They could have felt like Sisyphus if they'd let themselves. “There were times when things were very tense,” says Michael Menn, architect and principal of Design Construction Concepts, Northbrook, Ill. “The subs were [annoyed], we were being strung out on payments, things were being built and installed and then two weeks later eliminated and eventually added back in — in another location. It was frustrating.” But Menn and Andy Poticha, DCC co-owner and project manager on this job, kept on an even keel throughout the nearly two-year remodel of a farm-style house in Chicago.
The circa-1860 home had been moved to its current location, about two miles from the city center, after the Chicago fire. Flash forward to the 21st century and a fairly neglected house in a rundown neighborhood in transition. An older couple with grown children moves to Chicago, buys the house, and hires DCC to remodel it. The original project's scope includes a total gut of the existing 3,000 square feet, a major overhaul of the electrical and the HVAC systems, and a 3,500-square-foot addition to the three-story house. The addition's second floor includes a family room, a large master bedroom, and two guest bedrooms. Three children's bedrooms would be on the third floor. The owners also want to maintain the relationship between the location of the entry and the living room and dining room, and they don't want any outlets for cable on the second floor since they don't watch television.
Four months into the estimated $400,000 remodel the couple decides to sell the home and leave Chicago.
Full stop, the design had to change. “This was the vanilla period,” Menn says. “We knew a buyer wouldn't want the ‘client-specific' finishes. So we stripped down the original design and made it universal.” This meant “dumbing down” the finishes, installing carpet in lieu of hardwood flooring, lesser quality cabinetry and plumbing fixtures, solid-surface counters instead of stone, and ceiling fixtures in lieu of the 125 scheduled recessed can lights throughout the house. The only major design change was the elimination of the exterior decks off the third floor bedrooms and possibly eliminating the deck off the original second floor family room. The HVAC and electrical overhaul were put on hold when the move was announced.
During this time, Menn and Poticha worried about cash flow and leaving the subs in a lurch. The owners had paid DCC for the work that had been done but were withholding further payments until there was a buyer. Says electrician Harold Kabb, owner of K&K Electric, who stuck with the project from start to finish, “I was paid on a prorated basis and wasn't worried because I had been paid for the work I had done.”
DCC pays its subcontractors monthly. “Our trades bill us by the end of each month for the work completed during that month. We bill the client monthly adding in our prorated portion and pay each trade or vendor on the 16th of each month,” Poticha says. “Everyone is happy because they are being paid within 16 days, not 30 or 60.”
Because DCC uses percentage of completion accounting, Menn and Poticha were able to accurately calculate expenses and ascertain what was owed to every trade and supplier. The leftover balance from the original contract to finish the job as originally designed would become the beginning contract price for the new buyer.
Menn says they had open communication with their trades and suppliers, keeping them in the loop from the moment DCC learned of the home's sale. Perhaps, says Menn, after the fact, “I might not have allowed [the trades] to go so far. They all got paid in each phase, but maybe I would have told some to pull back. But they wanted to keep working, too.”
About a month into the vanilla period, Molly and Patrick Shutt came along. The Shutts, who owned a loft nearby, were a younger couple with a toddler and a baby on the way. “We used to walk by and call it the jungle,” Molly says. “It was so overrun. Then someone started working on it. And then about six months later it came on the market.” The Shutts were looking for a house in the suburbs, but when they saw this house says Molly, “We said we're not going. We found our suburban house in the city.”
During sales negotiations, Poticha found himself in the nervous position of helping to sell the house. Menn jokes that he and Poticha came with the deal, yet they knew that buyers might not want DCC's services.
But the Shutts did want both the house and DCC, which then treated the buyers as a new client and a new job. But instead of a separate design contract, “we built the design fees into our new contract,” says Menn, who earmarked the new $6,500 design fees as a line item as part of the construction this time.
“The scope did not change tremendously,” Menn says. The new budget was now “$398,000 to finish it up — the balance of the original budget plus their own finishes and some minor changes to the design,” he says. The Shutts wanted to slightly modify the floor plan, as well as create an au pair's room and a bathroom in a finished basement, which meant digging it down, and adding a three-car garage (and demolishing the existing tumble-down two-car garage). The decision on the garage and on some of the interior particulars and finishes came in the form of change orders as the project progressed. In the end, the project bulked up to $650,000.
On the first floor some of the changes included reworking the central stairs and configuring them in the transition space between the new and old. This opened up circulation and divided the home into formal and informal areas. In the first plan, the garage could be accessed directly from a door in the kitchen. Molly and Menn decided that access should take place through a mud room even though the garage was detached.
Plan number one also had the dining room next to, but walled-off from, the kitchen in the addition. The Shutts wanted that area as a family room (which meant taking down the newly built wall) with a fireplace and television. They located the dining room across the entry in the formal part of the home. The HVAC, plumbing, and electrical overhauls were put back in the plan.
It was important to the Shutts to have access to the side yard off the kitchen. To that end, DCC built an expanded porch on the first floor and a deck off the second floor, which were smaller in the first plan.
The original owners had their family room on the second floor. The Shutts redesigned this as an office/study with access to the deck. DCC recommended adding a fireplace and built-in bookcases and desks, which the clients accepted.
Also on the second floor is the master bedroom with an octagonal tray ceiling that was an added design element that Menn created for the Shutts. Poticha relocated the fireplace — the only thing left from the original home — from the family room to the master bedroom.
Kabb says that on the second floor, new conduits for electrical had to be installed in areas that were pretty far along in construction; and the house needed a larger electrical service. Many of the planned bathrooms were redesigned because of the Shutt's requirements, so the rough-in plumbing had to be removed and reworked.
Despite design changes, DCC, with the help of Molly and an outside interior designer, was able — through molding, finishes, and attention to details — to keep the charm and look of a grand home of the latter half of the 19th century.
From the subs' perspective, Kabb says, having the project play out this way was annoying for the employees. “Even though they were getting paid, their psyche is saying ‘I don't want to do this again and again.'” Kabb says he treated the Shutt project as a separate job. “We stopped, and I re-bid the job based on what work I had to remove as well as what had to go in. DCC was pretty thorough about what had to go out and in. There weren't any surprises along the way.” Kabb was able to fit the job into his schedule as were most, but not all, of DCC's subcontractors.
Despite any difficulties, everyone wanted to stick with the job. “It was an enjoyable experience,” Poticha says. “The two clients were both nice. I have fond memories of the project.” He had no problem building, tearing down, and rebuilding the same thing. Where a tradesman might get frustrated with his craft, Poticha says, “It's not about me. It's about my client. If they want me to tear it down 10 times and rebuild it, I will.”
“Interim with changes” are the first client's plans along with the changes — annotated in red —requested by the Shutts, who bought the home mid-remodel. “After” plans show those changes that were incorporated. During the “vanilla period,” there was no formal plan. DCC architect and owner Michael Menn sketched plans on-the-fly to create a design that would satisfy a generic home buyer.