Building history

CBI Custom Homes prides itself on period houses’ architectural purity
No one with an interest in historic residential architecture needs to leave the North Shore, or indeed, the Web site of CBI Custom Homes,, to get an eyeful. The high-end builder, which prides itself on historically pure design and construction, has peppered the affluent suburbs north of Chicago with stunning, period-specific homes that would look as natural in 19th century Provence or historic London suburbs as on the edge of a Midwestern metropolis.

From an English Tudor in Lake Forest to a French Revival in Glencoe to an American Shingle in Kenilworth, CBI’s new homes have the grandeur and impeccable architectural detailing of bygone eras – steeply pitched roofs and overlapping gables, a seamless mass of natural shingles, the classical columns of a grand entrance. Styles vary, but the emphasis on detail and pure historic architecture is a constant in CBI homes.

One work-in-progress, for example, is a warm stucco-and-brick Winnetka house with a “French eclectic” design, featuring five bedrooms, 4.5 baths, a first-floor study, four fireplaces and a dramatic custom-built radius staircase. The three-story home on a wooded lot offers 4,600 square feet for $1.625 million.

However, the Lake Bluff-based homebuilding company was not to the manor born. Company president, Brett Marlowe, and his brother Todd worked their way up to this niche over 15 years, using a credit card and $500 to buy their first vacant lot at a tax sale.

“We bootstrapped our way into this business,” says Brett Marlowe. “We bought a lot and built a starter home for around $60,000. When we sold it for $100,000, we were on our way.”

CBI built more starter homes, then graduated to move-ups, and finally ended up where the Marlowes wanted to be all along, in the luxury home market. But even that wasn’t good enough. Coming from a family that has had a hand in the construction business for four generations, Brett Marlowe has an old-school mentality when it comes to quality home construction.

“We at CBI have great respect for our craft, which spans many centuries,” Marlowe says. “And as a result, the big difference between our company and other luxury homebuilders is that we now confine ourselves strictly to building period-specific homes.”

When Marlowe says “period-specific” he means it. The CBI staff brings more than a century of combined experience to each new project, and if there are unanswered questions concerning a certain period or style, they do the research. They’ve become adept at finding the tradesmen who can recreate the sorts of lost detailing they love, and when they can’t, they improvise.

“There is a wealth of reading material on every style of home ever built,” Marlowe says. “And you would be amazed at how many artisans are out there who are capable of reproducing every detail for a period-specific project. If we can’t find what we want, we’ll make mock-up molds or whatever it takes to end up with a product that is identical to the real thing. The quality of our work is unrivaled.”

Approximately 40 percent of CBI’s homes are built for specific clients who may or may not have definitive ideas about the type of home they wish to build. The balance of CBI’s homes are built “on spec,” or without designated buyers, throughout the North Shore.

“The reason we spec such a large percentage of our homes is that it gives us the opportunity to express ourselves artistically,” Marlowe says. “We can be absolutely true to the style of home we are building without regard to the lifestyle or preferences of a particular client.”

While client preferences are taken into account in building a period-specific home for a buyer, CBI will not break its self-imposed principle of accuracy.

“Nowadays there are a number of obstacles to building period-specific,” Marlowe says. “Obviously, one of them is client preference. We create legacy homes, traditional and timeless, and therefore some clients are not for us. However, we are not building ‘period-perfect’ homes, so we can stay true to our principles and still accommodate many clients by varying room sizes, adding modern conveniences and ‘smart home’ systems, and taking advantage of modern construction materials and techniques.”

A CBI client, Dr. Brian Silverstein agrees.

“My wife and I didn’t know whether to buy or build,” Silverstein says.

Unable to find the house they wanted, the Silversteins interviewed a number of builders. “Some builders were monolithic in their style,” Silverstein says. “Others offered all kinds of options and upgrades. We were looking for someone to guide us to a style and then build our house without us having to micromanage the project. CBI fit the bill to perfection. We told them we were conservatively contemporary in our tastes and that we both worked and wanted them to just do it for us.

They found us a site in Glencoe, and we chose a Prairie style home that will be finished early next year. There are no options, upgrades or plans to choose from. They build it one way and that’s it, although they are accommodating a number of our desires to the extent that it does not deviate from the style of the house. We are extremely pleased with them.”

CBI’s approach isn’t always easy given today’s rules and restrictions for building, according to Sergio Estenssoro, an architect who works closely with CBI.

“Nowadays in order to do what Brett and his company are doing, you have to be very knowledgeable and have a passion to be true to your beliefs,” Estenssoro says. “CBI is very unique in this regard. You have to be able to engage in give-and-take without compromising what you are doing, and they are very good at it.”

“We are very proud of what we are,” Marlowe says. “And in addition to paying attention to historical detail, we are careful to develop a rapport with the neighborhoods we build in. We don’t park trucks on the street and mess up a neighborhood for months. We respect the rights of the people who live there, and sometimes that means it takes us a little longer to get the job done, but so be it.”

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