Finishing your basement is a less-expensive and less-invasive alternative to a home addition, and it does not eat up yard space. With good architectural design, even shelf basements with low ceilings and small windows, or basements that have already been poorly "finished" can be transformed into wonderful, usable spaces.
If your basement has never been finished or was not finished properly, the first thing you'll need is a good floor plan. Consider the architectural principle of "flow" or "circulation." How will people get from one space to another? Open floor plans are good, but be sure to delineate spaces to allow people to easily move from one area to another.
In older homes, furnaces and water heaters are often in the center of the basement, which hinders circulation. Rather than trying to work around these utilities, it may be advisable to move them to a more remote location in the basement.
Moving the stairs may also be necessary to achieve an ideal floor plan. If you alter the stairs in any way, you will be required to bring them up to current building code standards. Remember that you'll need approximately 3 feet by 16 feet of floor space (in the basement and on the main level) for a safe, usable staircase.
The next principle to consider is natural light. If your basement will become your new home theater or TV room, then you may not care if there is not much natural light. However, if you want a brighter, more comfortable living space, you'll want to bring more light into your basement by adding or enlarging windows. If bedrooms are involved, code requires certain minimum areas of egress (exiting), as well as minimum sizes for the exterior window wells. In some cases, large window wells can be created and terraced away from the window to give the room even more light and a feeling of connection with the outside.
Specifically, International Residential Code says that each basement bedroom must have a window with a lower ledge no more than 44 inches from the floor and at least 5.7 square feet of clear opening space. Window wells must be 3 feet clear (measured from the wall to the interior edge of the window well) to allow proper egress from the room as well as to accommodate rescue personnel with oxygen tanks on their backs. Beside the traditional corrugated metal window wells, one could construct a window well out of concrete, stackable pavers or natural stone. There are also options for manufactured window wells with decorative linings and built-in safety ladders or steps to help people escape in case of an emergency. Architects and other building professionals can help you understand further possibilities and safety requirements for basement windows and window wells.
If you want a bathroom in your basement, the easiest place to install one is adjacent to the sewer stack (a large black pipe), which is usually located under an existing bathroom on the main floor. If this location does not work for your basement floor plan, however, drains and sewer connections can be relocated by trenching into the basement's concrete floor.
Finally, if your basement was built with a low ceiling, technology exists today to lower the basement floor to give you 8 feet (or more) of headroom. This involves removing the existing slab, adding to the foundation of the house and pouring a new floor. As you can imagine, this is not cheap, but it can result in doubling your existing square footage and having modern, airy rooms in the process.
Lowering a basement floor is usually done in conjunction with a total basement remodel, so existing walls, plumbing, etc. are removed before the excavation begins. Additional expenses you'll need to consider include the replacement of existing staircases to meet the new lower floor (and current code) requirements, the construction of new interior walls, lowering plumbing lines and dealing with how they intersect with the existing sewer line, and enlarging the windows of any bedrooms to meet egress codes.
With all of today's renovation options, basements that were once dark and scary can be transformed into highly desirable living spaces, giving you the room you crave.
Ann Robinson and Annie V. Schwemmer are the Principal Architects and co-founders of a residential architectural firm focused on life-changing remodeling designs at RenovationDesignGroup.com. Send comments to ask@RenovationDesignGroup.com.