Chicago AIA Program Offers Renovation Tips To Homeowners

Laura Garcia of Laura Garcia Design

Laura Garcia of Laura Garcia Design

Watch a few episodes of “Property Brothers” on HGTV and you’ll get the impression a massive house renovation project can be completed in five or six weeks.

If only it were that easy.

The reality is more like six to eight months. Anytime you tear out a wall and start messing around with gas or water pipes, you need the proper permits. In the City of Chicago, that’s neither a fast nor simple process. A qualified general contractor can help make a project go smoother, but there’s another professional critical to the success of a renovation. That’s an architect.

This past Saturday, the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects held a “Working With An Architect” session at the Rebuilding Exchange. Laura Garcia, the owner of Laura Garcia Design, gave a group of homeowners and renovation novices the lowdown on doing a renovation right.

Garcia described the role of the architect in a renovation, and the fees a homeowner could expect. She said that, in general, the architect’s fee for a home renovation project comes in at eight to 15 percent of the total construction cost.

Most of the questions for Garcia focused on renovating bungalows. Andrew and Elizabeth Hoesley wanted to know how they should begin renovating the 1,500-square-foot Ravenswood home they just purchased. It needs interior and exterior work. The Hoesleys want to close off one of the street-facing doors, and remove an interior wall to open up the galley kitchen.

They purchased the house for $425,000 and have budgeted another $100,000 for renovations. It may seem like a large sum for a property that was going to be demolished, but the Hoesleys are taking the long view. It’s a sturdy building in a great school district.

Andrew and Elizabeth Hoesley

Andrew and Elizabeth Hoesley

Before they get started with the project, designs and drawings will need to be completed. The Hoesleys have tried to get an architect on board but nearly every small practitioner they’ve approached is too busy to take on a new project right now.

Garcia explained that independent architects haven’t been this busy in years, so anybody contemplating a renovation project should plan accordingly, scheduling an initial planning meeting eight to 12 months prior to the start of construction.

“An architect will help you develop your ideas, and develop the program for the project, addressing structural issues and addressing constructability,” Garcia said. “We will also help you deal with building codes and zoning issues.

“Why are codes important? They basically protect you from your neighbors doing something that can harm your home, like backing up the fresh water system.”

Garcia said the permit approval system in Chicago is “kind of crazy” ever since the city went to a computerized system. It sounds counterintuitive, but the city staffers who review plans aren’t too comfortable working with the new mechanized system. This has gummed up the works and slowed down approvals.

A signed and stamped drawing from a licensed architect will help smooth the path to approval, so any homeowner who thinks he or she can get by with a generic design cribbed from a Google search may want to think again.

Similarly, a homeowner considering being their own general contractor should understand the value of a qualified professional.

“A good G.C. is worth the 12 to 15 percent fee,” she said. “They know how to schedule the trades and keep the project moving. Each phase has to be timed just right —- the demo, followed by the rough-in. If someone doesn’t show up on time, it can mess up the whole project.”

“You can do it yourself, but it will take you about 100 times longer than you thought it would,” Garcia said.

The next “Working With An Architect” session is scheduled for Saturday, April 6th at 10:00am at the Chicago Center for Green Technology, 445 North Sacramento Boulevard.

Author: Bill Motchan

Bill Motchan is a writer and photographer, and a former resident of the West Loop. He can be reached at

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