”

The Carroll Center project also includes an impressive solar array, which Bassett-Dilley says is part of the big picture in reducing a building’s carbon footprint. He credits new software that allowed his team to run an energy model during the design process, which helped maximize the efficiency before construction even began.

For Bassett-Dilley and his team, the project was a great way to combine two interests. “We love existing buildings and we know it’s incredibly important to keep them and renovate them when we can,” Bassett-Dilley said. “Tearing down a building and building new results in a huge carbon outflow. Retrofitting is incredibly important.”

His team is working on the retrofitting of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oscar Balch House in Oak Park, and he says the challenge of adding geothermal and solar while maintaining the architectural integrity and the beauty of the home embodies the mission of his firm.

“It’s easy to just go into the energy side, the easy side, but it’s so important as architects to build buildings that people love, that fit their space,” Bassett-Dilley said. “Buildings shouldn’t just be efficient, they need to be loved.”

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