Like many remodeling jobs, this one started small. Kathie and Art Howe decided to redo the kitchen in their 25-year-old North Side town house. They hired an architect and a general contractor, and the foursome started talking.
The couple lamented the uneven flow of heat and air conditioning. Someone suggested replacing the three-story staircase, which was wrapped in claustrophobia-inducing drywall. Someone else mentioned green construction.
Next thing you know, the Howes moved out, and the town house was stripped down to studs and subfloor. That was September 2010. They plan to move back after the first of the year. When finished, the project is expected to achieve platinum-level certification, the highest possible within the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) points-based rating system.
"If we were going to do it, we might as well try to do it better," said Art.
The four-bedroom town house is one of 62 units clustered around a wooded courtyard. The renovation includes upgraded insulation of the exterior walls; new finishes, fixtures and cabinetry; and a new energy-efficient HVAC system, water heater, patio sliding-glass doors and three skylights. Two more energy savers are a drain-water heat-recovery system that preheats cold water before it reaches the water heater and an air-exchanging energy-recovery ventilator.
Opening the roof
The association board has been a significant member of the construction team. Typically, associations don't favor residents cutting holes in the roof or moving load-bearing columns, like the Howes did, but their board granted approval and more.
Opening the roof to put in a larger skylight would have invalidated the association's existing warranty, for example. But the board did some research and found that if the Howes used the original installer to do their work, the roofing manufacturer would hold the warranty.
"It would have been a big problem if someone had put in skylights without asking and ruined the warranty for the entire association," said property manager Geneva Everett of Premier Management Services in Highland Park.
As for moving the column, the Howes hired a structural engineer whose load calculations were reviewed and approved by the association's structural engineer. "The board required the Howes to go through several avenues of verifying what they were doing was proper, and they did it all," said Everett. "They took great responsibility."
In another instance, when the interior drywall was removed, several areas of water infiltration were discovered. Those problems were the board's responsibility, and it took almost immediate steps to remedy them, so the Howes could continue with their work.
The couple offered pointers for creating a positive board relationship:
Give full and early disclosure of your plans, and let the board know of any changes along the way, said Art.
"Make sure your contractor has a copy of the rules," said Kathie.
She sits on the board but doesn't believe her position carried any influence.
"I think they made it harder for me," she said, jokingly.
"She never expected any special treatment, which was refreshing," said Everett.
The Howes' renovation is believed to be the first gut rehab of an attached town house in the Chicago area, and possibly in the country, to seek LEED platinum status, said Jason La Fleur, regional director for the Chicago-based Alliance for Environmental Sustainability and the LEED consultant who is working with the couple on their certification.
The project also is remarkable because of the constraints of an association, he added.
Building point total
"There are a lot of things we can't do on the outside," said Kathie. "We can't do a rain barrel or a green roof. All of our (LEED) points have to come from the inside."
They credit general contractor Brian Anderson of Northfield-based Echo Development for building their point total. He used locally sourced walnut flooring and nontoxic paint, and he recycled and donated the original fixtures and cabinets.
"In Chicago and in America, there is a lot of sustainable focus on new construction, but the question is, what to do with the 100 million or so units that exist," said the Howes' architect, William Scholtens of Elements Architectural Group in Oak Park. "That's where the next battle needs to be won."
"We started out wanting to make an improvement, but if this turns out to be a more comfortable place to live, hopefully it will help us with resale and maybe offer solutions for someone else," said Art.