In the greater Portland area many homes that were built before WWII have unfinished basements. Their main function then was to accommodate furnaces, laundry areas, storage, and even sleeping. Today, remodelers receive calls to convert these spaces into more modern usage such as family rooms, entertainment areas, bedrooms, and bathrooms, plus storage/utility areas.
In writing this article I had the opportunity to interview two other local remodelers to get their insights as to what they experienced and recommended to their customers when the homeowner wanted a basement conversion. Anne De Wolf, of Arciform LLC, and Steve Klingerman, of Sovereign Construction, Inc., both have years of design and construction experience and were generous enough to allow me to pick their brains. As a designer of many basement remodels myself, I was surprised to learn so many new tricks, so I am sure anyone who may be considering such a project will benefit from their knowledge.
Second photo shows an example of ceiling trim mentioned in this article. This spacious family room has a separate play area for the kids, with a creative chalk/magnet wall and gourmet kitchen.
Tucked away in one of the corners of the above basement is a large walk in shower that leads into a sizable sauna.
Add a design element to the exterior of an egress window well like the windows below. This beautiful rod iron treatment is hinged at the wall so it can be opened in case of an emergency. The top photo shows how they look from the basement interior.
De Wolf, born in Germany and co-founder of Arciform LLC with her husband Richard, brings a European sensibility to her Portland remodeling projects. Steve is a recent immigrant from North Carolina who has many years of experience finishing daylight basements in the Raleigh area. I’m a native Oregonian who has spent the last 25 years in the dank basements of Seattle and Portland, so between the three of us we have seen a lot of spider webs and water leaks.
All Basements Are Not Created Equal
De Wolf says she loves to remodel basements and considers them a unique challenge. Klingerman adds that every project is different even though so many of them we look at seem to be dug under the classic 23’x 35’ Portland home popular in such neighborhoods as Hollywood, Eastmoreland, and Alameda. The thing that makes all of them unique is what each homeowner wants to do with the space, and the challenges that all basements pose. Klingerman notes, “We are building a dream for people, so no two projects are alike.”
Keeping It Dry
De Wolf states that the most common problem in basements is the moisture. She claims, “If you can smell it, you’ve got a problem.” Klingerman advises that you should remedy the water issues first, “…and then live with it for a year to make sure the water is gone.” Klingerman says that you can “try grading the yard away from the house to get positive drainage, take care of gutters that don’t work, and funnel unwanted moisture into the ground around the basement. Use hydrostatic patching material to plug holes, and if that doesn’t remedy it, the last resort is to put a drainage system inside the basement around the perimeter of the foundation walls.” Klingerman is skeptical about waterproofing from the exterior, but De Wolf advises that French drains on the exterior are a solution she uses frequently.
I have had success with exterior systems, but in any case, as Klingerman advises, “It is best to hire a company that specializes in that kind of job.” There are quite a few in the Portland/Vancouver area.
What’s the Cost?
Both De Wolf and Klingerman remarked that another frequent problem they encounter is that people seem to think that basement remodeling is cheap. “They believe that if there is a ceiling and a floor that it can’t cost much to finish off the space,” says Klingerman. Both of my experts independently mentioned the number $75,000 as a realistic budget to finish a basement, and I concur. The last basement I estimated to do a really complete conversion on an 800 sq ft, 1930s home in the Reed neighborhood was in that range.
That particular project included a new furnace with ducting in between the floor/ceiling joists, removing the chimney to free up the use of space, and redoing all the electrical in the basement including a new circuit panel. We removed the galvanized plumbing and moved it up into the ceiling so it didn’t protrude into the living space. We furred out and insulated all the exterior walls, moved the laundry area and plumbed for a new bathroom, and installed one egress window with a concrete window well. We also refurbished the existing stairs and finished off the entire space with good quality materials. The area that the owners gained is a roomy bedroom (which they surprisingly decided to make their master after they saw how nice it turned out), a large walk-in closet, and spacious bathroom with a jetted tub. They added tile floors, cherry vanity cabinets, a fully functional utility room, and a versatile work out area/family room, plus a semi-finished room for storage.
Remodel the Basement Last
When considering what you want to do in a basement, De Wolf advises that you “Take into consideration what you want to do upstairs first. Work from the top down, because when you finish off a basement you make it harder to do work on the rooms above it.” If you want to move plumbing for a kitchen or bath on the main floor, you will have to tear out your newly finished basement ceiling. Likewise if you want to do major changes, like moving stairs or chimneys.
