City planning

In a high-rise home, it pays to prepare for building restrictions, parking crunches and permit pickiness.

May 31, 2003


Related Information
The Financials
Before & After Floor Plans
Time Line and Payment Schedule

Based just outside Chicago in Evanston, Ill., Benvenuti and Stein Inc. works mainly northward, remodeling homes in the North Shore suburbs. But when Roger and Debbie Adams hired the design/build/cabinetry company to remodel their 6,000-square-foot, two-story apartment, Benvenuti and Stein headed south to the heart of the Windy City. Negotiating this territory presented an obstacle course of urban challenges. With an urban remodeling road map pinned to the dashboard and all eyes focused on the road, the company came through with only a few dents and scratches.


The narrow side of the L-shaped kitchen houses wine cases. The wider one contains the main work space and ends with an angled, granite-top counter where children can eat or do homework. Custom cherry cabinets have applied molding for a vintage look. Porcelain floor tiles are laid on a 45-degree angle to counterbalance the roomÆs linear character and accommodate the tiled areaÆs irregular shape. Range: Viking. Range hood: Vent-A-Hood. Refrigerator and microwave: General Electric. Dishwashers: Miele.

The Adamses, who asked that their real name not be used, were buying an outdated but luxurious apartment on the ninth and 10th floors of a 14-story, 17-unit, 1920s building and planned to remodel it for their family of four. Like most homeowners, they asked friends for names of designers and remodelers. "We kept hearing the same story about architects and general contractors coming at odds, blaming each other and putting the homeowner in the middle," Debbie Adams says. Then she talked to a former Benvenuti and Stein client who, she says, "sang the praises" of the company and its design/build/cabinetmaker concept. Adams called the company, and Geno Benvenuti met with the homeowners in November 2001.

After such a strong client reference, Benvenuti says the homeowners were sold on his company before he met them. He used the initial meeting "to confirm that they had made the right decision. I explained how we work and made sure they felt comfortable with the process."

While the never-renovated apartment retained beautiful original detailing, portions of the floor plan were unworkable for a modern family. The Adamses planned to replace the small kitchen and three servants' bedrooms on the lower level with an open kitchen, a breakfast area and a family room. They also wanted to reconfigure some upstairs rooms into a master suite, install air conditioning throughout the unit and make a few other upgrades.

During the initial meeting, the Adamses gave Benvenuti a retainer to proceed with the preliminary design and budgeting phase. Their homework was to fill out kitchen, family room and bedroom planning questionnaires, which can be found at under Resources.

Benvenuti immediately put together a project team. He chose project architect Jeff Herberholz because he lives nearby and is comfortable working with busy executive clients. Although project manager Bob Zeivel had run only four downtown jobs in his eight years with the company, Benvenuti tapped him for the Adams project because of his skill handling large, complicated jobs. Zeivel, in turn, selected project foreman Bill Bell because among the company's seven foremen he had the most experience on downtown jobs. Besides, says Zeivel, Bell lives in a nearby suburb, reducing time-wasting commute.


"Before" picture of kitchen.

Knowing the rules

Closing on the apartment purchase was not until February 2002, but the Adamses were eager to move ahead with remodeling plans to ensure that they could occupy the completed space by November 2002. Herberholz met with them several times during November and December 2001 to settle on a basic floor plan. Meanwhile, Zeivel talked with the building manager to get educated on all the building restrictions that could affect the production schedule and budget. There were quite a few — including work months (no construction allowed from Nov. 15 to Jan. 1, when unit owners were enjoying the holidays); work hours (8 a.m. to 4 p.m., strictly enforced); parking (none on the property for workers); demolition noise (no rotary hammers); sound control (acoustical underlayment required in floors directly over other units); wall framing (had to be fire-retardant); plumbing rehabilitation (owners potentially responsible for replacing old risers from bottom to top of unit); dust (you create dust in other units, you pay to clean it up); and approvals (design approval required from the building's consulting architect and the co-op's board of directors). The preliminary budget reflected all of this.


The cherry kitchen cabinetry is echoed in the trim pieces on the stairs and in the breakfast area. Columns mark the entry to the new family room. To fit the apartmentÆs elegant formal living spaces, Jeff Herberholz delivered a touch of class with Ionic columns from HB&G and a coffered ceiling, which also helps cover the air-conditioning ducts.

Zeivel also asked for a list of recommended subcontractors who had worked on the building. He solicited bids from many of them and hired all subs for the job from that list. Zeivel paid close attention to their bids when developing his preliminary budget. "It was an advantage to us to price the job based on their experience and level of knowledge of working in the city," he says. The budget even included an allowance for plumbing riser replacement drawn from the plumbing sub's general knowledge of the building. That ballpark estimate turned out to be close to the mark.

After the Adamses accepted the basic space plan Dec. 5, Herberholz fleshed it out with product selections and specifications for Benvenuti's shop to follow when crafting cabinets for the kitchen and master suite. The building's consulting architect reviewed the plans to make sure the remodeling would not compromise the integrity of the historic building. Because no windows would be affected and the main living spaces were carefully preserved, Herberholz expected easy approval. After three weeks of review, the architect approved the plans and sent them to the co-op board. Two weeks later, the board approved them. Periodically during construction the consulting architect and building manager came through for additional checks to make sure the work was being done according to plan.


Herberholz turned the back stairway, once a skeletal steel staircase for servants, into comfortable, contemporary stairs that the family uses all the time. The staircase features cherry-capped balusters that were custom-designed and forged by Wilson Railing and Metal Fabricating and cherry panels to match the kitchen cabinetry.

