One-stop array packs 'em in; Modest fix-ups or full rehabs -- a home fair covers all

The third annual home-improvement fair at McCormick Place West lured more than 50,000 old-house buffs and exhibitors, not only from the Midwest but from points as far off as New York State and California.

In fact, "City House 1981" played to a packed house in late March.

As one fairgoer said to his companion, "You find out about products and services here you'd never hear about any other way."

What the fair does is point up the vast interest in home-improvement projects , many of them by do-it-yourselfers.

Other similar events around the United States help the home handyman, and even the amateur, find his way in restoring his home, adding a room, putting in wall paneling, and even how to paint and wallpaper the right way. If you plan to turn to a contractor or hire the professional workmen yourself, the house-repair fairs tell you how to go about it.

Bob Vila, Boston-area host to the popular "This Old house" public television series, set the tone in his keynote interview. Mr. Vila told John Wilson of WTTW-TV that the would-be rehabber "should look at the house first at arm's length, develop a working plan and objectives, and only then contact the trades."

After getting estimates, Vila advised: "Then go to your local bank to see how much you can borrow."

His parting advice: "Good communcation from the start with the contractor and trades pays off where little misunderstandings make costs skyrocket."

Clem Labine, an old-house superstar and editor of The Old House Journal, led a panel entitled "Homeowners' Lament -- or, If I Had Only Known." The witty restorer of his own 1880s brownstone warned, "If you let areas look like the city dump during renovation and don't clean up daily, your workmen will treatm the house like the city dump."

One panelist, Mrs. Duncan Henderson, urged the audience to assign separate corners to each trade to keep tools, saving high-cost hourly time.

"Remember," she added, "if someone can come over immediately when you call, he's probably no good."

Panelists agreed that major renovation was best tackled by hiring a contractor and consulting a restoration architect so as to find out any hidden structural problems before getting estimates.

City House exhibits drew lookers from young singles in apartments who are saving for their first house to older couples renovating a second or even third home. Displays ran the gamut from gleaming brass antiques and reproduction gas lighting fixtures, chimney sweeping, and design consulting to architectural artifacts, building materials, and neighborhood improvement organizations.

The Stanley Galleries showed an 1879 fourarm lighting fixture, converted from gas to electricity, which was made by Thackera & Sons of Philadelphia. The price: $2,100.

For the more modest purse, there was a rare 1890s single gas and electric transition lighting fixture priced at $295.

The gallery owner, Ken Stanley, explained that buyers were turning away from elaborate fixtures with filigree brasswork to "simpler lines which lend themselves better to an electric decor."

Near the fair entrance was the theme exhibit, a prototype frame cottage built by Washburne Trade School students. The cutaway house showed how a sound residence should be built, from lath and plaster to pipes, adequate electrical system, and floor joists.

Service exhibits included an enterprising architecture student group from the Illinois Institute of Technology which established a rehab consulting service before graduation. Another institute architecture team of four women displayed its innovative, and surprisingly professional, solutions for developing Chicago's old Bridgeport area by adding small parks and upgrading the business area.

An eye-catching exhibit was the Chimney Sweep Cooperative. The owner, Jim Duffy, decked out in black top hat and frock coat, said the energy crunch causes people to use their fireplaces more often. "But because of the soot buildup, chimneys should be cleaned more often to prevent chimney fires," he explained. Chimney cleaning charges vary according to accessibility and house height, ranging from $55 to $75.

Prospective mail-order customers of Round Barn Books of Skokie, Ill., could use the firm's free research service, giving book titles, authors, and publishers by subject.

Landscape architects, it turns out, have a real image problem. Mark Finger of the American Society of Landscape Architects explained that the service was once for the estates of the wealthy. "Today," he reported, "many people don't realize they can consult a landscape architect for $20 to $40 an hour and get ideas about improving their house surroundings over a period of time," he said.

Mr. Vila of TV's "This Old House told attendants that before hiring a restoration architect, be sure the architect believes in renovation himself. How much work can the homeowner do himself? It depends on his skill and energy, Vila says. If you plan to have some of the work done by professionals, be sure you agree clearly on who does what.

To a would-be rehabber who asked what an architect would do for him, Vila replied: "Whatever you pay him to do, from initial consultation to detailed finished plans."

Energy conservation in heating and cooling was covered by the moderator, John Porterfield, of the energy resource center of the University of Illinois, Chicago Circle campus, and an architect, Brian Robertson, of Nagle, Hartray & Associates.

Homeowners are encouraged to lower the temperature in winter; insulate roofs, walls, windows, and hot-air ducts; and replace 100-watt bulbs with 50-watt bulbs where practical.

There were also sessions on landscaping, developing a good house interior plan, wood and plaster repairing, selecting interior ornaments from glass and light fixtures to decorative hardware, fireplace tips, and ideas for windows and skylights.

A Chicago contractor summed it all up. "City House's greatest value is to encourage and educate ordinary people so they can tackle house face- liftings themselves."

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