Middlefork Luxury Homebuilders (Middlefork) is celebrating 15 years as a custom homebuilder of single-family homes in Chicago’s most prestigious neighborhoods. The business prides itself on delivering luxurious, yet practical homes, as well as forming genuine, collaborative relationships with clients, which often last beyond a project’s schedule.
Founded in 2008, Middlefork was born out of the lessons and trends learned by Andrew Bowyer, Founder and Managing Director, during the 2008 financial crisis and housing market crash. While developers across the US were struggling due to market conditions, Andrew recognized an opportunity to not only serve the ongoing luxury home market but reimagine the concept of custom homes.
“I never imagined myself as an entrepreneur; I just had a passion for both architecture and business and always hoped to somehow combine those things,” Andrew begins. “I was fortunate to acquire land at a discounted price and build at a low cost, starting by building luxury speculative (spec) homes. These generated enough profit to really kickstart and continuously develop the business.
“Then, in 2016, for several reasons but primarily due to market changes in my area, I moved to working on only custom homes. Today, we work on a plethora of projects, but I particularly encourage clients to adopt a design-build approach. This means we take responsibility away from the client and are involved in the project from the very beginning, all the way through to completion, acting as our customers’ sole point of contact throughout.”
“Using our 15-year history of industry experience, we assist clients with finessing their design program to really understand what they want on both an aesthetic and practical level,” says Andrew. “We think about the functionality of the house, so zoning, for example, means deciding how many children’s bedrooms the client wants and where they want them located.”
He continues: “From a family perspective, your house must suit your unique lifestyle. Say, for instance, our client wants a playroom, we try to understand how the room, as well as the entire house, will be used day-to-day. If they want a structured family room where games are put away after use, then the clients may not mind the room being in-view of guests, whereas some families want a messy, active playroom that is totally out of sight.
“That’s where we’re different; we make sure that the design adheres to those programmatic design objectives and meets clients’ goals, while staying on schedule and within budget,” Andrew states. “We try to remove a lot of the questions and decision-making associated with building a home, but equally, if a client wants to be involved in every tiny detail discussion, they can be.”
During its 15-year history, the business has completed numerous projects, including work on some of Chicago’s most protected buildings. In 1871, the Great Chicago Fire ravaged through the city, destroying nine kilometers of land, including 17,000 structures. As a result, numerous organizations and charities were set up to manage the preservation of Chicago’s historic buildings.
Andrew elaborates: “We work closely with the Commission on Chicago Landmarks (Landmarks), and the Historic Preservation Division, which have identified either specific buildings or blocks that are deemed historically significant because they survived the fire. The regulations are very rigid; not one thing can change on the exterior or façade, so that from the street, the house will still look as it did in the 1800s.”
Middlefork has completed renovation projects on some of these buildings, including an Old Town workman’s cottage; a project that Andrew recalls with pride and enthusiasm. “We were asked to redesign and rebuild a workman’s cottage in the Old Town, and by working closely with Landmarks, we demolished the existing home apart from the original façade and 28 feet of the exterior walls,” he details.
“In other words, we basically scraped out the insides of the house, leaving the façade and historical features, then inserted an entire new building with new floor systems, HVAC, electrics, and plumbing,” Andrew continues. “From the outside, it appears to be an 1800s home, but the interior reveals a modern four-bedroom, four-bathroom property.
“Working on a 100-year-old building certainly comes with complexities. It’s almost as though we have two clients to please – our client, as well as the relevant bodies – because we have to meet both regulations and client requests.”
Additionally, Andrew explains: “We’ve just completed another similar project, which was located in the Gold Coast, a neighborhood that borders both Lake Michigan and the Magnificent Mile, where the client wanted to rebuild and extend the original building. As required, we kept and restored the façade, then rebuilt and redesigned the interior, before we added a 1500-square-foot extension at the back of the property.
“Adding to this specific project’s difficulty was the fact that we were working on it during the Covid-19 pandemic,” he adds. “We were navigating labor issues and supply chain shortages, with the client making changes along the way too, such as adding a roof penthouse that could not be seen from the street. In total, it took around two and a half years to complete, but it is now fully finished, standing at around 8000 square feet.”
But the lengthy process was worth it; although the homebuilding awards season for 2023 is only just beginning, this home has already been recognized as a platinum home by Chicago’s local Home Builders Association.
Reflecting on the history of the business, Andrew comments: “I’ve intentionally stayed small over the years, working on no more than three projects at any one time, which enables me to remain hands-on with every project. Also, homebuilding at this scale is typically a multi-year process, and being involved with the day-to-day process means I can form positive, long-standing relationships with our clients.
“Building a home is a huge investment too, typically the biggest of our lifetime, so I want to continue working with customers who genuinely appreciate, value, and enjoy the end product,” Andrew concludes. “I’m amazed we’re celebrating 15 successful years of Middlefork this year; it’s been through a lot of iterations, from its name to its business objectives, and I’m excited to see what evolutions are in store for us moving forward.”