Article No: 125

2006-05-02 09:52:25
By: Christopher Brooks

Planning ahead increases usability of lower level space.

A home's lower level — the portion of the house below grade level — is no longer an unfinished space exclusive to storage and laundry. Call it a trend, but it's here to stay. Lower-level living is quickly becoming an integral part of today's evolving lifestyles. The basement — a home's valuable lower-level space — is being transformed into guest quarters, home theaters, exercise areas and more. It's also a profitable recreation space for builders to up-sell.

"As such, it's important that builders and architects work with the homebuyer to plan this lower-level living space before breaking ground on the home's foundation," said Mark Stanley, vice president of Mar-Flex Waterproofing & Basement Products in Middletown, Ohio. The company manufacturers MAR-FLEX 5000 waterproofing system, egress window well systems and perimeter drainage protection. "Careful, strategic planning will help avoid unexpected expenditures after the home's been built."

Planning checklist
Stanley offers a quick checklist of factors to consider during the home's initial design and construction. He said residential architects and builders whose home plans include below grade spaces need to consider these possibilities:

  • Raise the ceilings. Spec 9-foot or 10-foot walls for taller ceilings in the lower level so homeowners can make this space more livable. Keep in mind that an 8-foot wall, when finished, only leaves approximately 6 feet of space. Building walls any lower will create a space that feels tight and won't allow for certain exercise equipment, furniture and media centers.

  • Locate stairs carefully. Build the staircase on an outside wall so stairs don't encroach into the main living area. This simple revision to a floor plan can free up a valuable amount of living space for the homeowner. The more spacious the room, the more inviting it becomes. You may also consider the aesthetic value of adding a landing to make the lower level more inviting and integrated.

  • Plan the mechanical closet location. Place the HVAC/mechanical closet in an outside corner and the cumbersome equipment won't eat up valuable floor space. Originally, when basements were only used for storage and laundry, space planning wasn't a priority. The same space today, if waterproofed, can be transformed for many uses.

  • Plan for natural light and egress. Most building codes require two methods of egress, or ways to exit, to be considered "livable," so, plan accordingly. Even if you have no plans to finish the below grade space, a homeowner may want to do so in the future. Your efforts will help the homeowner save in retrofitting costs. Spec larger windows and window wells for more natural light, egress and a more comfortable and enjoyable living space.

  • Use a drainage and insulation board. Even the best waterproofing materials can't keep lower-level rooms from feeling damp. Adding insulation to the outside wall can make the space much more comfortable. And, drainage and insulation board will help channel water away from the house.

  • Drainage is a critical decision. Place drainage on both sides of lower-level wall because groundwater can enter at either side. If this isn't addressed during installation, the builder can expect unhappy calls from homeowners. And someone will be paying for post-construction excavation and backfilling.

  • Don't forget plumbing and electrical. Include roughed-in plumbing and electrical in the planning so that homeowners have the flexibility to add a new bathroom, sauna, office and the like in future home improvement projects — without the expense of hiring a plumber or electrician after the fact.

  • Strategically place beams and floor joists. This will keep an open and unobstructed floor plan in the lower-level room.

Stanley emphasizes it is vital to effectively waterproof during construction. Citing the fact that regular damproofing cannot guarantee you won't have water problems, he said it's important to know your options for basement waterproofing. He said waterproofing protection should use a tough, seamless polymer membrane and various drainage boards to suit different needs as does MAR-FLEX 5000.

"A wet space is not a livable space," he said. "Waterproofing the lower level room during construction will keep water moisture out and the family happily in. Plus, at the point of construction, it can be done at a fraction of what it would cost at post production."

No matter what your plans are for the basement space, be sure to protect your investment and all its contents with waterproofing you can trust, Tom Cullivan, national marketing manager for Tremco Barrier Solutions in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, said. Tremco manufacturers the TUFF-N-DRI basement waterproofing system and the new Horizon Foundation Finishing System, available in both insulated and uninsulated versions, to provide moisture and thermal protection to the exposed foundation between the grade line and the sill plate.

"Footing-to-sill plate protection for builders means comfort and security of expensive interior finishings, equipment, furniture and other valuables for homeowners," Cullivan said.

Bonus space
"Research shows that bonus space is among the most desired features in new homes," he said. "Because it is much more cost effective to dig down than to build up or add on an addition, a basement protected with an insulating waterproofing system such as TUFF-N-DRI grants homeowners the chance to fully utilize basement space."

Cullivan elaborates on some of the areas that homeowners and builders need to address when the home — and basement space — are being planned initially.

  • Choose the basement entrance carefully. Basement stairs are often in, or adjacent to, the kitchen and come down into the middle of a basement, which reduces the usable floor space in a basement layout. When positioning a basement stairway, consider how the basement might be used. A stairway off a maintenance or living area, for instance, offers good circulation for guests if you're planning to use the basement as an entertainment area. And placing a stairway along a basement wall opens up the basement for maximum floor plan possibilities. If the first floor layout permits it, leave the stairs exposed to the main level for an open, welcoming effect and uninterrupted flow into the basement.

  • Consider a walk-out basement. Walk-out basements are increasingly popular features in new homes. Generally built on a sloping site that exposes the basement to the outside, a walk-out basement allows for maximum light and convenient access for indoor-outdoor entertaining. A walk-out basement can lead to a terrace, patio or deck that unites the two entertaining areas of the home.

  • Design the basement stairway. The basement stairway can be as inviting and attractive as the main stairway of a two-story home. When designing the stairway, consider your homebuyer's future needs for remodeling or finishing the basement. Design the stairway so that it's wide enough to accommodate 4-foot by 8-foot objects such as dry wall, paneling and furniture. Finishing the walls of the basement stairway like the above-grade walls will also make it more appealing, by using low risers and wide treads, the stairs can provide comfort and utility. For an attractive appearance, use a hard wood such as oak, birch or maple with groove type connections between the tread and riser. Decorative banisters, posts and railings will also create an attractive stairway.

  •  Vary the lighting. Variations in basement lighting can set a space apart from the rest of the basement, giving it a distinct feeling or character. Built-in lighting in the stairway and recessed or ceiling track lighting can give an elegant, custom designed look.

  •  Use the sunlight. The use of sunlight has the magical ability to make people feel good. The use of sunlight can make your basement space look natural. Daylight windows with window wells can be the same size as above-grade windows, and can expand the space by letting in the outdoors. Also, check your local building codes to ensure your window wells meet local egress codes.

By using simple, strategic planning, builders and architects can give buyers the home of their dreams. Builders will benefit with fewer callbacks and a higher profit potential. Homeowners will benefit by having a totally dry living level that doesn't resemble the damp, gloomy basement of yesteryear.


Mar-Flex Waterproofing
& Basement Products

Tremco Barrier Solutions, Inc.

Based in Bucks County, Penn., Christopher Brooks writes about the home — inside and out — for consumer and trade publications.