Article No: 70

2006-05-01 12:58:57
The basement: Upstairs living downstairs
By: Carole McMichael

Years ago, the homeowners' decision to finish the basement into family rooms, wood shops or extra bedrooms did not involve code, and people were willing to accept living space that was fully functional, but with inferior living quality compared to the rest of the house. Now, this approach no longer meets code or the expectations of homeowners.

Part II of Concrete Homes' basement article focuses on bringing upstairs ambiance to the basement. It takes a closer look at options for windows, doors, ventilation and elevators. It will look specifically at products by Ag-Co, Boman-Kemp, Unlimited Inc., Bilco Co., Broan-Nutone, Residential Elevators and Indiana Residential Elevators.



"Until recently," said Jeff Kemp president of Boman-Kemp, "municipalities have interpreted code on basement windows differently. The International Residential Code for 2000 is an effort to combine codes to be consistent throughout the United States. The code presumes that if it [part of a house] can be habitable, it will be habitable. To escape in case of fire, the code requires one window in each basement be an egress. The size and position of the window in the wall must meet several criteria: the maximum the window sill can be off the floor is 42 inches; the minimum width of the area of the window when it is open is 20 inches; the minimum height is 24 inches.î

Boman-Kemp offers three window styles: insulated aluminum frame; insulated vinyl frame; and single pane in varied sizes. There also is obscure glass for bathrooms. These would not be used in a walk-out as they are made to be mounted in concrete.

"I often get comments that the large windows are for high-end custom homes," Kemp said, "when the contrary is true. They are for smaller homes with entry-level families with three or four kids who need more space for bedrooms, family rooms and such. To finish a basement is cheaper than to build a bigger home."

Unlimited Inc.

Unlimited Inc. offers basement windows in several sizes, specifically designed for poured wall construction, though they can be used by block contractors, as well. Its styles include the hopper with a bottom latch, the in-swing egress and sliders. The frames are vinyl with low-E or heat-reflective, insulated glass. The company also makes the typical 32-inch by 20-inch slider window that is used for ventilation, but is not big enough to crawl through.

The windows are installed by poured-wall contractors. They are shipped "ready to pour," with sash and screen inside the frame for one-step installation. Temporary wood bracing is included with every window to keep it square and protect the sill from being damage by concrete chutes.

"One of the advantages of our models is a patented feature, said John Maniaci, vice president of Unlimited. "If the window is poured backwards or up side down, it can be taken apart and reassembled correctly. Or if it is damaged during construction, it can be replaced without having to take the whole window out. For builders working with ICFs, the frames come with extenders to reach 10- or 12-inch depth."

Window wells


According to Neil Rossow, controller for Ag-Co which are makers of the Wellcraft Window Well line, the IRC 2000 also applies to window wells. If the window well is lower than 44 inches from the top, you must have a ladder (steps) to climb out. Wellcraft offers three one-piece wells that vary by size and style. One style, which is wider at the top, lets you step up and out; another has ladder rungs to climb out: and one has steps. Wellcraft also has a fourth model - a three-piece style, where the steps can be filled with dirt and used as a planter. So, even the window well becomes a design feature.

"The wells, which come with instructions, are installed by the contractor," Rossow said. "Basically, they are attached to the foundation of the house. The type of fasteners you use depends on whether the foundation is block or poured. You put a seal caulk around the well and just attach it. Then, you put sand and peastone underneath it for good drainage, and bring it about 12 inches up the sides and back fill with dirt."

Rossow noted that there was one critical area in installation. The wells, which are made of polyethylene (Poly Tuff), should be kept to the prescribed dimensions from left-hand edge to right-hand edge to ensure that they have not been stretched; otherwise the covers will not fit.

Bilco Co.

The Bilco Co. offers window well systems (ScapeWel) too. The wells, made out of polyethylene, have a component unit of sides and steps that snap together on the job site, and then are attached to the outside of the basement foundation.

"We have clear dome covers or metal grate covers, which are options," said John Vaccino, manager of customer service for The Bilco Co. "When someone uses the terraced step to climb out in case of an emergency, it is just a matter of pushing off the lightweight polycarbonate dome. The metal grate cover, which is basically comprised of two sections, is opened by sliding one section off.

For retrofits, which Vaccino said are done all the time, the side panels of the window well would have to extend 4 inches above the grade 3.5 inches below the window sill. "The well sizes can accommodate a 3-, 4- or 5-foot-wide window. Typically, we see a sliding window or crank out. These could be used with a half basement, but generally are used with a full."


"Bilco markets a 12-gauge steel door in two models," Vaccino said, "a door provided with sides for flat level foundations and a retro-fit door that will fit over sloped masonry walls. They use a pair of door leaves that fit over the areaway. It is a replacement application where wooden doors have rotted.

"The doors are counterbalanced with a torsion-cam system. Typically, the doors weigh about 100 pounds each, but are about 12 pounds at the handle, making them effortless to open. The system prevents them from slamming shut - if you take your hand off, the doors would stay there. We sell these for new homes as well as retrofits."

The PermEntry total basement egress system, which is permanent and water-tight, is a precast step unit used in combination with the Bilco door. The contractor leaves an opening in the foundation; then the precaster comes in with a boom truck, sets in the steps, fastens the system to the foundation and lays the doors on top.

"If a boom truck couldn't be brought in," Vaccino said, "a builder could use Bilco's stair stringers. It is an inexpensive way of building steps. Basically, pieces of metal are formed with slots for the stair treads, eliminating the need for concrete. They can be installed in minutes. The stringers can have from three to 13 steps, depending on the height of the grade. Basements are likely to use both a window egress and a door unit.


