Sorting It Out

Basements often are just leftover space. Builders don’t usually think about the most efficient way to use that space, putting the HVAC, plumbing and electrical components wherever it happens to be expedient. As a result, when it comes to repurposing basement space, one of the toughest jobs is sorting out the infrastructure, says Mark Lawrence, AIA, of E/L Studio, Cheverly, Md.

A 1911 home in Washington, D.C., for which Lawrence and his partner Elizabeth Emerson designed a multi-functional family activities area, was no exception.

“One of the nice things about the basement was that it had a lot of windows,” Emerson says. “But in front of one of the windows they had put a water heater and air handler. Prime real estate was taken up by things that you want tucked away. We wound up moving them into a smaller mechanical room.”

The client’s desire for a family center where the children could do homework and play and where the family could gather to watch movies was the impetus behind the renovation. Their extensive wish list also included laundry space, room for a home-office “command center,” space to work on crafts, lots of storage and a full bath.

Getting the mechanical equipment out of the way was just a start. Ceiling height was an issue because one member of the family is 6-feet, 5-inches tall. Initially, plans were to compact the mechanical equipment and ductwork into zones and uplight the ceiling to give the appearance of more height. When the final budget came in, however, funds were found to lower the floor, as well, which was an idea that had been debated during planning.

There was a dampness issue at one end of the basement. The stone foundation was re-pointed, and bead-board lining conceals a perimeter drain. A sump pump keeps water from accumulating.

"When it comes to repurposing basement space, one of the toughest jobs is sorting out the infrastructure."

Mark Lawrence, AIA, E/L Studio

With these details settled, a completely open space was left, something Lawrence and Emerson wanted to maintain as much as possible while satisfying the clients’ wish list. Instead of partitions to delineate different functions and activity areas, a box-like structure—likened to a Swiss army knife because it can be opened and closed and has multiple functions—was constructed in the center of the space, and custom built-in cabinetry houses and defines special areas within it.

On one side, for example, is a desk for the office area and on the other is a craft area. Sliding doors allow these areas to be closed off and surfaces left as they are if the basement is to be used for entertaining. Drawers were built under the stairs for more storage, and other adaptable cabinetry and seating modules line the perimeter walls. Custom millwork was done by Tom Miller and Harlan Dodge of Cigar Tree Inc., Herndon, Va.

Lighting is key to the success of the space, gaining the appearance of height. The joist pockets were painted white and uplit. Uplights are positioned on the cove on the top of the “box.” On the perimeter of the basement, spotlights throw light into the pockets.

Natural and sustainable materials that also fit stylistically with the period of the house were chosen. A floating cork floor was installed, and copper penny tiles were used around the fireplace to add warmth and texture. Combined with exposed portions of the rubble-stone foundation and the bead-board paneling, these textures contrast with the crisp, clean lines of the box.

The ventless gas fireplace is a dramatic visual element that dominates the entertainment area and serves a practical purpose, preventing the basement from being damp and cold, a feature much appreciated by the homeowners, who initially expressed concerns about that issue. The fireplace eliminates the traditional gas log, leaving a minimalist flame and simple lines.

Emerson notes the client showed considerable foresight in planning for future renovations upstairs. “They know they’re going to live in this house for a very long time and eventually they want to redo the kitchen. They put in the basics for the kitchen renovation, putting in a gas line for the eventual gas stove. It’s coiled up inside the box right now, waiting to be connected,” she says.

The basement is “really the base of the tree and everything needs to come down cleanly into it,” she adds.

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