Green Architecture & the Future of Ecological Design


Interview with Tom Bassett-Dilley by Cassandra West.  Oak Park architect Tom Bassett-Dilley embraces a vision that includes historic preservation and a modern interpretation of Frank Lloyd Wright’s love of art, space and light. Tom is president of Tom Bassett-Dilley Architect, Ltd., at 301 Harrison St. Tom designed Oak Park’s first passive home, which uses modern materials and rigorous design standards to create a thermal envelope so tight that no gas furnace is needed. Q. What are the benefits of living in a house like the one you designed on South Clinton?

A. The benefits of having a house like that are comfort, reduced energy costs and really good indoor air quality. When you build an airtight house, you get really good air quality because you’re always exhausting the stale air and bringing in fresh air.

Q. How do you work with owners of older homes, like those you see here in Oak Park, to make them more energy efficient?

A. I recommend clients go to an energy auditor to get an objective data driven assessment of the energy diet of the house. Then you can figure out where to go first. Almost always the list for old houses includes air seal, insulate and then start upgrading efficiencies of mechanical equipment and then possibly replacing windows and doors. How far that gets taken is partly the question of the construction and the condition of the house is. If you want to get to the highest level of energy performance, of course, you have to deal with your heating energy first because that’s the biggest slice of the energy diet.

Q. You consider yourself a green architect. What does that mean?

A. To me it’s a broad look at ecology. It involves a lot of things—energy efficiency, environmental health, both inside a building and outside. How the decisions about placing and designing the building affect the landscape and the interior environment; interior air quality and the health inside; non-toxic materials; local materials; recycled materials. All of these many decisions that go into a building add up to more than a carbon footprint. ... To me, it’s a tension between striving for the perfect scenario and pushing the industry to try to get those materials and construction processes available that we can really stand behind ecologically and at the same time actually getting things built that are affordable and sensible.

Q. Since you started thinking green, have you seen a shift in the general population’s thinking toward green living?

A. Oh, yes. When I got interested architecture in 1979 and there were two books I got from the library that turned me on to no end. One was a book by Frank Lloyd Wright and it was full of gorgeous buildings that were just in love with art and space and light. ...The other book was Ed Mazria’s passive solar energy book. He’s still a leader in the environmental movement. The idea that a building should be integrated with its site and ecologically mindful was part of my mindset from the beginning. It really wasn’t until after Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” [movie] that people really started asking for it more. We were always trying to bring these things into our projects. The passive house movement that I’m a part of really started in the 1970s here in Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. It was the oil crisis that kicked us into high gear. That focus moved to Europe and it became the passive house movement.

Q. What do you think it will take to move us to the next level?

A. More good, built examples. I’m very proud of that house on Clinton because when you look at new construction in an old neighborhood you often have to be sensitive to the character of the neighborhood. Having a building that has a lot of character that’s drawn from its place is really the idea.  Also, I think successful examples of design that also perform extremely well and also aren’t more expensive than a conventional house when you look at the cost of ownership.

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You can find out more about Tom Bassett-Dilley Architect, Ltd at

Cassandra West is the founding editor of, a blog of news and views on how urban agriculture is taking root and transforming lives in the Chicago area.  Cassandra is a resident of Oak Park and can be contacted at