Basement Potential

In the Midwest and the Northeast, basements hold a special place of imagination in the minds of homeowners contemplating remodeling. For residents of other parts of the United States where homes are built on slab, this can be difficult to comprehend. Most basements are dark, functional and unattractive. But they have evolved into family retreats, places for hobbies and recreation. And with today’s huge audio/video systems, it has also become an ideal place to watch sports and movies. Indeed unfinished basements provide a tabula rasa — a blank slate — upon which homeowners can fill sought-after lifestyle voids.

Such was the case with a couple in Malvern, Pa., with three young children. Their basement dream space was actually five dream spaces. They wanted a bar, a game room, an exercise room, a children’s play room and a bathroom changing room. And somewhere in the mix they wanted to build display cases for a collection of swords won in college fencing competitions. Oh yes, and they did not want a lot of separate rooms. Instead, they wanted the entire 1,817-sq.-ft. space to be as open as possible. The design task fell to Jeff Brinton and architect and principal at Gardner/Fox, a design-build remodeling firm in Bryn Mawr, Pa.

Roughly U-shaped, the large basement of this 10-year-old home had the added advantage of being open along the rear portion. Thus, natural light was available from existing sliding glass doors that open onto a yard. In future years, the family plans to build a pool/deck/patio combination, so a major consideration for planning the space was how to best complement the yard.

“One part of the solution was to build a changing room with lockers and benches on one side of the ‘U,’ ” says Brinton. “It was designed to be easily accessible from the backyard. So, when they complete the pool in the backyard, their kids and guests can just stay in the basement level instead of going upstairs.”

This pool-facing part of the basement was designed with 9-ft. doors and large paddle fans as well as tile throughout — so it would be OK to walk around in dripping-wet bathing suits. It is a place where people can come in from the sun temporarily, or where they can shower and change before coming into the rest of the finished basement with all of its other uses — primarily relaxing, playing games and watching TV. Except for the exercise space located on the opposite end of the “U,” the rest of the basement floor is covered in hardwood floors — a special engineered walnut that can be installed over concrete. And, true to the customer’s wishes, almost the entire space is open, without seeming wide open. This effect, says Brinton, is achieved by designing various focal points to anchor each functional space.

“We aimed to build as few walls as possible and to only do so when absolutely necessary,” notes Brinton. “The best way to separate space was to designate specific functions for specific areas. New walls were erected only to seal off mechanical equipment, to separate the exercise room from a sitting area and the bathroom from the arts and crafts workshop.”

This project won a Gold Award in the Qualified Remodeler Master Design Awards this year primarily because, as one judge put it, “you would never know that you are looking at a basement. It flows well and feels like a first level of a home.

It has great detail.” As the judge suggests, this main-level feel is achieved with an incredible level of detail delivered throughout. The architect dressed up the stairway with a wooden handrail and balusters and created a storage area beneath the stairs. An arched opening beneath the stair maintains a connection between rooms. Likewise, essential structural posts and beams were disguised with attractive architectural casing.

At the bottom of the stairs a large bar constructed of a dark hardwood offers an inviting visual anchor while also providing cover for icemakers and bottle-cooling drawers. A mini-fridge is hidden behind a set of drawer fronts. Posts with shelves are open on three sides. And a collection of fine stemware is on display in a lighted glass-panel shelf. Brinton credits his cabinetry partner Dave Stimmel for the excellent detail and execution of the bar as well as the lighted cabinetry that contains a collection of fencing swords from the owner’s days as an NCAA fencing champ.

Opposite the bar is a fireplace that the homeowners did not know they wanted until Brinton suggested it in the design phase. It provides another of the visual anchors, along with the bar and the trophy case, among others, that serve to distinguish smaller space from one large open space.

“Some of the things, like the fireplace, the clients never envisioned. We kind of threw that out there. We thought that it would make a nice focal point,” says Brinton, who credits the homeowners for allowing the project to evolve.

“They were very open-minded. If we threw out 10 ideas, they would embrace eight of them. The budget was a concern, but it wasn’t. After they saw that they could have all of this down there and some additional stuff that they weren’t even thinking of, they were very excited. And they got to the point where they said, ‘Yes, this is going to cost us a little bit more than anticipated, but this is going to be a fabulous space, so let’s just go ahead and do it.’ ”

In the end, the evolution of this project is emblematic of the possibilities open to remodelers and their customers wishing to finish their basements. Because these spaces are often as large as the main floor of the house, and because they are viewed as perhaps the last best chance to add new lifestyle features, and because so much more can be achieved in these spaces than even the homeowners envision, these projects can and do grow.

The lesson for remodelers: Keep the ideas flowing, particularly in basement build-outs, and frequently the client will follow.

Specified Products
Bath cabinets: Pottery Barn — Classic double, espresso
Flooring wood: Walnut, Pinnacle Floors
Flooring tile: Graven — Tumbled India Calico multicolored slate
HVAC: Bryant 24,000 Btu with 40,000-Btu furnace
Cabinets: Stimmel Design Group — custom