St. Charles home improvement project in fourth decade

On a sunny afternoon, a spry 69-year-old Cliff McIlvaine is digging in the dirt side-by-side with a crew of workers preparing the ground at McIlvaine's property for concrete. The stains on McIlvaine's well-worn blue coveralls and red cap indicate a man who both knows how to work with his hands and who enjoys it.

But in the eyes of St. Charles city officials, McIlvaine is violating more than 33 sections of city code, marking him as more of a stain on his neighborhood. In fact, city officials believe so strongly that McIlvaine is a hazard to himself and the neighborhood that they've taken him to court.

The problem isn't so much that McIlvaine wants to relocate a garage and build an addition to his home. The beef centers on the fact McIlvaine has been working on the project for 36 years — more than half his life — and it still isn't finished.

To the city, buckets of nails, metal roofing covered with blue tarp, and stacks of wood that have served as snacks for various critters over the years are all piles of trash.

“The city has received complaints regarding a large number of raccoons in the area and eyewitness accounts of raccoons entering and exiting the home through holes in the exterior,” reads the city's legal complaint about the property on the 600 block of Prairie Street. “He has parked motor vehicles under a tarp outside of the detached garage in the yard for the past 12 years and has parked a box trailer on the yard for the past 11 years. The city and the public will suffer immediate and irreparable harm without permanent injunctive relief.”

Embedded in that statement by the city is admission that no staff member followed up on McIlvaine's original 1976 permit for decades to see if the work was completed or performed correctly until someone complained about the clutter.

But to McIlvaine, any clutter is the result of the property being, in fact, a construction site. What the city sees as debris, he sees as a work in progress, the collection of raw materials that eventually will bring the vision for his home to fruition.

And as far as McIlvaine is concerned, the city's code is a set of inferior standards compared to what he wants to build.

“I do stuff different from anybody else,” McIlvaine said. “I do it once and then you can forget about it.”

Hence, McIlvaine is in the midst of pouring a garage floor that can bear something along the lines of 10 times the weight of a normal garage. Beneath the garage is a catacomb of wood and steel support pillars for a basement that shares a wall with the nuclear fallout shelter McIlvaine's father built when Cliff McIlvaine was still a high school student.

McIlvaine formed the underground support structure himself. He also set up the temporary electrical system that lights it. He makes his own fiberglass from his own formula. He built a secondary garage on his property almost entirely by himself.

Can-do spirit

But McIlvaine doesn't have diplomas that say he knows how to do all that work. He said he taught himself as a labor of love — that he enjoys inventing new things and new processes.

“I just sit down and say, ‘What's the simplest way to do this?'” McIlvaine said. “Just because it takes so long has nothing to do with if it's done right.”

But because he doesn't have the words “architect” on his resume, court filings by the city express concern about whether any of the work is safe or has been done correctly.

“They are trying to condemn me for something my father started,” McIlvaine said. “It's not what you start with; it's what you end up with. The city wants everyone to think what I'm doing is of inferior quality. It's exactly the opposite.”

Jim Webb, owner of St. Charles-based Royal Builders, has no problem with McIlvaine having a hands-on approach to the project. A recently inked court order has Webb and his crew helping McIlvaine complete the project in a more timely manner. Webb is a high school friend of McIlvaine.

“Cliff is a good guy,” Webb said. “But he likes things done a certain way. I think over the years he got sidetracked from time to time and maybe gave up a little bit. We're going to help him finish what he started.”

To McIlvaine's credit, Webb's crew hasn't had to redo much of McIlvaine's work. In fact, McIlvaine has taught the workers to do some tasks, such as bend electrical conduit and install electrical boxes the way he likes.

The words “stubborn” and “eccentric” frequently pop up when people, including the workers helping him on his project, talk about McIlvaine. The job is likely the only one they'll ever do that began with the signing of notarized agreements that they won't disclose anything about what they see inside McIlvaine's home.

McIlvaine uses the word “perfectionist” to describe his approach. Indeed, to understand why McIlvaine's project has taken nearly four decades requires understanding the depth of his perfectionism.

Doing it his way

McIlvaine owns a company that installs fire alarm systems. He's spent a good amount of time at the scenes of burned out buildings where alarm and sprinkler systems failed, trying to figure out what went wrong … trying to figure out what caused property losses of thousands or millions of dollars … helping trace what may have caused people to die.

“I've seen what happens when someone doesn't do something the right way,” McIlvaine said.

As the saying goes, if you want something done right, do it yourself. That's what McIlvaine's done for the past 36 years. Until now.

The consent decree McIlvaine agreed to sign ended the legal battle over how long and what standards McIlvaine must meet for his home improvement project. He is now required to have the help of someone like Webb, an architect review all his plans, and full city inspections. A series of follow-up court dates will now ensure the project is complete before October 2012.

But that won't be the end of McIlvaine's fight with the city.

Rainwater a resource

The city has an amended complaint still working its way through the court system. With the issue of completion of the home improvement project resolved, officials now want McIlvaine to stop drinking, cooking and bathing in rainwater.

McIlvaine's home collects rainwater from a gutter system on his roof that funnels the water to an underground cistern. The cistern has a double filtration system that pipes the rainwater to faucets in McIlvaine's home.

McIlvaine has used the rainwater in this fashion since he was a kid. The city believes the setup is a health hazard.

If that's the case, McIlvaine said he wants to know why he isn't dead after using it for nearly 70 years. And he said this fight over rainwater ultimately could lead to a further delay on his home project.

Denied a jury to review the case, McIlvaine believes it's likely a judge ultimately will tell him he must switch to paying for city water. McIlvaine said that could end in him being in jail and not being present to complete the home project.

To McIlvaine, rain is a cleaner, more perfect water source than the city's. While he bent on how to do the home improvement project, he said he doesn't intend to do so on his water supply.

“I don't care if I sit in jail,” McIlvaine said. “I'm not changing this rainwater system.”

  Cliff McIlvaine said his garage contains more steel reinforcement than many commercial projects. McIlvaine’s self-imposed material requirements are part of why the project has taken so long. James Fuller/
  Cliff McIlvaine has taught himself many of the processes and techniques he’s used to work on his home. That’s a fact that St. Charles city officials are uncomfortable enough with to take him to court. James Fuller/
  This is the street view of Cliff McIlvaine’s property last November. He’s been fighting with St. Charles officials over completion of his 36-year-old home improvement project. Rick West/
  Once Cliff McIlvaine’s home construction project is complete, he expects he’ll still be in a court battle with the city over a plumbing system that collects rainwater for use inside the home. McIlvaine believes his rainwater is cleaner than the city’s water ... and free, to boot. James Fuller/