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How-To Basements
Hometime Logo Dean Johnson
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Trans 1) Lower Level Planning Trans
2) Plumbing & Fixtures
3) Framing
4) Veneer Plaster Walls
5) Lighting
6) Finishing Details
7) Fun Extras

Lower Level Planning

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.

Planning 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 before starting.

We 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.

We 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 plan evolved.


Dealing with Dampness

Before 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.

But 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.

Also 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.



Providing 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)

Installing 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.


Assessing Headroom Issues

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.

It's 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 you start.

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.