Even now, more than a year after he completed the Blomberg project, Scott SimpsonÆs face lights up when he talks about it.
ôEverything just clicked from the first time we all met,ö says Simpson, president of Scott Simpson Builders in Northbrook, Ill. He attributes some of that instant rapport to the fact that this was not the first construction project clients Jim and Sue Blomberg had undertaken, so they already knew what to expect. And Simpson had already worked with the architect, Steve Knutson of Stephen R. Knutson, Architects (Evanston, Ill.) on several projects. In fact, Simpson referred the Blombergs to Knutson in the first place, after the Blombergs had found Simpson through a referral from neighbors for whom he had done work.
Founded in 1992, SSB is owned and run by Scott Simpson and his wife, Stacy. SSBÆs location puts it in the vicinity of some of the grandest old houses in the Chicago area: the upscale North Shore suburbs, which were largely developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Project budgets range from $100,000 to $1 million, and with few exceptions (the Blomberg project is one), all involve an addition of some kind.
Finding dream clients such as the Blombergs certainly is the payoff for knowing your niche and building a good referral base, but luck and intuition play big roles, says Stacy Simpson. ôScott, who does our sales work, usually goes by gut instinct,ö she explains. ôWeÆve learned the hard way that if someone just doesnÆt æfeelÆ right during discussions or even up to signing the contract, itÆs better to just say, æThis wonÆt work,Æ and end it right there. You canÆt work with someone without mutual trust.ö
The design for the rebuilt portico was based on the original drawings by Phillip Mayer, the prominent Chicago architect who designed the house. Some of the stones used in the reconstruction are from the original portico and were found around the property.
The Blomberg project started out in July 1999 as what Scott Simpson calls ôa pretty significant jobö but nothing dramatic. The clients had just bought the 1924 French Renaissance villa and were planning to move into it with their four children, who ranged in age from 5 to 12. The three-story house, located a few blocks from Lake Michigan in Wilmette, Ill., was the right size for the family ù approximately 10,000 square feet ù and had a good basic floor plan. ôThe house rambles and rambles,ö Simpson says. ôThere was no need to expand it. It just needed to be updated.ö
While the Blombergs were interested in restoring their house to as close to its original beauty as possible, they also wanted it to function well for their active family and friends, whom they frequently entertain. The new owners wanted to update the interior cosmetically and completely remodel and enlarge the kitchen, which was typical of the neighborhoodÆs large houses built in the first quarter of the 20th century: small and generally used only by housekeepers or cooks. This house had been built with what was at the time state-of-the-art technology, such as servant call buttons in every room.
The remodeled kitchen has two dishwashers, granite countertops, a marble pastry table and a marble floor. Other new features include refrigerated drawers in the island, an eating area and a butlerÆs pantry with a wet bar.
The project evolved while it was in progress, with one ôphaseö immediately following another. The original price of $314,500 was for the first stage: remodeling the kitchen, the breakfast room, a second-floor bedroom, the master bathroom and other smaller renovations. ôWe knew there would be more to come,ö Simpson says. ôWe just didnÆt know what it was.ö
By the end of the 14-month project, that ôwhatö turned out to be 20 change orders. These changes included repairing or replacing the 150 windows and French doors in the house; repairing plaster, masonry, roof and copper gutters around the entire exterior; transforming an old furnace room into an exercise room; and adding a bedroom and bathroom on the third floor. The price of the job more than tripled to $961,000.
Striking the right notes
A lot of that money went behind the walls to update the houseÆs infrastructure: plumbing, heating and electrical. Simpson ran across a system of brass pipes running through the house. It took him awhile to figure out what they were: part of a no-longer-working central vacuum system installed when the house was built. ôIt was probably one of the first ones,ö he says. Rather than tear out the pipes, he used the system for new electrical lines.
Another feature Simpson never expects to run across again was an old pipe organ in bad need of an overhaul. Even though none of the Blombergs plays piano or organ, they wanted to restore the instrument as an original feature of the house.
In the billiard room, plastered walls and terrazzo flooring were used to duplicate the basementÆs finished area.
ôI wasnÆt about to touch that organ myself,ö Simpson says with a grin. ôBut I found a guy to fix it. Organ pipes and parts were spread all over the house. There was an echo chamber for the organ in the basement.ö
The quest for authenticity in restoration was a particular challenge on the exterior. A house identical to the BlombergsÆ had been built in ChicagoÆs south suburbs, and the Blombergs tracked down old photographs of that house, which showed what was missing from theirs: a portico. The original on the Wilmette home had been removed at some point.
ôIt meant a lot to the Blombergs to make sure we got that back up,ö Simpson says. ôThe limestone was all custom-cut; you just donÆt see that in a residential building anymore, even in restoration work. But the Blombergs didnÆt want to hear about that. They just said, æWhere do we go to get it?Æö So, despite the price tag of almost $142,000, the house once again welcomes visitors through limestone arches.
Simpson says that attitude of quality as the top priority was typical of his clientsÆ approach to the entire project. ôThere were some numbers that made them say, æWhat do we do about this?Æ So weÆd look at other subcontractors or other avenues. But there was never a question about whether it should be done.ö
Knutson echoes SimpsonÆs appreciation but concedes that the project represented something of a leap of faith for him. His usual modus operandi is to insist that no work on a project be started until all drawings are finalized. In this case, with much of the projectÆs scope yet to be determined, that was impossible.