Check your local zoning, because many areas aren’t zoned for “mother-in-law” apartments or duplexes. Even if you aren’t planning on renting out the space, if you do certain types of improvements, your county or city may require you to sign an affidavit that you are not going to become a landlord. I got caught on that with one project in the Burlingame neighborhood of Portland. When the electrical inspector showed up, he signed off, but then went out and sat in his car for a few minutes and decided the home owner needed to prove he wasn’t going to turn the house into a duplex. (He wasn’t — really! But it was a hassle to prove it none the less.)
The city of Portland has an excellent handout on converting basements; it is available as a PDF document online at www.portlandonline.com/bds — look under main menu “Applications/Handouts” and search for “Converting Attics, Basements and Garages to Living Space #9.” Read this brochure before dreaming about a basement conversion. Minimum requirements are addressed, and your basement might not qualify.
Klingerman made an excellent comment that people who finish basements without a permit are “…cheating the people who buy the house after them because there is no way for them to know if they are getting legal, quality workmanship.” He adds, “Usually people who do work without permits are less expensive, and there is a reason why they are.”
|No Need to Cut the Floor
If you’re converting the attic of a four-square or creating an entertainment space in the basement of a bungalow, you already know that installing a kitchen or bath with conventional plumbing can be costly, and digging up the floor to make drainage connections can be a real mess.
Here’s something you may not know: Regardless of the type of home you’re renovating, above-floor plumbing (macerating technology), gives you the flexibility to be fully creative with project design and installations.
With macerating technology, excavation isn’t necessary, even in the basement, because the above-floor plumbing is installed directly on top of the finished floor. The options are endless: Renovate a loft, convert an attic, or refurbish the basement. SFA Saniflo Inc. offers a complete line of macerating systems that make bath, kitchen, and utility room plumbing a snap.
For more information about above-floor plumbing systems, contact Saniflo at 800-363-5874 or visit www.saniflo.com. All A-Boy stores offer the Saniflo systems. Call 503-225-9009 for a A-Boy Supply in Portland, OR.
“Tying into plumbing is not scary.” De Wolf states, “All you have to do is cut the concrete…and we do that all the time.” So putting bathrooms in basements is usually not a problem. Klingerman has used what he calls “lift stations” to get the drain lines to function properly if they are below the level where the sewer runs out to the street. It would be good to get a plumber or remodeling expert to look it over before you go too far with your initial space planning. Also see the sidebar “No Need to Cut the Floor.”
Klingerman and De Wolf both have ways of dealing with the usual problem of the lack of natural light in basements. In order to get away from that “cave-like feeling,” De Wolf uses enlarged windows, recessed can lights, and lighter warm paint colors. Klingerman recommends using glass doors to allow light to flow from one area into another. De Wolf also uses table and floor lamps that are connected to wall switches through out the living areas.
Concealing the Basement Look
The problem of posts and beams is another design obstacle. Klingerman uses wide walls built around the posts to disguise the basement-like atmosphere they impose. Sometimes he employs the use of arches between the posts to soften the linear effect.
De Wolf advises that people watch out for the irregular dimensions these “rustic” spaces typically feature. The distances between the floor and ceiling often vary, so she utilizes tricks like not tiling to the ceiling because the grout lines accentuate the unevenness of the framing relative to the concrete floor. She also uses ceiling trim, like crown molding or picture molding, and carries the ceiling color on to the trim to de-emphasize that same problem.
She points out that there are two basic approaches to basement remodeling: “The ‘industrial look’ and the more finished look.” If you want to save money, she advises to let the ducts and plumbing be. Klingerman even points out that sometimes in order to keep a feeling of height in the low ceilings of basements, he advises people to leave the joists exposed and to “paint them a neutral color so that everything sort of disappears”. He suggests that this be done to a limited extent and in smaller areas. Also, it works best if the ducting, plumbing, and electrical are done neatly and in the upper portion of the joists.
When it comes to cutting budgets, De Wolf says that it kind of amazes her “what Americans ‘have to have.’ In Europe, we are used to making do with what we are given to work with. Embrace a certain level of imperfection — it is money well not spent.”
Paul Olson is a designer for Portland Home Remodeling. Contact Olson at 503-698-3444 or visit www.portlandhomeremodeling.com.