Tom Bassett-Dilley’s Oak Park home. The architect is nearing completion on a de-carbonization project for his own house. (Provided)

Architect Tom Bassett-Dilley is well-regarded for his expertise in passive house architecture and the green-minded Oak Parker practices what he preaches. Not only did he contribute to making the Park District of Oak Park’s Carroll Center a net-zero building, he’s been working on architectural icons such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oscar Balch House and includes his own home in the list of energy retrofits he’s recently overseen. 

All of this dovetails nicely with Bassett-Dilley’s role on the village’s Climate Action Network (CAN.) He notes that through CAN’s work studying emissions in the village, a frightening statistic emerged: 73% of emissions in Oak Park come from buildings. Calling this “astonishing,” Bassett-Dilley says the number emphasizes the need for sustainability to become a part of the local conversation on building and remodeling.

Tom Bassett-Dilley

In the case of his own older home in Oak Park, Bassett-Dilley says he’s very close to his de-carbonization goals. The gas line is gone; he’s added solar panels and new insulation; the house is heated and cooled with mini-splits; the traditional hot water heater was replaced with a heat pump; the traditional clothes dryer replaced with a condenser model; and the family is cooking with induction.

These changes don’t come cheaply, but it was worth taking out a loan to make the changes. For the cost of a couple hundred dollars month, he says, “It’s a totally different house. It’s set up for the next 100 years.”

Architect Tom Bassett-Dilley has been working on retrofitting Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oscar Balch House in Oak Park to make the home more sustainable, and lower its emissions. (Provided)

In his case and for many local homeowners, Bassett-Dilley says it makes sense to look at all home renovations through a sustainability lens. For instance, his traditional hot water heater was dead. It made sense to replace it with a heat pump rather than a gas model. He says decisions like this can go a long way to helping older homes cut their use of fossil fuels.

He also stresses that with sustainability, there is a big equity issue to consider and says, “We need to do this work for everybody at all income levels.”

The time to act is now: he calls the focus needed a “war-time effort.” For those needing assistance to fund changes to their homes, he points to the village’s sustainability fund which offers matching grants of up to 50% of costs, up to $10,000.

Intended to help lower-income residents pay for installing insulation, energy-efficient lighting, water heaters, high-efficiency showerheads and faucets, air leak sealing, thermostats and solar panels, the grants can also cover installation of upgraded heating, venting and air conditioning.

The grants are funded by the village’s Sustainability Fund, funded in part by waste hauling fees, electricity aggregation monies and the mandatory single-use bag fee enacted in 2018 to encourage adoption of reusable bags.

Bassett-Dilley says that creating homes and buildings that are less reliant on fossil fuels is a large goal of CAN and a big step towards the village combatting emissions. One way to aid in this would be to attach a Home Energy Rating System or HERS score to a home when it hits the market. 

Bassett-Dilley says that such information, would help people “know how it’s going to feel and how much it will cost to pay the utilities,” in a home.

Knowledge can be power, and Bassett-Dilley says a big fear is the flippers so active in renovating homes in Oak Park. He notes that the newly renovated houses might look pretty but if they weren’t renovated sustainably, they could still require a huge output of fossil fuels to feel comfortable. 

At the end of the day, he says the point is to replace fossil fuel with electrification because we can make clean electricity but we can’t create more fossil fuels.

Bassett-Dilley admits that he toggles between doom and hope when it comes to combatting climate change at the local level but says he’s really excited to see the village sustainability plan come out. He points locals towards the website: www.sustainoakpark.com and says of the movement, “I think we’ll see this keep growing. We need to take action. That’s the bottom line.”

How to make your home more sustainable

Tom Basset-Dilley says one of the more important first steps to checking your home’s emissions is to get an in-depth energy audit. Such an audit will give you a big picture of the state of your home and provide payback periods to let you know how quickly improvements will start to pay off.  He also recommends Paul Hawken’s book, Drawdown, which details global and regional steps to curb carbon emissions. 

On a micro-level, Basset-Dilley recommends that with any remodeling project even the smallest changes can be made with sustainability in mind.

Sustainability tips for your home

  •  Solar panels
  •  Composting
  •  LED lighting sources
  •  Repurpose greywater
  •  Energy-efficient appliances
  •  Low or no VOC paints
  •  Double-glazed windows
  •  Low-flush toilets
  •  Add insulation
  •  Replace gas-fueled appliances with electricity-fueled models

— Lacey Sikora

Rising sea levels must change architecture, says Oak Park native 

Weston Wright, a practicing architect in Boston, has written a new book titled, More Water Less Land New Architecture.  The book covers architecture, sea level rise, and the future of coastal urbanism and includes contributions from six world renowned architects, urbanists, and academicians.

Born in Oak Park, Wright grew up in the architectural milieu of his father, Chicago architect Rodney Wright, who practiced in his South Maple Avenue basement when the family lived in Oak Park in the late 1950s. Wright cites his time in his father’s studio as an important influence and points out that his father was an early proponent of passive-solar concepts and sustainable architecture. In 1980, his father’s firm the Hawkweed Group published a book titled The Hawkweed Passive Solar House Book.

According to Wright, climate change makes the exploration of new types of architecture a necessity, and he states, “Since scientists remain unsure of the rate, scale, and extent of a water’s rise, not to mention, an abrupt change that could occur from ice melt, there is a need to explore a coastal settlement’s options. Absent a timely exploration of a more resilient architecture, and built environment, our lone option becomes a mass migration inland.”

 Eventually, sea level rise will subtract, reconfigure, and split apart an existing coastal or riverine settlement’s footprint from permanent flooding. The book discusses a range of resiliency practices spanning from the Neolithic Age to current thought, the challenges that are likely to arise from flooding, and introduces a solution that could mitigate retreat, abandonment, and provide an opportunity to broaden the landscape of what had heretofore delineated a coastal settlement’s habitable context. The idea for a solution—a response to sea level rise—constitutes a new type of architecture and built environment; it could essentially be thought of, as a next-generation coastal architecture.  

Wright’s book is available from the German-Swedish publisher AADR at: https://aadr.info/product/more-water-less-land-new-architecture-available-from-april-2022/

— Lacey Sikora

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