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With the president as a neighbor, a routine remodel gets complicated
I shudder to think how complicated it could get if President Obama's family were to remodel their home in Chicago's Kenwood neighborhood, considering the security labyrinth that surrounds what's going on at the house next door.
"It's a detailed scheduling exercise," said Robert Berg with considerable understatement. Berg is president of Foster Design Build, the Chicago company that's handling the gut remodeling of 5040 S. Greenwood Ave., next door to the Obama home.
A Chicago plastic surgeon and his wife bought the home in April for $1.4 million, according to media reports.
The Secret Service, which tightly monitors activity on the block, has taken a keen interest in the goings-on at the house, complicating the process in a way that probably would elicit groans from anyone who has ever tried to orchestrate the comings and goings of tradesmen.
"When we were first brought on, we had to meet with Secret Service and with the president's liaison here in Chicago," Berg said. "Right from the start, we knew there were going to be challenges."
As an example, he cites a process that would be routine to any sizable construction project, but not this one.
"All of our job sites have to have portable bathrooms," Berg said. "So, you'd think a guy would just come out every week. He cleans it, he leaves. But in a job like this, I have to get an ID from [the worker] 24 hours in advance and send it to the Secret Service. It has to be cleared.
"I have to go there, I have to check his ID and I have to escort him" to the Secret Service representatives, he said. "They make sure he is who he says he is, and then he can enter the job site."
The federal agents then will watch him to make sure nothing suspicious is left in the portable toilet, Berg said.
The security measures dictate that every tradesman must show up on time, Berg said. It's a concept that undoubtedly would strike many homeowners as intriguing.
"I tell them over and over, you are to show up at 8 a.m. with your badge and your ID, so don't show up at 8:05, because you won't be let in," Berg said. "Sometimes the [subcontractors] listen and sometimes they don't."
And when they're late, Berg or a company representative turns them away before they get to the Secret Service. Missed work means missed pay, he said.
"After that happens, you'd be surprised, people show up 15 minutes early," he said.
Still, the message doesn't always get through.
"Our lumber suppliers, we would tell the guys 10 times, do not show up unannounced, and, sure enough, they would. And we would have to send them home," he said.
The house, which was built in 1906, had retained much of the original Victorian and Craftsman detailing inside, though the structure had "significant problems," Berg said. For example, 60 to 70 windows needed to be replaced.
"They're all architecturally significant, and this is a landmark district, so we'll have to put them back exactly as they were," he said.
"Every piece of mahogany, every doorknob, every stained-glass window was taken down in a white-glove fashion. We've cleaned it, bubble-wrapped it, stored it and marked on a blueprint where it goes."
The project also includes an addition on the back of the house, he said. He declined to specify the price tag for the remodeling, though the company's website describes the work as costing more than $1 million.
Most activity comes to a halt when the Obamas are in residence.
"When the president comes into town, all bets are off," Berg said. "We can be on the site, that is, the Foster Design Build team, but the subcontractors cannot."
But before the first family's arrival, the company has to clean up the job site and anticipate a visit from bomb-sniffing dogs, he said. In addition, Secret Service personnel inspect most of the building materials and equipment when they arrive at the site, he said.
Berg said he founded the construction firm this year after a career with other companies. "I've done some pretty complex jobs before," he said, but this one is in a category by itself.
"Coordination like this is significantly complicated," he said. "The client wants to be in by Labor Day. The subcontractors are upset because they have to be pulled off the job" when the Obamas visit.
"You sometimes feel like you're in a pressure cooker, but I think we're up to the task."
Umberger writes for the Chicago Tribune.