Basement code is concerned with safety in case of fire, but it does not address air quality. A full basement has the most potential for air pollution problems.

"Anything you put in a basement," said Scott Niesen, senior product manager of Broam-Nutone, "puts something back into the air - volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from paint, carpet, furniture, tiles, glue, staining and wood paneling. There can be mold, pet dander and chemicals from laundry rooms, as well. The question is: can you live with it?"

Broam-Nutone markets four models of GuardianPlus, a whole-house HEPA indoor air filtration and ventilation system in a single unit. "Ventilation can take a lot of forms," Niesen said. "You can have an egress window or a door and an exhaust fan. This product brings fresh air from the outside and cleans it through HEPA filtration and then introduces it into the house. This can be done anywhere in the house, including the basement."

The down side of needing good ventilation is that bringing in fresh air can interfere with energy efficiency. To keep from losing heat, the system is designed with an energy recovery ventilator.

According to Karen Collins, marketing communications manager, it works two ways: it takes stale air out, while it pre-warms the fresh air that is coming in. In a cooler climate, the air is pre-cooled. The air going out passes the air coming in, in a chamber and can transfer the temperature of the air in either direction.

The system's footprint, 2 feet by 4 feet, can fit into a closet. One of the challenges with HEPA filters over the years has been moving enough air. GuardianPlus' turbo blade design moves 270 cubic feet per minute, which is enough air for entire home. The system installs next to heating or cooling units using existing ducts, or as an independent system using flex duct to clean the air.


The interest in home elevators is rapidly increasing as a larger part of the population is living longer. More people who are having their "last" home built are considering the possibility that sometime in the future, they will have restricted mobility or need a wheelchair.

There also are a number of people who are at the stage of needing an elevator, but who like the neighborhood where they are living or the home itself, so they are in the market for remodeling their existing home to install an elevator.

Elevators typically have two- or three-stop capability up to 50 feet. They travel at 40 feet per minute. A machine room is required for the power mechanism and a hoistway or shaft. The elevator takes up 12 square feet. It needs to be slightly larger to accommodate a wheelchair. Door openings are about 3 feet by 6 feet 8 inches.

Waupaca Elevator

Waupaca produces strictly residential elevators - winding drum and hydraulic - and they are all custom built. Waupaca elevator are installed by trained local contractors or elevator mechanics.

Hoistway and machine rooms are about the same size for both styles, but because there are moving parts in the winding drum, its machine room must be separate, locked and designated only for the elevator.

"Our hydraulic model," said Mark Holat, production manager for Waupaca Elevator, "uses a tape reader rather than traditional switches for stopping. When activated by a magnetic field, a sensor stops the elevator. The advantage of the reader is that it makes the elevator run quieter. With new variable speed technology, winding drum models have gotten as smooth as the hydraulic. They accelerate in and out of the landing, so you don't get that jolt."

Holat said he sees tremendous growth for residential elevators, not just because people are more aware of disabilities, but because builders are looking for a competitive edge. They raise the bar and their competitors have to at least make a house elevator-ready.

Also, with property values skyrocketing, Holat said builders are building up three, four and five stories rather than out; and looking at what people used to consider unbuildable lots, such as hillsides. The garage sits on the top floor and the house goes down from there. The homeowner drives in and jumps in the elevator to get down in the kitchen level.

Residential Elevators Inc.

Steve Hawley, vice president of Residential Elevators Inc. (REI), said REI markets three types of home elevators: winding cable drum, hydraulic and a hybrid called Easy Rider. The cable drum model is run by a 2-hp motor. The hydraulic uses oil pressure, producing smoother stopping and starting. The Easy Rider uses a cable drum power mechanism with electrical conversion, so there are no power surges. In case of power outage, there is also a manual self-lowering system.

"Codes governing residential elevators depend on what part of the country your are in," Hawley said. "The state of Georgia [and Michigan] and some large cites have created codes for residential elevators, but in most states, there are none. REI ensures the safety of their products with redundant safety features. We build these things like bridges. We also have a safety-maintenance agreement."

What's coming

"The Pneumatic Vacuum Elevators are so new that we haven't started manufacturing them in the United States," said Brian Kearnagham, sales representative for Indiana Residential Elevators, "but we were expecting approval sometime this summer.

"The advantage of a pneumatic elevator, which has a clear hoistway cylinder and transparent polycarbonate elevator car, is that it is easy to install in a finished home. It doesn't require a 12-inch recessed pit or a machine room. You won't have to jackhammer the basement floor or worry about a wall that can support the weight of the elevator. With pneumatic, it is basically free-standing. All its weight (without a person in it) is on the floor - 660 pounds for two stories and 990 pounds for three stories.

"The chamber above the elevator car is depressurized, which allows the cab to rise like a balloon when pressure is lower. The pressure differentiation is created by an air pump system that pumps air out. There are five pumps in a 12-by-24-by-24 box [the suction assembly] that sits on top of the elevator or, if there is not room, on the side. The car stays at atmospheric pressure. If there is a power failure, it automatically lowers. The 19-inch doors can be mounted on either side of the tube."

According to Kearnagham, the pneumatic elevator is not wide enough for someone using a wheelchair, but they are working on such a model. It is more marketable to people with multi-story homes or if they just have trouble doing stairs. He said most people will want this style elevator for existing homes. The only maintenance is replacing a Teflon liner after 15,000 trips. In a home situation, it may take five years or more to need replacement.

Kearnagham said he is receiving several inquiries each week, including one for a new high-end home that would entail a spiral staircase with the pneumatic elevator in the middle.