Beautiful Basements: Smart Fixes

With low ceilings and few windows, basements can be tricky to renovate. We talked to builders and architects about how to solve six common problems.

By: Kathleen Bridges

There’s not enough natural light

This Woodley Park basement by Bruce Wentworth has a loft-like feel. Photograph by Stacy Goldberg.

Whether your basement is walkout or completely under grade, a lack of natural light is a common problem.

The easiest fix? “Clever lighting,” says Patricia Tetro of Bowa, a remodeling firm in McLean and Middleburg. Tetro recommends a combination of task, general, and recessed lighting to maximize ambient light. In a recent project, her team added a recessed aquarium to a windowless room in addition to a mix of strategically positioned light fixtures. “There’s an incredible amount of wattage involved with an aquarium,” says Tetro. “The result is an active light and a warm glow.”

If your budget allows, consider enlarging small windows by excavating the perimeter of the foundation wall and digging out deeper window wells. “This is almost always a possibility,” says Jim Gibson of DC’s Gibson Builders, who notes that it can also be a necessity: To meet code, finished basements must have a door or window to the outside that’s at least three feet tall (it varies by jurisdiction).

The space is damp

The first line of defense against moisture is to keep it from coming into the space. As a house ages, the ground around it can settle, causing the grade to slope down toward the house instead of away from it. To combat this problem, Tetro recommends adding topsoil and building up mulch beds to keep the water from getting down to the foundation wall. Clearing gutters and downspouts is another way to ensure that water falls far enough from the house.

Even with these measures, dampness can still be an issue, as underground rooms are typically more humid than the rest of the house. DC architect Steve Lawlor recommends putting the basement on its own heating and cooling zone, separate from the upper levels, and installing a dehumidifier to minimize excess moisture in the air. Adding a sump pump is also a good idea, particularly if the foundation is under the water table. To ensure that the pump works when it’s most needed, consider investing in a battery backup system.

Regardless, experts agree that breathable materials are the best option for flooring. “I’ve seen people do a Pergo floor and it turns into waves, all rippled because there was too much moisture,” says Bruce Wentworth of the Chevy Chase firm Wentworth. Instead of wood or laminate, choose natural stone tile or cork. Carpet, which can be pulled up and replaced relatively easily, is another option.

The ceilings are too low

Removing a ceiling to expose floor joists is an inexpensive way to create the illusion of height. Photograph by Stacy Goldberg.

Many basements, particularly in older homes, were never designed to be living spaces. As a result, they may have low ceilings, making the space feel cramped.

The easiest and least expensive fix is to create the illusion of height by using coffered ceilings or applied moldings, which add dimension to a flat surface. Wentworth likes to use dark paint around the perimeter of a ceiling and a lighter color in the middle to give it a sense of depth and lightness. But if your ceiling is under the seven feet required of a finished basement by most area building codes, structural adjustments may be necessary.

“The first thing to ask is can you go up, perhaps stealing some space beneath the floorboards, or must you go down?” says Bowa’s Patricia Tetro. “Going up is always preferable.”

In a recent renovation to a basement in DC’s Woodley Park, Bruce Wentworth removed the ceiling and exposed the main story’s floor joists. After consolidating the piping and relocating some ductwork to a bulkhead that runs down the center of the room, everything was painted white. In addition to adding character and a loft-like feel, the renovation created an extra ten inches of visual space—and saved a lot of money.

The last resort is to dig out the foundation and pour a new slab deeper into the ground. “It’s a monumental undertaking,” says Gibson, “but it can be done.”

The space feels removed from the rest of the home

Even if an airy finished basement awaits you at the bottom of the stairs, a dark, narrow staircase can tarnish the space and lessen a renovation’s impact. Steve Lawlor recently completed a basement project that centered around a light-filled, open stairway leading downstairs from the heart of the main floor. “It’s what introduces you to the space, and it also becomes a cool, three-dimensional architectural feature,” he says.

Another way to unify a basement with the rest of the house is to use similar finishes and color palettes—Lawlor continued the same flagstone and custom millwork as upstairs. “There’s a common vernacular used throughout the house,” he says.

Tetro notes that introducing soft, warm materials—area rugs, textured fabrics—can make the space feel more comfortable: “No one wants to feel like they are being sent down to the cellar.”

The basement needs to be used for storage but has to look nice, too

When it comes to efficient—and attractive—storage, planning is key. “Take an assessment of what is down there—what stays, what goes?” says Joseph Gilday of Gilday Renovations in Silver Spring. “Then catalog your storage needs before mapping out the functional part of the basement.”

Lawlor recommends using the darkest part of the space for shelving and closets: “Keep in mind that you want utilitarian, highly adjustable systems that can hold your camping gear one year and a record collection the next.”

Built-ins with strong horizontal lines can give the illusion of more room. “Emphasizing the horizontal can make you feel that there’s more space, since your eyes get carried along those lines,” says Wentworth. And if moisture or flooding is a concern, think about lifting shelves off the ground a few inches. Wentworth recommends modern chrome legs and casters by Doug Mockett & Company, which makes architectural hardware.

You need a space that can be used in many ways

Homeowners today are interested in a flexible, multifunctional basement they can use often. “For a while, we were doing a lot of ‘man caves,’ but now we design spaces that can work for the entire family,” says Wentworth, who recently installed a Murphy bed in the basement of a Georgetown rowhouse; the bed can be used to convert the family room into a guest room.

Rather than a rigid design that serves only one function, many homeowners are asking builders to create “zones” throughout their basement: an area for watching TV, a play space for the kids, a hobby table with task lighting.

Real-estate agent David Getson says basement bathrooms and kitchenettes are particularly valuable when it comes time to sell: “Most buyers want a basement space that can evolve with their family. If it’s a young couple, they might use their finished basement as a rental unit, which will transition to an in-law suite when they have a child, and later to a play area and guest suite. Having a bath and kitchenette allows them to do this.”

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This article appears in the August 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.