Lower levels and
basements can be difficult areas to deal with. Considerations like lack of sunlight
and headroom, and exposed mechanical systems can present problems that take a
little more creativity to solve.
a Basement Project
Unlike building a new house or an addition, a detailed plan is not absolutely
necessary in finishing a lower level or basement if you're not disturbing the
foundation or any load-bearing posts or walls.
NOTE: Although you may not need a detailed
plan, you will probably need a building permit to finish your basement,
and that'll require at least a sketch of your project--BEFORE you begin--to
give your local building officials an idea of what you're doing. Check with them
wanted a bare minimum of walls downstairs to keep the spaces open, but we had
a lot of low-hanging pipes and ducts to hide that would require several soffits.
asked Dan Nepp of Tom Ellison Architects to sketch us a concept plan that would
not only incorporate the necessary soffits but also use them to define living
areas in the open spaces.
We used that sketch to start the project, but as the work progressed a more detailed
starting any basement finishing, we strongly recommend that you solve any wetness
or dampness problems because moisture will rot wood, drywall, carpet and most
any other material you might be using.
If you do have moisture problems, we also strongly recommend that you consult
a licensed waterproofing contractor with sound credentials and references.
BEFORE taking that step, make sure that it's not just a simple grading problem. If the ground along the outside of your foundation doesn't slope down
and away from the house, it's likely that rain and melting snow will collect against
the foundation and probably seep into your basement. If that's your problem, build
up the soil around the foundation to where water runs AWAY from the house.
check your rain gutters and downspouts for any leaks that might be letting water
soak into the foundation. And use extensions on the downspouts to make sure water
drains a few feet away from the house.
To solve more complicated problems, consult a licensed pro. But be aware that
permanent solutions can involve costly excavation in order to waterproof the outside
walls of the foundation, and to run new drain tile alongside the footings.
an Egress Window
An egress window is usally required by code in new basement projects -- especially if bedrooms are involved. They allow people to escape smoke
or fire if doors or stairways are blocked.
Satisfying egress window requirements can be expensive because high-mounted basement
awning windows don't qualify.
First, egress windows have to open high and wide enough to let an adult pass through.
Second, egress window sills have to be less than 42" above the finished floor to permit
easy departure. (One of our window units with a sill 56" didn't qualify)
one or more egress windows is obviously a worthy part of a basement project, but
it requires buying a large window, cutting an opening in the foundation and mounting
the window properly.
Egress windows often create drainage problems caused by the need to set
the window bottom below ground level (usually accomplished with sand and gravel-based
window wells and retaining walls).
The house in our project was built with one egress window in the lower level bedroom,
satisfying that part of the code. But the concrete window well was so high that
we had to secure a permanent ladder in it to fulfill all the safety requirements.
Beyond the health and safety issues of dampness and egress windows, the biggest
issue in finishing a basement is how to hide all the overhead pipes, ducts and
beams and still keep a fair amount of headroom.
obviously difficult in basements with less than 8' between the slab and the first
floor joists, and in some cities building codes may not allow finished spaces
with ceiling heights less than a certain height. So be sure to check that before
If you don't have enough room, it may be possible to lower your basement floor
by breaking up the slab, digging down a bit further, re-laying plumbing, then
re-pouring the floor. But the costs may be prohibitive.