Renovation Solutions: Basements can be remodeled, no matter how scary

Published: Friday, Nov. 15 2013 3:58 p.m. MST

In the basement remodel, updating the finishes and adding windows makes a big difference to the space.

Scot Zimmerman, Renovation Design Group

For the past few weeks, we have been discussing how to creatively use or repurpose existing space in your home. Whether it be the attic or your garage, there may be space within your home just waiting to be used. One common space that may be waiting for its turn is the basement.

Basements are common in Utah, but many of them are unfinished or finished so poorly that they are definitely not ready for prime-time living. However, basements have some advantages over above-ground real estate (cooler in the summer, warmer in the winter, quieter), and they can be transformed into wonderful spaces for living.

Remodeling the basement requires a master plan just like any other portion of your home. You will want to consider what functions will be included, how people will circulate, and how you will address code issues regarding egress (exiting), light and air.

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. This is often the time when a homeowner replaces and upgrades the existing furnace to a model that is much more energy-efficient.

If the new furnace is 90 percent efficient (or better), then it can be vented horizontally through the basement wall. If both the furnace and the water heater are replaced, the chimney used for venting the older appliances can be removed altogether. This will not only free up space in the basement, but on the upper floors as well.

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 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. Clearly, moving the stairs will impact all the levels of your home, so you need to take a larger view of your project if this is a possibility.

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, 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, the International Residential Code says 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 perpendicular from the wall of the house) to allow proper egress from the room as well as to accommodate rescue personnel with oxygen tanks on their backs being able to get in. 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 of headroom (or more). This involves removing the existing slab, adding to the foundation of the house and pouring a new concrete floor. As you can imagine, this is not inexpensive, but it can result in doubling your existing square footage and creating 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 replacement of existing staircases to meet the new lower floor (and current code requirements), 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, even the scariest basements can be transformed into highly desirable living spaces. Don’t overlook this potential gold mine"of space that may be sitting right below your feet just waiting to be discovered.

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 or questions to ask@RenovationDesignGroup.com

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