The most common approach to basement remodelling includes installing flooring, wall, and ceiling surfaces that look very much like those in upstairs rooms. We are creatures of habit, comfortable when surrounded with smooth walls covered with paint, panelling, or tile, as well as floors that are tile, hardwood, or carpet.
But there’s another way of thinking about a basement: It need not be like all the other rooms in the house and may have a sort of rustic (or industrial or Bohemian) charm if treated more lightly. The idea is to “let a basement be a basement.” Once you achieve this attitude, all sorts of funky elements—pipes, ducts, exposed joists and beams, rough masonry walls and floors, and even some appliances—no longer appear as eyesores. Instead, they achieve (in one’s mind, anyway) the status of “utilitarian beauty.”
In this basement, a hardwood floor was laid, but the walls were simply spray painted; ceiling joists are left exposed, and electrical supplies are on display. Rather than hiding large ducts, they are celebrated for their shininess. Overhead canister lights are also left exposed, as is the wiring leading to them. A wall of glass block adds to a Euro-style.
Perhaps the greatest virtue of the minimalist approach is that it can save tons of money. Moving pipes and ducts, framing walls and floors, and installing drywall surfaces, as well as finished-looking lights and plumbing services, consumes lots and lots of time and materials. And, in many cases, such hardcore remodelling is strictly cosmetic and does not actually make a basement more comfortable or usable. Plus, strategies like leaving walls and floors unfinished or merely painted ensure against expensive damage in case of a flood.
All that money you save can go toward things that make a basement memorable, such as artwork for walls, fancy rugs, and fun stuff like a pool table or wine cellar. However, do not neglect safety and comfort concerns. If you have nonmetallic cable for wiring, it should not be in easy reach. Perhaps replace it with solid conduit, or cover it up with a simple frame and drywall or panelling. And if your walls and floors get very cold, you may choose to insulate and seal them up. Window and exterior door replacement may also be a good idea.
Even exposed black steel gas pipe can be appealing, especially if it is neatly installed and clean. Here, the excess pipe dope or Teflon® tape has been carefully removed.
Often the minimalist approach involves spray-painting walls and ceilings (including pipes). If a concrete floor is relatively uniform in appearance, acid staining may look great. If it varies in texture and has other imperfections, consider simply painting it.
Before you start planning room types and sizes, open up your space by clearing out all unnecessary stuff-including all those storage items that you can put elsewhere. Take steps to ensure that space is dry and will stay dry, as discussed previously. If your basement is riddled with posts, or your large appliances are sitting in the middle of the basement, planning around these obstructions can be complicated and frustrating. You may want to install new beams and remove posts to give you a clean slate on which you can make your plans.
Doing construction work in a basement can be dirty and dusty, so one of the first orders of business is to figure out how to handle the mess. It has been said that the first tool a remodeler should buy is a high-quality Shop-Vac® with a really good collection system. You may not opt for the high-end setup shown below, but at least get a large-capacity vacuum with a HEPA filter and plenty of dust collection bags. Plan to clean often—at the least, at the end of every workday.
A great dust collection system often starts with a high-quality shop vacuum. But even if you have a standard Shop-Vac, the addition of a secondary unit, like Oneida’s Dust Deputy® will greatly increase its efficiency. This unit spins dust cyclonically and removes most of the dust even before it reaches the vacuum.
As much as weather permits, open windows and put outward-facing fans in them. Simple inexpensive box fans can do a remarkably good job of lessening or eliminating airborne particles.
Safety Alert: Before removing a basement wall, be sure it is not load-bearing. A bearing wall runs perpendicular to the joists in the basement ceiling and supports them where needed.
If you want to remove a bearing wall, you will need to replace it with a beam that is approved by your building department as strong enough.
Construction dust—and especially drywall dust—has an amazing ability to seep through even tiny cracks and infiltrate other rooms. How it travels upwards we may never know, but it does. Whenever possible, use plastic sheeting and tape to seal off areas of the house not being worked on.
You can prevent marital and familial hard feelings by carefully taping off “innocent” rooms that are not involved in the construction. It can be an annoyance to keep these areas sealed every day, but it’s well worth the effort: Cleaning infiltrated dust can be a major job in itself.
Working with Your Building Department
Local building codes cover many operations you may perform while remodelling a basement, from structural support to insulation of outside walls, electrical and plumbing installations and more. Though your basement may seem out of sight, it is recommended that you consult with your local building department before starting work. Building codes may seem strict, but they are designed to keep your basement safe and secure.
