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Net Zero Buildings Help Create Sustainable Communities

Oct 29, 2021 ● By Carrie Jackson
Adlai E. Stevenson High School Addition

Adlai E. Stevenson High School Addition Photo credit Connor Steinkamp

When the Illinois Green Alliance (IGA) held their annual Limelight award ceremony last month at Chicago’s Willis Tower, there was a notable shift in the focus of the winners. The Emerald Awards, which the mission-based nonprofit launched in 2008 to provide recognition to organizations, people, buildings and technologies with outstanding green achievements, this year added a 2021 Path to Zero Trailblazers category. Brian Imus, executive director of the IGA, which works to promote green buildings and sustainable communities, says, “We are really seeing a sense of urgency around climate change and more people, not just building professionals, are starting to pay attention to net zero design.”

This focus on net zero building techniques echoes a nationwide shift in design and building of public spaces that the IGA believes is a key factor in slowing climate change. What is notable is that net zero architecture has turned its attention to public spaces, with new designs implemented across the urban and suburban Chicago area.

Tom Bassett-Dilley Photo credit Marcela Rafea Photography

One of this year’s IGA honorees is Oak Park architect Tom Bassett-Dilley, who founded Tom Bassett-Dilley Architects in 2006 to help clients build healthy, beautiful buildings and incorporate sustainability into contemporary design. His decades-long passion for making a positive impact on the environment is reflected in his passive house technology and zero energy buildings. “A net zero building produces as least as much energy as it uses annually, starting with conservation and using onsite renewable energy sources to offset energy use. The goal is that these buildings contribute minimal greenhouse gas to the atmosphere during construction and operations, and are more harmonious with the natural environment,” Bassett-Dilley explains.

There are resources available for organizations that want their programs to be geared toward preserving open spaces and prioritizing efficiency and clean energy. The Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation (ICECF), another 2021 Emerald Award honoree, is a nonprofit that provides financial and other support for clean energy investments in Illinois. Their Net Zero Energy Building program awards grants to nonprofit organizations, schools, municipalities and other local government agencies for new construction or to retrofit projects that achieve net zero energy performance, demonstrating that these goals are realistic and achievable. Gabriela Martin, the foundation’s energy program director, says that while a structure might look environmentally friendly on paper, the actual building performance data often tells a different story. “In the building sector, there has not been much accountability for building performance, and energy is something people don’t think about, but buildings are huge contributors to greenhouse gas emissions,” she explains.

Lois Vitt Sale, senior vice president and chief sustainability officer at Wight & Company, a Chicago-based architecture firm dedicated to sustainable design and implementation, has served for decades as a national leader in the application of private and commercial green technologies and sustainable planning to the public and private sectors. She explains, “LEED-certified buildings gained traction in the marketplace in the early 2000s. The first properties to embrace net zero buildings were primarily in the public sector, such as schools, police stations and park districts.”

Wight & Company is the district architect and designer behind the new addition at Lincolnshire’s Adlai E. Stevenson High School, which received a grant for a net zero addition through Illinois Clean Energy. The addition addresses growing enrollment and provides new learning environments aligned with the school’s education model. It includes rooftop teaching spaces to support biology and botany, food produced in exterior gardens and a greenhouse for a farm-to-table approach. This is the first verified net zero building in Illinois.

Environmental justice and equity are gaining growing attention from many green programs, especially in public spaces. “So often it’s marginalized communities that are most impacted by the effects of climate change. For example, coal plants are disproportionately in communities of color, and they are breathing in harmful pollution. Reducing carbon pollution throughout the state would benefit these communities the most,” says Imus.

Environmentally friendly resources can be more accessible and lower cost than people think. Vitt Sale explains that talking directly with an energy provider is one easy way to make sound choices. “Clean energy is not necessarily more expensive than dirty energy, but you do have to ask for it,” she cautions.

While net zero is the goal, every chance to make a building more efficient helps. Bassett-Dilley says it starts with sound construction. “High-quality insulation and air sealing can cut energy use by 50 percent, and a proper ventilation system that removes contaminated air improves the health of occupants. When old appliances are ready to be replaced, that’s when you switch to energy-efficient options. We often chart a path to low or zero energy use for clients with the understanding it doesn’t all have to be done at once,” he explains.

The ICECF’s Martin adds that monitoring how a building is functioning on an ongoing basis is key to energy efficiency. “If a piece of equipment or a sensor isn’t working, promptly addressing the issue will keep a building operating like it should,” she notes.

Net zero construction not only is more sustainable and environmentally friendly, but it is healthier, safer and more resilient for everyone in the long run. “When we invest in buildings to make them more energy-efficient, they become healthier spaces to live and work in,” says Imus. Improving the atmosphere indoors has a direct impact on the overall environment.

“The more our society can holistically understand that net zero buildings contribute to healthier natural systems, the more resilient our whole ecosystem will be,” says Vitt Sale.


Carrie Jackson is an Evanston-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Natural Awakenings Chicago magazine. Connect at


The Illinois Green Alliance (IGA) 2021 Limelight Reception held October 7 at the Willis Tower, in Chicago, centered on the nonprofit’s mission of creating healthy buildings and spaces to live and work in through best practices for energy efficiency and zero carbon design. “Limelight is an opportunity to recognize professionals who are taking meaningful initiatives to advance net zero buildings and hopefully inspire others to get involved and give back,” says Brian Imus, executive director at IGA.

The evening served as the launch of IGA’s Net Zero Honor Roll and Watch List, a new initiative to raise awareness to the buildings achieving the highest level of green building certifications around net zero energy, carbon, water and waste. Adlai E. Stevenson High School, in Lincolnshire, and Method Product’s manufacturing facility on the South Side of Chicago were the first to make that list.

The evening also honored two Emerald Award recipients for their ongoing efforts to mainstream net zero buildings in Illinois. Architect Tom Bassett-Dilley, who was awarded for his personal and professional commitment to addressing climate change through passive house technology and net zero building design, says that the award is a true honor. “I’m deeply into this for personal and ethical reasons, and it’s exciting to be around others in the community who share a passion for sustainability.”

The other award went to the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation (ICECF), which has a mission to promote energy efficiency, renewable energy and preservation of natural areas. “We’re thrilled because when we first started to do this work, we felt alone, but now we have a wonderful community that keeps growing and inspiring each other to do more,” says ICECF Program Director for Energy Gabriela Martin.


Rockford’s annual GreenTown Conference, to be held November 12, produced by Seven Generations Ahead (SGA), addresses how climate change and equity go hand-in-hand.  “GreenTown’s goal this year is to support the broader Rockford area with models for planning and implementation that create equitable sustainability in the areas of energy, transportation, waste reduction, food, community development and preserving the natural environment. We’ll showcase several programs and case examples that will help the region move toward reduced energy consumption and the development of a renewable energy economy, including policies, grant funding and models for creating net zero energy buildings,” says Gary Cuneen, SGA founder and executive IGA.