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Costs soar in test program to insulate historic homes near O’Hare

The exterior of Blanche Richter's "painted lady" home

A test program of a new city of Chicago effort to provide free sound insulation of "historic" homes near O'Hare Airport produced more than $140,000 in insulation bills at this Wood Dale home, plus an additional $33,000 just for interior painting, unaudited city records show. That compares with a previous $25,000 average for insulation work at non-historic homes, city aviation officials say. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

The city of Chicago is about to offer the owners of more than 150 “historic” homes a deal: Sign up for sound insulation to buffer your house from O’Hare Airport jet noise, and it won’t cost you a penny.

But the bill to sound-insulate a small test group of such older homes is averaging more than $101,000 per residence — four times the city’s $25,000 average for non-historic dwellings, records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show.

As a result, an upcoming plan to upgrade the doors and windows of as many as 167 historic homes in Chicago’s Norwood Park neighborhood using historic-preservation standards is on pace to become the city’s costliest sound insulation project in at least a decade. The work is a first for Chicago aviation officials.

The city has been doing soundproofing work around O’Hare for decades using federal airport improvement funds and O’Hare passenger facility charges on airline tickets. But ongoing runway reconfigurations and the jet-noise changes that accompany them are now making the large group of “historic” homes in Norwood Park eligible for the bonanza.

The city’s first sound insulation efforts at a handful of historic homes in a test-drive of the larger project was not without its problems, Chicago Sun-Times’ interviews with those homeowners indicated.

One of them, Blanche Richter of Wood Dale, said her new screen door locks her out of the house and five new storm windows stick, despite assurances from workers that they would loosen in warmer weather. Opening one storm is so “excruciating” she’s thrown out her back twice trying to raise it.

Richter also questioned the nearly $5,000 the city was charged to paint her 15-foot by 15-foot living room — work that was part of a special painting freebie that drove up costs in the pilot program but will not be continued in the larger project ahead. City officials say they’re still auditing the painting work and will scale it back in the future historic-home project.

Despite any issues, Richter and the other two property owners in the test program said they’d recommend others take on the insulation work. It’s reduced their jet noise, they said, and cut at least one home’s heating bill in half.

“It did what they said it would do,” Richter said. “For all the little things I’m nitpicking at, there was a lot of good.”

In fact, the only Chicagoan in the test program said she was so pleased with the work that she feels like she “hit the Lotto.”

The city has unleashed an avalanche of sound-insulation work designed to mitigate the worst O’Hare jet noise by the time the massive airfield overhaul is completed in 2021.

Blanche Richter said despite the contractor's assurances, the new storm windows on her historic home remain extremely difficult to open. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

Blanche Richter said despite the contractor’s assurances, some new storm windows on her historic home remain extremely difficult to open. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

The pilot program for historic homes encompassed three properties picked by the Chicago Department of Aviation to test the trickier sound-insulation methods needed for such dwellings. City contractors worked on Richter’s Wood Dale house, a duplex in Bensenville and the single-family home in Norwood Park.

All three properties are more than a century old.

Currently, 167 homes in the Norwood Park Historic District, all built before 1953, are eligible for sound insulation based on Illinois Historic Preservation Agency standards, city officials say. Those homeowners should get letters offering them free sound-insulation work by February.

Aviation Department spokesman Owen Kilmer downplayed homeowners’ complaints about the work done in the test program, saying they were never voiced during final homeowner walk-throughs with contractors.

In addition, Kilmer said, “We encourage all homeowners to contact our Program Office so that we can address their concerns.”

Concerning costs, Kilmer noted that in homes eligible to be placed on the National Register of Historic Homes, the city is obligated to try to preserve historic features on the homes when possible, which drives up prices, Kilmer said. For example, one window in a historic home costs four times more than the same-sized window in a non-historic home, he said.

The city’s aviation department oversees “one of the largest residential sound insulation programs in the world” and has an “outstanding track record” of meeting federal home sound-insulation requirements and providing “quality service,” Kilmer said in an email.

The city kicked off the test program in 2014 by folding insulation and painting work at the three trial locations into a bid offering that also included insulation work at 22 non-historic homes.

Only two companies ended up bidding on the project — and both came in well over the city’s “estimated project cost” of between $500,000 and $780,000, records show.

Blinderman Construction’s $1.2 million bid beat Asbach & Vanselow’s $1.47 million one. Those costs, city officials said in hindsight, reflect the relatively small number of homes involved; had there been more homes, the cost per home could have been cheaper.

Blinderman Construction referred questions about the program to the aviation department’s communications office.

At the Bensenville test site, owner Richard Rebmann said about 40 windows in his duplex initially were installed with the glass inside out. Kilmer said the manufacturer shipped the window sashes with the glass “in the wrong orientation” and the problem wasn’t detected until after they were installed.

Nicholas Kelly can see planes landing at O'Hare International Airport from the duplex where he lives in Bensenville. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

Nicholas Kelly can see planes landing at O’Hare International Airport from the duplex where he lives in Bensenville. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

Even now, one new window pops up after being closed, and rain seeps in from some storm windows, one Rebmann tenant said. In the kitchen, one window pane can be pushed loose with the touch of a finger.

Norwood Park homeowner Susan Luzzi — whose home was the last to be insulated under the pilot program — had a more positive take. She said the mother lode of work at her 1914-era home left her feeling like “I hit the Lotto.”

Still, Luzzi said, “there was a lot of mismeasuring.”

“I’m telling you there were 30 people here when they first started measuring,’’ she said. A “ton of people” were “standing around doing nothing.”

Re-measuring is often needed because of the nature of working with older materials, Kilmer said.

Also, workmen replaced a sliding door once and installed three screen doors “before they got it right,” Luzzi said.

Kilmer said the first screen door arrived damaged and the manufacturer then shipped the wrong-sized replacement. The manufacturer also initially shipped the wrong-sized frame for the sliding door, Kilmer said.

The Luzzi home’s $183,000 tab for painting and sound insulation was the highest in the test program, invoices show. Work included three air conditioners and more than 30 new windows, she said.

“I’d advise anyone to do it,” said Luzzi, whose husband was deputy director of tax at the Chicago Department of Revenue at the time. He’s since retired.

All three homeowners had the same advice for any homeowner who agrees to the insulation freebie: Be present during the work.

“Would I recommend it?” Richter said. “It takes a tough person to actually get into this program, and if you can handle it – yes.”

Historic homes in the southwest portion of Chicago's Norwood Park Historic District (inside the red "noise contour" line) will soon get letters offering them free sound insulation to mitigate the heavy onslaught of O'Hare Airport jet noise expected by 2021. | Chicago Department of Aviation map

Historic homes in the southwest portion of Chicago’s Norwood Park Historic District (inside the red “noise contour” line) will soon get letters offering them free sound insulation to mitigate the heavy onslaught of O’Hare Airport jet noise expected by 2021. | Chicago Department of Aviation map