Pro-File Build: Goldberg General Contracting

Chicago is renowned for its world-class mix of architecture. Fine contemporary, iconic modern, and important traditional work peppers the city and its lakeside suburbs. When clients tap architects to create or update a top-notch example of residential design, architects often turn to Goldberg General Contracting to execute the vision. Architects trust company founder Jacob (Jake) Goldberg like one of their own, and that’s no surprise because, at heart, he is. 

Jake is the son of an architect and an interior designer. After a brief foray into speculative real estate, he discovered what he truly loved to do is build—the good stuff. And as he’s led his 30-year-old business with partner Jeff Berry, their sweet spot of mastery has grown to encompass the best modern work and the most rigorous restorations Chicago can offer. On the one hand, the company builds new houses by Brad Lynch of Brininstool & Lynch, and on the other, exquisite restorations by John Vinci, FAIA, of Vinci|Hamp. 

The company’s size has remained remarkably static since its founding at 35 office and field personnel. Jake calls the size “boutique” and says it’s been a conscious decision not to go bigger or diversify into luxury speculative building. He thinks that’s part of the reason his firm was spared the worst of the recession. “We were lucky not to self-destruct, because we did not get too ambitious. We didn’t succumb to the lure of quick money, and instead focused on the art of building,” he explains. “I see people who’ve made a lot of money doing speculation, but I’ve also seen others who’ve gone under because they mistimed the market.” 

Jake and Jeff divide tasks geographically, for the most part. With city dweller Jeff preferring the urban projects and Jake, who lives in Wilmette, enjoying the North Shore houses. “We operate as senior project managers. We have the same job descriptions—chasing leads—but we generally maintain our own architect relationships, unless one of us is inundated.” 

Although good word-of-mouth from clients is important to the company, Jake is convinced his best stream of work comes from architects. “Our goal when we do a job, is the architect is going to become an associate of ours, so we can refer work back and forth. When we make the process work together, it helps them be successful with the client. If we please the owner, they may refer one friend to us, but architects offer a continuing flow of projects.”

That’s where the trust comes in and benefits the company long-term. “Our appreciation and understanding of architecture have always given us a great insight into the process, so we can help architects flesh out their designs and make them come to life,” he continues. “So we’ve focused on collaboration, making the architects’ experience enjoyable to them, and making them feel like we’re in their camp.”

The builders don’t lose track, however, of their role as client advocates and stewards of the budget. In fact, Jake is not a fan of design/build delivery because he thinks checks and balances in the client/architect/builder relationship are critical to the success of the project. “It really works best as a triangle,” he explains. “I don’t think design/build is in the best interest of the client. The client is leaning on us to keep the architect from pushing things financially, and it’s our job to protect the client from getting off track from the budget. Ultimately, it’s their project.” 

Knees Shoulders Data

With a steady workforce of longtime employees, Goldberg General Contracting is facing many of the same problems as other established builders—an aging pool of talent and a dwindling flow of new workers willing and able to do the hands-on work. “We’re starting to see knee issues and shoulder issues,” he says. But his biggest problem currently is the deluge of data.

A typical big project supports a senior project manager (Jake or Jeff), a site manager, and a lead carpenter. That used to be the sweet spot of leadership on a residential project. But, increasingly, this team is stretched thin by the volume of “paperwork” generated by the company’s complex jobs. “If I could afford it, I’d have a second project manager full time on a computer in a jobsite trailer, just handling all the data we have to deal with.” 

Some of the folks with aching joints get reassigned to “using their brains more than their bodies” —as lead carpenters, for instance, laying out the work and directing other carpenters and trades. This can free up the site manager to handle more of the computer and other administrative tasks. But it’s a continuing conundrum for the company about how to strike the perfect balance between skilled manual labor and sophisticated managerial talent. Jake’s not even sure those two strengths coexist in one human, even though that’s exactly who he needs on the team. 

“We get hundreds of emails a day. The sheer volume is overwhelming—not to mention texts and phone calls,” he says. “So, you have to keep a record of all that communication. And then there are the ASKS [sketches for clarification], RFIs [requests for information], change order documents for increases or decreases to the contract, submittals for shop drawings, product approvals for the architect, cut sheets on equipment and products going into the project, all the subcontractor agreements, and scheduling. And any sophisticated project is going to want a Gantt-type chart.”

Whew. Those are just some of the tasks required of Jake’s project managers. “The scale of some of the residential jobs we’re doing these days is almost like a commercial job,” he notes. “It could last two or three years, and it could be over $10 million. 

“What’s interesting for me as a business owner—I’m not just trying to impress the client, but I’m also trying to impress the architects,” he explains. “If they see a project manager who’s rough around the edges, then they might be perceived as having the goods. Or, others might see them as underqualified because they make spelling errors and typos on written communication. Do I go with the college-educated guy who’s articulate, but can’t answer a real physical question? There are a lot of judgment calls about personality types and expectations. I have to make the decision of who is right for the mix, among those who are available.”

Obviously, the company gets it right more often than not. That Jake and his partner sweat these details is just evidence of the care that goes into every project. In fact, attention to detail is the company’s secret to excelling at both modern work and meticulous historic restoration. “We’ve come to realize they are both similar in that they come down to conscientious execution,” he explains. “What you’re doing needs to be relevant to the context of the project. Ultra-modern work and historic restoration is an unexpected alignment, but over the years, it feels logical that the same firm could do both.”

Well, perhaps not just any firm.

Projects built by Goldberg General Contracting

The Ravine House

The Ravine House is a new modern project from Goldberg General Contracting. Designed by Robbins Architecture, the house occupies a site atop a deep ravine along Lake Michigan. GGC flexes between modern and traditional work with remarkable ease and excellence. Photos: Hall + Merrick Photographers

The Skylight House

Designed by dSPACE Studio, GGC’s renovation of Skylight House added a third level, new window openings, custom walnut cabinetry, and a steel-and-glass stair, among other improvements. Photos: Tony Soluri Photography

Supera Residence

GGC and architect Seth Romig converted this 1886 three-flat townhouse into a commodious single-family home. Photos: Tony Soluri Photography

Lincoln Park Residence

Thanks to Vinci | Hamp and GGC, a 19th-century dairy in Lincoln Park is now a striking courtyard house. Historic exteriors were preserved and exuberantly modern interiors inserted. Photos: Eric Hausmann Photography

Northside Residence

A 6,000-square-foot urban dwelling by Brininstool + Lynch mixes masonry, aged copper, and weathered steel in a strikingly sculptural composition. Photos: Christopher Barrett Photography

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