In six years of marriage, Laura and Peter Nowicki have moved five times. Last spring, the couple bought what will become their newest home. It's a half-crumbled, two-story brick shell on Madison Street, between Alltypes Fireplace and a parking lot for Comcast vans.
"My husband's got great vision," said Laura.
On a recent winter afternoon, a handful of well-bundled workers milled around a bonfire in the middle of the Nowickis' future. The back half of the building is open to the sky. Laura was told that a former owner covered what was once a glass ceiling with asphalt. The roof caved in some time ago.
The floor inside is broken concrete and dirt. In the southeast corner, a staircase dangles 4 feet from the ground. Large windows, with small, square panes of glass, are cracked and caked with grime. The building sat empty for five years, after Offset Press, its most recent occupant, moved out.
Still under roof in the front half of the structure is an elevator shaft, where cars once moved from the first to the second floor. The building used to be an auto shop; Nowicki believes the structure dates from the late 1920s. The huge pulleys that hoisted the auto elevator still loom from the ceiling. To accommodate them, the building appears to have a small third story in the middle of its Madison street facade.
The Nowickis saw both character and potential in the vacant building. Laura mentions the brick, the light, the windows and the old elevator pulleys when asked to pinpoint the character. The potential initially encompassed two objectives: a space where Peter could establish a satellite office for traders like himself, affiliated with the Chicago Board of Trade; and a space their family of six could call home.
The Nowickis have four boys, ages 15, 5, 3 and 2. The couple had two sons when they made the decision to leave their first home in River Forest for an apartment in Colorado. Peter had been getting phone calls from a friend and fellow trader, happily working and skiing there. Why couldn't they do that?
They could and did, making the move in 2001 and buying a home a year later.
"All his work is done on a computer," Laura explained.
Peter initially worked out of their Colorado living space and later set up a satellite office for himself and other traders. As a lactation consultant and childbirth educator, Laura has worked part-time in both Illinois and Colorado while raising their sons.
In 2003, with a third son and another on the way, the Nowickis felt the pull of home and returned to River Forest. Peter grew up in Oak Park, and his parents, six siblings and their families all live in the area. Laura still has family in River Forest.
When the couple needed more space for their growing family, they bought their current Oak Park home, on South Scoville Avenue, across the street from one of Peter's sisters.
Armed with plans from his Colorado venture, Peter began looking for space to set up a local satellite trading office. The investment required for computer lines and other infrastructure made renting impractical.
It was while they were considering a property on Harrison Street that they began to think about combining working and living spaces.
"Pete asked, 'Do you ever think you could live above an office?'" Laura recalled.
Her answer was yes, but not in that space. "It didn't click," she said.
But 838 Madison St. clicked.
The vision unfolds
Laura remembers discussing the Madison Street property with her husband at another Madison address, Cafe De Luca, in Forest Park.
"I think it had just opened," she said.
The restaurant's high ceilings, exposed beams and brick walls helped her to visualize the kind of loft-like space she would love to live in with her family.
"We're just not white picket fence people," she noted.
Before making the purchase, the Nowickis talked with the existing owner, who had originally planned to develop the space into two commercial and two residential components. The couple also contacted the architect who had helped conceptualize those ideas, River Forest resident David Raino Ogden, and "a couple of general contractors."
It looked like 838 Madison had room for a first-floor satellite office, a three-plus bedroom residence, and about 900 square feet of additional, first-floor space, Laura said.
They bought the building in April 2005, and, with the help of Ogden, fleshed out their vision.
The Nowickis went into the project with the idea of "adaptive use"â€"preserving as much of the original building as possible given the new functions the space would serve.
The Madison Street facade will look much like it did originally, with its large, multi-paned windows. The main entrance and staircase will occupy the former auto elevator. On the first floor's east side, the satellite office will potentially hold 20 working traders, with an employee lounge and lockers.
On the west side, the Nowickis plan a coffee shop. Ideas for that space evolved over time.
"Through some of the Madison redevelopment meetings, we kept hearing, 'We need a local coffee shop.' That is the furthest into the future," she noted.
The second floor will house three bedrooms, a music room and a family room. Behind the two back bedrooms, the Nowicki boys will find a second-story play yard. A 6-foot fence will keep the fun from spilling over.
A new third floor will include a library, accessible by a spiral staircase from the master bedroom, a street-side balcony and an outdoor living room in the back with plantings and a fireplace.
An enclosed, three-season "conservatory," with glass walls on three sides, will rise up from the third floor, preserving the original shape of the roof line.
The Nowickis' vision also includes building "green"â€"from rooftops with vegetation, to energy-efficient windows and appliances, to caulk with reduced chemical content. Construction will use FSC-certified timber, which guarantees it comes from a forest that meets specific environmental standards.
The journey begins
Seven months into the pursuit of their vision, the allure of "adaptive use" has lost a little of its sheen for Laura.
"We have had so many structural issues. It's much easier to tear everything down," she observed, though the couple has not changed their plans for preserving what they can.
The Nowickis have also seen the project budget grow from the original ballpark estimate to the "outlandish" estimate volunteered at the start of the project by their primary contractor, an Evanston company called Intergy.
"This is supposed to shock you," Laura remembered hearing. "We're already at, if we haven't exceeded, his outlandish figure."
The couple is currently negotiating the specifics of the project's budget growth. One aspect has to do with the building's foundation.
"We assumed that because [the building] had cars upstairs, the foundation was strong enough to support a third floor. Never assume," she said.
The project now includes reinforcing the foundation with steel beams, resulting in adjustments to the location of walls and the third floor space.
One reason the couple selected Intergy to perform the work was the company's experience with geothermal systems.
"For our heating system, we are going to dig down into the earth," Nowicki explained.
The system theoretically will not require any additional cooling, and heating will only be needed to bring the temperature up from about 55 degrees to the desired temperature. Because of the scope of the project, the Nowickis are working with an MEP (mechanical, electrical, and plumbing) engineer, Oak Park's Mark Nussbaum.
"We wanted to use local people from the community where possible," she said.
There is still plenty of work left for the Nowickis. Laura typically researches and narrows choices.
"I easily spend three hours a day on [the project]," she noted. "From 9 to 11 p.m., when the kids are in bed, I'm on the computer."
The myriad of options hasn't surprised her.
"Everyone warned me, 'You're going to have to pick out where the outlets go and what kind of covers you want on the outlets,'" she said.
Nowicki noted that finding environmentally friendly building materials hasn't been difficult. She started by "picking up a few environmental magazines" and has since found a Chicago resource, The Center for Green Technology, that provides classes and visible evidence of how different products work.
She has investigated a countertop material for the boys' bathroom made from recycled laundry detergent bottles, sinks that shut on and off with motion, and milk-based and clay-based paint.
"It's healthier for the kids and for the environment," she said.
Perhaps the environment will help the Nowickis in return. Laura's biggest concern right now is the weatherâ€"the structure was supposed to have been enclosed by Oct. 28 and isn't yet, but her contractors still tell her completion by next Christmas is feasible.
Whenever the family gets in, she expects this home to last awhile. "I think we'll have everything we need for a long time."