Plenty of Oak Park’s historic homes are in need of a face-lift when they are sold. Trends in kitchens, bathrooms and paint colors come and go, and most new owners like to put their own spin on a house.

A house on Fair Oaks Avenue in Oak Park took the lift in a completely different direction recently.

Workers from Heritage Movers spent much of the afternoon on May 2 lifting the circa-1898 home several feet off the ground in preparation for installing a deeper basement. 

General contractor Tom Sundling, of Thomas Patrick Homes, said that Heritage Movers came from Wisconsin to do the job.

“There aren’t just house movers working in every suburb,” Sundling said.

Sundling explains that its fairly unusual to lift a house in order to excavate a taller basement. 

Tom Sundling of Thomas Patrick Homes and lead contractor stands under the raised house at 509 Fair Oaks Ave. on May 3. | Todd A. Bannor

“Many times, when a homeowner wants a deeper basement, we dig down beneath the existing floor, but this foundation wasn’t strong enough for that,” he said. “I thought, why don’t we lift it up to the height we need?”

Heritage installed two steel beams underneath the house and six crossbeams to support the house. These lay across four cribs constructed of wood, which were placed in holes dug to the depth of the new basement floor. Hydraulic jacks were used to lift the home 39 inches.

Once Nicor disconnects the gas line, a new concrete foundation will be poured and then the house will be lowered back down. Sundling states that the house will come back down to the exact same height.

“You won’t know the difference from the street,” he said. “It will just be deeper.” 

It helps that the new owner of 509 Fair Oaks Ave. planned a complete rehabilitation of the home so most of the interior, including plaster walls, have been removed. Sundling says having the inside of the home already demolished removes a lot of the structural rigidity, making it easier to lift without damage.

“The remodel happens after the house comes down,” Sundling said.

For the interior remodel, the homeowner turned to Oak Park architect Tom Basset-Dilley. With project manager Denny Burke, Basset-Dilley is working to retrofit the house to make it a passive house. 

Burke says it’s the oldest property the firm has done a passive-house retrofit on, and said the homeowner wanted to see if they could maintain many of the historic aspects of the home while “taking it to a level of energy efficiency that we all need to aspire to.”

The firm ran an energy model and discovered that retrofitting the house to make it a passive house was possible with a few tweaks to their usual operations. 

Typically, they are able to work with a home’s existing foundation but because of the condition of the original foundation, traditional underpinnings wouldn’t work. Combined with the homeowner’s desire for a taller basement, they determined lifting the house to pour a new foundation made the most sense.

“The home had a bunch of challenges to navigate, but when faced with those challenges, we were able to uncover new methods of insulation which will become part of our lexicon in the future,” Burke said.

A typical passive house project involves spray-foam insulation, but in this house, they are moving away from complete reliance on that petroleum-based product and instead are combining a smaller portion of spray foam for rigidity with cellulose insulation. The combination will be added to a new wall system built within the house’s original frame.

Burke notes that the wall thickness will increase from roughly 3.5 inches to 8 inches in this process, which he says is basically building a new house inside of an old house. The house will lose a bit of square footage on the inside, but with this method, they are able to maintain its historic exterior.

The plan is to salvage the existing siding on the home. New windows will have to be installed to meet passive-house standards, but all of the original art glass will be salvaged and reinstalled on the interior of the house. 

Burke remarks that balancing the desires of the homeowner, passive-house standards and the guidelines of the Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission could be seen as a challenge, but he calls the ability to be able to make a historic home a passive house a wonderful learning process.

He notes that the practices they are using could help the owners of other historic homes make their homes more efficient.

“You don’t necessarily have to lift your house to do this,” Burke said.

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