You will probably need to schedule inspections of various types at various stages of work, for instance:
framing, rough electrical, rough plumbing, finish electrical and finish plumbing. The building department may require that some of the work be performed by a licensed electrician or plumber.
If you’re tempted to skip the building department, keep in mind that when you go to sell your home you could get into trouble. And if you are caught working without permits, the inspector may make you tear up walls or the ﬂoor to uncover the work they need to inspect—a very expensive and difﬁ cult proposition.
Planning and Drawing
Use a computer program or just a pencil, graph paper, and straightedge to plan your room(s). Start by carefully measuring your available space. Make a scaled drawing of the empty space— including all the little obstructions and bump-outs—and make a number of copies, so you can sketch onto them.
An overall plan shows where all the stuff goes. Be sure to take into account the full thickness of walls—which may be as thick as 8 in. around the perimeter, depending on how you construct them. Also include doors (and the way they swing), windows, major appliances, shelving units, and bathroom fixtures.
Make an overall plan view (top view) drawing, showing where all the important things go. A family room may have wide-open spaces, so you can later put in a pool table or exercise equipment. A bathroom and utility room, on the other hand, have elements that need to be precisely planned.
Also make detailed drawings of the bathroom, utility room, laundry room, and any other room where the precise placing of appliances and fixtures is important. In addition to a plan view drawing, side views (elevations) help you visualize the final look.
A side-view drawing—either computer-generated like this one or drawn by hand—helps you gain a greater feel for how spacious or cramped the folding table, shelving, and other elements will be.
This bathroom plan-view drawing includes not only the toilet, sink, and shower unit but also a towel bar, a niche in a shower wall, and recessed medicine cabinets. Precise dimensions help to place elements where they will be comfortable to use without wasting space.
This elevation-view bathroom drawing is so detailed that it shows the shower tiles to scale, to get a complete feel of the room.
Also make an electrical plan showing the locations of light fixtures, switches, and receptacles.
Architects and builders use many symbols to represent various elements in rooms. Here are some of them.
Working With Subcontractors
Plumbers, electricians, drywallers, framers, and other tradesmen all can do their work faster than you can—unless you are one of them. You no doubt want to save money by doing much of your own work. But even professional contractors often hire “subs” because it just makes things go more smoothly.
You can be the general contractor on the job, or you can hire someone else to do that. If you hire, say, a plumber to run the rough plumbing or drywallers to hang and finish the drywall, they are your subcontractors. Be clear on which permits you to need to pull and which they need to. Plumbers and electricians usually pull their own permits and are present for the inspections.
Bids and The Contracts
You may have heard that you should get three bids on a job and go for the one in the middle. That’s not always true, but it often is. Don’t just shop around for the cheapest price, or you may get shoddy work. Vet the subcontractors: Take the time to ask around and find out if a sub is reliable, if his work stands the test of time, and if he will do the job when you want it done. Many subs do good work but take on so much work that they may be weeks late in getting to your job. The contract does not need to be elaborate, but it should specify:
- The exact materials to be used, including brand names.
- A payment schedule that holds back a significant sum until you are completely satisfied with the work and it has been inspected and approved.
- Which materials they will supply and which you will. For example, you may provide the sink, toilet, tub, and light fixtures, and subs may provide pipes, cables, and all the behind-the-walls stuff.
- A schedule of when things should be finished, and penalties if work is not done in a timely manner. This does not have to be punitive and unfriendly, but if the sub is weeks late, he should feel a wallet pinch.
- A statement of who will actually do the work. You don’t want the sub to sub-sub it out to someone you don’t know.
The Order Of Work
To keep the job going at a reasonable pace, start out with a loose schedule of when things will happen. In general, a basement job follows this path:
- Making repairs to the concrete surfaces, and taking steps to ensure dryness
- Moving large appliances and heating units, if needed
- Lowering the floor and/or moving up pipes and ductwork, if needed
- Getting permits
- Making structural repairs and installations, such as to beams and posts
- Insulating the exterior walls
- Framing exterior and interior walls
- HVAC installations
- Rough plumbing
- Rough electrical
- Insulating between studs, if any
- Installing windows
- Hanging and finishing drywall
- Installing doors
- Finish carpentry—trimming doors, windows, and base
- Painting and staining
- Installing subflooring and flooring
- Finish plumbing
- Finish electrical
- Installing bathroom accessories
- Installing door handles, thresholds, and transition strips; paint touchup