If under-insulated homes are the “low hanging fruit” of climate change action, Oak Park could be described as a veritable orchard, ripe for the picking. Actually, given the large number of “historic” stand-alone houses, most villagers could dispense with the proverbial ladder of the fruit harvest.

I am reminded of this every time a winter storm has dropped a fresh layer of snow and many of my neighbors’ roofs quickly change from brilliant white to slate gray and a line of thick icicles takes shape, as the heat leaking from the roof melts the snow. Of course, poorly insulated homes are not unique to Oak Park, but many other locales are doing better either because the homes are newer, smaller, better insulated, or all of the above. 

In the UK, beginning in early September 2021, some climate activists have taken to blocking highways to demand more effective action on climate change. This particular group is mainly an older crowd and their focus is not renewable energy, a good outcome at the Glasgow climate conference, or a particular “radical” idea. Their point is that it’s high time to go for that low hanging fruit. Their name says it all: “Insulate Britain!”

In this spirit, the village is offering new funding for Oak Park residents who want to improve the insulation in their homes or take other measures to reduce their fossil fuel consumption. Households may receive up to $10,000 for such efforts and more information is available at www.oak-park.us/housing. 

Funding is a good start, but realistically, to get this large job finished, we are going to have to volunteer to do it ourselves or change the building regulatory framework in the village so that we are required to do it.

A simple first step is for each of us to learn more about what is easily in reach. I personally set about doing this last winter while walking my dog near my residence on Lyman Avenue. Aside from keeping my eye on the dog and his propensity to “do his business,” my gaze went upward to the roofs around me. I could see a large variation in the amount of snow remaining on roofs and similarly, large differences in the length and numbers of icicles hanging from the eaves and gutters.

It was with some disappointment that I observed my roof had dark patches and some long icicles while some of my neighbors had only a few short spears. I had recycled cellulose blown into the attic the previous autumn and had sealant applied to various parts of the attic ceiling. My home felt fairly comfy but clearly, some of the heat I had hoped would be trapped inside the house was still escaping through the roof. The lightest, most icicle-free roofs on my block were two houses in the middle of my block. One of them belonged to Jim Bloyd and Cynthia Liligan, the other to Bonnie and Stephen Jordan. 

I caught up with the Jordans during our summer block party. The party was meant to include a neighborhood trivia contest and I had snuck in the question, “If icicles speak volumes: Which homes on 600 Lyman proved to be the best insulated, most energy efficient this past winter? Please list the top two candidates.” I can’t say that anyone at the block party had the correct answer. I’ll admit it was a confounding question, more difficult than the one about which District 97 namesake had the longest beard (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow?). Someone asked me if there was a database somewhere in Oak Park recording information about icicles. Not a bad idea, eh?

Fortunately, the residents of both homes were forthcoming about what they had done. The Jordans had invested in their improvements about 15 years ago. Said Steven Jordan, “We got new double-hung windows. This had two advantages: we could open the windows as much as or as little as we wanted. And the windows were tight: no more draft.” Around the same time, the Jordans also added insulation to the floor of the attic. In the house across the street facing the Jordans’, Jim Bloyd had this to say: 

“Within a few weeks after my wife and I moved into our four-square house, the reality of being responsible for maintaining a building aged 10-plus decades struck: The new furnace was going full blast and it was still cold inside. We also saw snowfall melting on the roof. ‘Let’s not pay to melt the snow!’ we thought. Our fears were confirmed when a peek in the attic revealed only a few inches of old particle insulation over the ceiling of the second floor. In spring we contracted to have 2 or 3 feet of insulation blown into the attic, and the walls insulated underneath the vinyl siding. The result was a more attractive house for the next owner, a reduced carbon footprint, and greatly reduced gas bills.

My conversations with my neighbors remind me that reducing energy is an ongoing project. I had added the attic insulation before the village’s current energy conservation program had kicked in, but I received a $400 rebate from NICOR and my heating bill is much lower than the Oak Park average. 

I am continuing to talk to my neighbors about the idiosyncrasies of insulating an Oak Park four-square and improving the windows and walls is still on my plate. And of course I hope that my odd habit of checking roofs and remedies can catch on a little, and we can learn more from each other about how to banish those icicles.

Susan Subak, an Oak Park resident, is author of “The Five-Ton Life: Carbon, America, and the Culture that May Save Us.”

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