ôI wouldnÆt have taken this project on with a contractor I didnÆt know,ö Knutson emphasizes. ôThe biggest fear is that you donÆt know what it will all cost until itÆs over, and that is scary. But I have confidence in Scott.ö
Custom-built wine racks and a marble floor are a far cry from the antiquated electrical equipment that used to occupy this basement space. The project supervisor, who shared the BlombergsÆ interest in fine vintages, suggested the wine cellar.
The low notes
In the basement, an old laundry room was converted into a family locker room accessible from the back entrance to the house. The idea, which was the BlombergsÆ, led to a brainstorming session among the clients, architect and contractor. As a result, each of the kids has a custom-made locker on one wall; a row of open storage bins is on the opposite wall. A new laundry room was created on the second floor in space that had been an enclosed porch.
Most of the basement was unfinished, although one area directly under the pipe organ had been finished decades earlier with rough-surfaced plaster walls and a terrazzo floor. SimpsonÆs crew chopped out some concrete walls, plastered others to match the existing finished walls, and duplicated the existing terrazzo floor to create a billiard room from the old finished area and an adjoining storage room.
Then another problem arose. As SimpsonÆs subcontractors were excavating dirt from the back of the house in preparation for waterproofing the basement, they noticed a familiar odor.
ôSomeone said, æDo you smell something?Æö Simpson recalls. ôIt was gasoline, so everybody immediately put out their cigarettes. It turned out that there used to be an old underground gas tank that had been torn out 10 or 12 years before, but we hadnÆt known about it. There was an old drain-tile system in the yard, and apparently the gas had leached out of the old tank and gone through the drain system to that spot.ö
The result was that the Environmental Protection Agency had to be consulted, the entire area had to be excavated, and the Blombergs had to foot the bill: more than $16,000 ù eight times what anyone originally expected a simple waterproofing job to run.
The basement locker room offers plenty of space for the younger Blombergs to store their stuff when they return home from school or sports, as well as room for the gear of any visitors.
Working out the rhythm
The groupÆs harmony was especially astonishing considering that work started only two days after the family moved into the house. SSBÆs crew built a temporary stairway and a wall across part of an upstairs hall that provided privacy for the family. ôWeÆd wake up and hear the noise and realize, æOh, itÆs just the guys,Æö Sue Blomberg says. ôWe didnÆt even see part of the house until it was almost done.ö
She is enthusiastic about the level of cooperation that characterized the project. During weekly meetings, Knutson and Simpson would present the Blombergs with three or four ideas, and they would choose from those. ôIt was a lot easier than trying to come up with something from scratch,ö she says. ôThey were very accommodating, and they came up with great ideas. And we were very up front as far as what we needed in the house while it was being worked on: how much hot water, how much refrigeration.ö
The weekly meetings are standard at SSB and ù since the Blomberg job ù at KnutsonÆs firm, too. ôThe meetings are crucial to communication,ö Stacy Simpson says. ôWeÆll often even type up reports on what went on so that everyone has a record of what decisions were made. It avoids confusion.ö
Knutson agrees, saying, ôThose meetings really help keep track of the job.ö
The friendly relationship persevered through the ballooning costs, too. ôThere were humongous numbers of additions made [to the original scope], obviously,ö Scott Simpson says. ôThere were tons of hidden things in the walls. There were tons of æwhile youÆre hereÆ kind of things. But the homeowners, the architect and we made a really good team. We were able to build that trust you need. Lots of times the homeowner doesnÆt trust the contractor, or the contractor doesnÆt trust the homeowner. But we just jelled from the beginning. We all rolled with the punches. It could have been a scream-fest, but it wasnÆt.ö
EveryoneÆs ability to keep cool was all the more remarkable considering the projectÆs fluid nature. Although the first phase was traditional design/build, Simpson describes the rest as ôdesign on the fly/build on the fly.ö
Management of a project the size of the Blomberg job demanded special attention. SSB used 25 trade contractors, including specialists such as the pipe-organ restorer, and 10 material suppliers, including likely one-time-only vendors such as the firm that provided the hand-cut limestone for the portico.
The Simpsons knew the job would be ongoing, so they planned their other projects to accommodate this one. For example, depending on the skill level needed at any given point, they rotated their eight carpenters among this job and any of the three or four others they typically had going at the same time. The result was customers who felt cared for.
ôScott was very professional,ö Sue Blomberg reports. ôEverything was completed on time. Someone was here working every single day. We never had to make one phone call. They took care of everything.ö
The encore for the kitchen project was a dinner party thrown by SSB for the Blombergs, Knutson, interior designer Barbara Metzler and the contractors who worked on the project. Stacy Simpson, who has a background in professional cooking, says she and the project supervisorÆs wife, a gourmet cook, ôgot to play in the new kitchen,ö and the Blombergs served wine from their new wine cellar.
Sue Blomberg says the end result was just what she and her husband wanted: a comfortable place where their kids could bring their friends and play or just relax. But Scott Simpson says the house is something more special: a truly elegant old house from a more formal era that is ready to function once again as a state-of-the-art family home.
ôWhen we tell our friends we love our contractor, they look at us like weÆre nuts,ö Sue Blomberg says. ôThey say, æNo one loves their contractor.Æ But we really do."