Our company has provided remodeling and handyman services to
Chicago homeowners for the past 10 years. We started out
working in single-family homes, but early on an architect hired
us for a large job in a high-rise apartment building. Today,
high-rise work accounts for half our volume. We work in
downtown Chicago, on jobs ranging from building out a closet to
a $650,000 complete renovation.
Once we learned the ropes, the high-rise niche became a
profitable source of steady work. The clients are typically
high-end; the jobs consist largely of working with finishes.
The hours are easy to swallow — most building managers
only want contractors on site from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday
through Friday. The competition is predictable: Trades have to
show their license to the building manager, which tends to keep
pickup truck contractors out of the running. And because the
work is inside, we keep busy year round, a big plus in our
If you want to succeed in this niche, you have to scale a few
barriers. The first is financial: Most buildings require that
you have at least $2 million in general liability insurance,
and some look for $5 million or $6 million. And you need the
financial strength to carry your payroll and payables for
longer periods. We find that customers at this level
don’t appreciate getting a bill every week or every
other week, so we bill monthly.
Once you get past the financial hurdle, staying in the game
requires a high level of organization, the right type of
people, and a willingness to approach work a bit differently.
We lost money on our first high-rise job because we
didn’t anticipate all the ways that working in these
buildings is different.
Issues With the Buildings
One obvious difference is the buildings themselves. Many of
the high-rises we work in are of 1920s vintage, with ornate
plaster moldings and other fine details. The original walls
tend to be gypsum block or clay block with a plaster finish.
All of the new framing has to be fire-resistant, which means
We also work in newer buildings. These are tall enough to sway
in the wind, so we have to compensate for the movement. For
instance, we often don’t attach crown molding to the
ceiling, which leaves it free to move without separating at the
seams. We don’t attach partitions where they meet the
building perimeter, and we use J-bead rather than taped drywall
seams at those intersections. We also have to put expansion
joints in long runs of drywall, control joints in concrete
floors, and crack isolation membranes under ceramic tile. Solid
wood floors have to be installed over a floating, acoustic
subfloor, which usually consists of two layers of 3/8 plywood
with staggered seams over a 1/4-inch layer of cork or other
Trade contractors in the high-rise world work under a unique
set of building codes. Plumbing, for example, consists mostly
of cast iron and copper pipe — no PVC allowed. Other
issues include the need for a “suds zone” so
that the soapy discharge from a clothes washer doesn’t
overflow into a downstairs neighbor’s sink.
On the heating and cooling side, most older high-rises have a
central steam plant that brings the entire building up to
temperature and then cycles off; apartments don’t have
thermostats. Replacing steam pipes in one apartment means you
have to shut the system down, so you probably can’t do
the work at 8 a.m. during heating season, when the building is
heating up. Newer high-rises are different: Most have hot-water
or electric heating systems with thermostats in each
If you’re adding air conditioning to a high-rise, the
compressor might have to hang off the side of the building 10
floors or more above ground, and you have to consider not just
the installation but also service and maintenance
accessibility. The hvac contractor, obviously, has to be
familiar with these systems.
The building is just half the equation. What makes or breaks
your ability to succeed is planning and organization. How much
does it cost when a carpenter forgets something in his truck?
He has to go down the elevator, walk four blocks to the truck
and back, ring the bell on the service entrance, and wait to be
let back in. The cost of this time can add up.
Material orders have to be planned more carefully, too. You
can’t have the lumberyard drop a package off the truck
in the front yard, and you’re not going to fit
16-foot-long boards — or even 4x8 sheets of drywall,
in some cases — into a service elevator.
The neighbors are another variable. If the people above or
below us have a baby and ask us not to make a lot of noise
between 10 a.m. and noon, we try to accommodate them. If
we’re building steel partition walls, I might tell my
crew not to shoot tracks during those hours but to use the time
Scheduling is critical in a high-rise job. You have to know
when each trade will be there and when the job will be ready
for the next trade, and you have to make sure everyone shows up
and finishes on time. If the job gets behind schedule, you
can’t work late or on weekends to catch up because of
the limits that most building managers put on work hours.
Putting a dumpster next to the building may be out of the
question. If the job includes demolition, we try to get a price
from a demo sub. If we have to do the demo ourselves, we
usually bring a dump truck up to the building once a day. Our
workers have to fill up big bins and wheel them to the service
elevator, and then from the elevator to the truck, which can be
as much as 200 feet away from the building. This time has to be
figured into our bid. Some newer buildings let us put a
dumpster at the loading dock, but we may end up hauling away
the building’s trash.
Then, of course, there is parking. On our first few high-rise
jobs, I asked my crew to drive to the job on the first day to
drop off their tools, and to take public transit after that.
That didn’t work out, because the guys always want to
bring their tools to the job and take them home at the end of
the day. Now when I create an estimate, I build in $20 per
employee per day for parking.
Dealing With Building
In most apartment buildings there is a doorman or
receiving-room clerk to deal with. Treating these people right
can make life a lot easier. Not doing so can make it miserable.
In some buildings the staff expects good treatment —
but even if they don’t, we always try to do something
for them. If they live in the building, we might fix something
in their apartment; if they don’t, we might give them
a tip. In one building, the woman who runs the receiving room
at the loading dock lets our guys park all day at the loading
dock because she knows she’ll get a $20 tip each week,
an investment that can save us hundreds of dollars in parking
The Bottom Line
The lessons we’ve learned from working on high-rises
have helped on all of our jobs. For instance, when finishing a
basement in a single-family home, we now isolate the tile from
the slab, to reduce the chance of cracking. Since my crew has
gotten used to using steel studs, we now use them on
single-family houses, too, which eliminates worries about rot
and termites. All of this is good practice — a point
driven home by our high-rise work.
But the biggest benefit has been the planning and estimating
skills we’ve developed. Working on apartment buildings
has made us better at thinking through jobs and anticipating
costs. This has made our margins more predictable and enhanced
our reputation as a well-managed contractor that provides
careful workmanship and great service.
Jim Kastenholz is one of the owners of
Total Home in Chicago.