While the initial approval process ran its course, Zeivel worked on a parallel track. Chicago's permit process is notorious, so Zeivel hired a permit expediter. Good thing he did, because a problem emerged. Part of the building's driveway is shared by the building next door. The city would not issue a permit until a platted survey was produced. Zeivel says Benvenuti and Stein was the fifth general contractor to work in the building but the first to hit this snag. The expediter knew exactly why: A new, tougher administration had taken over the permit office in the past year. Earning his $3,900 fee, the expediter made sure a plat was produced and moved the paperwork along. The permit was approved in three weeks, on March 24. Without the expediter, Zeivel says, getting a permit "probably would have taken twice as long to do internally and cost more."

Clock watching


Referring to pictures of mantels the Adamses liked, Herberholz designed a new mantel to fit over the cast-iron surround and preserve existing paneling. The Benvenuti and Stein shop built the mantel, and Bill Bell installed it, as well as new wiring and air conditioning. Neither the woodwork nor the original gold leaf paint was compromised.

Benvenuti and Stein project foremen draft production schedules for review by project managers. Bell says the job ran pretty much on schedule, with the biggest problem being the scarce parking. It was tough enough for workers to get to the neighborhood because trucks are barred from the main highway into the area. "There was no easy way," says Bell, whose own trip through city streets took 45 minutes, twice as long as the highway drive. Street parking in the neighborhood is almost impossible to find around 8 a.m., especially on street-cleaning days, when half the spots are off-limits. Few public parking lots are nearby.

Bell solved the problem by instructing workers to arrive at 7:15 or 7:30, even though they weren't allowed in the building until 8. "If they tried for a parking spot at 8, they would spend 45 minutes driving around," he says, but if they arrived a half-hour earlier, they could slip into curbside spots being vacated by residents leaving for work. Bell told them to go get coffee and then report in at 8.

Theft was another problem on the street. Although the neighborhood is affluent, a lot of traffic passes through the area. The electrician's truck was broken into twice while parked on the street. He lost a light fixture and tools.

Occasionally Bell's diplomacy eased the parking crunch. Although only residents were allowed to park in the building lot, the doorman let Bell's contractors park there for short stays.


Upstairs, the east-facing rooms were reconfigured to create a master bedroom/sitting room/two-bath suite with Lake Michigan views. The sitting room doubles as a dressing area for Roger Adams. Benvenuti and SteinÆs shop made cabinetry containing rods and drawers for Adams' clothes, plus a central entertainment center.

With two other jobs going on in the building, Bell soon learned it was important to make arrangements with the building manager to get the service elevator. Bell not only had to reserve the elevator, he also had to measure it. When Bell brought in a 12-foot trim piece, for instance, the building manager took the trap door off the elevator's 10-foot ceiling to fit it in. But Bell had to carry a longer piece of crown molding up the fire escape — after making arrangements with the building manager, of course. During the cabinetmaking process, Benvenuti cabinet shop manager Brad Ard called ahead to let Bell know about the largest cabinets. One cabinet fit through the elevator doorway with an eighth of an inch to spare. For a larger unit, Bell took a template of the cabinet and moved through the building, making all the turns, to determine if it would have to be delivered in smaller pieces. It squeaked through.

Because all the subs were chosen from the building's list, Bell wasn't able to work with all his regular subs, but the new subs were fine — with one exception. Bell butted heads with the HVAC contractor, although he was careful to shield the Adamses from the problem. Bell says the sub was juggling too many jobs, so he "would do the very minimum he could, then take off." This delayed completion of the air-conditioning ductwork in the kitchen ceiling and consequently the ceiling drywall work as well. "It caused me to change path a couple of times to keep work flowing," Bell says. "I ended up putting in some of the ductwork myself. We back-charged the contractor for my time."

The only major change order on the job came when the Adamses decided to shift the master suite from the back of the apartment to the front. By that time the framing and drywall sub already had framed the new space in the back. Rather than call the framer back at subcontractor rates and on a potentially schedule-busting return date, Bell and a few Benvenuti and Stein carpenters framed the new space themselves.

Keeping the neighbors happy


Herberholz tucked twin lavs along one wall of the master bath, using a Benvenuti-made bench cabinet in the extended deck of the whirlpool tub for extra storage. The marble bench and countertops, mosaic floor tile and vintage light fixture from Brass Light Gallery reflect the apartmentÆs classic elegance. Sinks: Kohler. Tub: Pearl.

With three apartments under construction, dust was flying in the building. Bell sealed the Adams unit, but some dust from the three construction sites naturally was sucked into the open elevator and the service shafts. Twice the owner of the unit over the Adamses' complained of dust. Bell's good relationship with the building manager did not prevent Benvenuti and Stein from getting socked with both cleanup bills, even though the second complaint came when drywall sanding was being done in one of the other units. Zeivel paid the bill without complaining, on the theory that bills for other cleaning charges were being parceled out to the two other jobs. "Part of this was covered by money that was budgeted for cleanup after job completion," Zeivel adds.

Despite permit delays, the relocation of the master suite and add-ons such as a decision to refinish all the hardwood floors, the job took about six months, just as Benvenuti had promised. The floors were finished Nov. 26, 2002, and the Adamses moved in the week after Thanksgiving.

Nov. 26? What was the company doing in there after the Nov. 15 construction cutoff? "The building said we could run late," Debbie Adams says. She attributes this clemency "to the driveway issue." But after being cooperative and diplomatic for all those months, maybe the Benvenuti and Stein team had earned a good turn, city-style.

About the Author

Overlay Init