High Style for the Lower Level

It’s a word that conjures up images of Ping-Pong tables, dart boards, bad lighting and leftover furniture. Though these ingredients may add up to some happy teenage memories, they certainly don’t match the upscale tastes of today’s custom-home clientele. Added space for entertaining, housing guests and, yes, teenage hideaways are all goals for high-end buyers, but these discriminating customers are insisting on features and finishes equal to the quality of that found elsewhere in their homes.

No longer an afterthought, these below-grade spaces now feature standard-height ceilings, ample natural light and high-quality flooring. And, in the process of polishing up their image, they’ve also lost the moniker of “basement,” for a tag that’s a tad more marketing friendly.

“We are very careful to use the term ‘lower level,’” says Ken Workman, AIA, architect with Cincinnati-based RWA Architects. “When it’s all finished out, there’s no difference in the level of finish — ‘lower level’ definitely conjures up a better image.”

A new emphasis on natural light is playing a key role in the basement’s rise to “lower-level” status. And, in a lemons-into-lemonade situation, some builders are finding greater opportunity for adding natural light in the sloped lots that formerly were considered bottom-of-the-barrel building sites. Such locations are ideal for creating walk-out lower levels, and their exposed foundation areas provide wall space for sunshine-welcoming windows and French doors.

Many functions, many forms

Though the finishes sported by today’s lower levels are far above those seen in yesterday’s basements, these areas still function, basically, as spillover space. And, whether they’re seeking a secondary family room or additional guest quarters, today’s homeowners are most interested in adaptability to future needs.

“If people live in a house long enough, their needs are going to change,” says Michael Menn, AIA, a principal with Northbrook, Ill.-based Design Construction Concepts. So, he says, today’s dedicated live-in nanny space may be something completely different 10 to 15 years from now.

Tim Cleary, P.E., general manager of Williamsburg, Va.-based Charles W. Ross, Builder (no relation to the author), says his company’s designs frequently call for a large, open gathering or entertaining space, along with a couple of rooms that could serve as bedrooms, hobby rooms or home offices. With the addition of a full bath and small kitchenette, such multifunction spaces could serve double-duty as a private guest retreat.

Media rooms and home theaters are proving to be the exception to this preference for generic space design. Designers say lower levels — especially windowless, below-grade corners — are ideal locations for enjoying today’s new electronic equipment, and many home buyers are requesting rooms created specifically for their new plasma televisions and surround-sound systems.

“The media room is a good application because there’s no light coming in,” Cleary says. “And you’re not going to be vibrating the walls the way you would above grade.” For tips on prepping a new-construction lower level for future conversion into a home theater, please see Prepping the lower level for a future media room below.

Reaching new heights

Regardless of the use homeowners find for their new lower levels, ceiling height remains a key factor contributing to their enjoyment of these now-luxurious spaces. No more ducking to avoid suspended pipes and ductwork. Instead, you’ll find ceilings just as high as in main-floor rooms.

“You want at least 8 ft.,” says Lisa Stacholy, AIA, principal of Dunwoody, Ga.-based LKS Architects, who notes that soffits may be required to accommodate air- or plumbing-distribution runs. “[But] if the main house has 9- to 10-ft. ceilings, the higher the better.”

Other designers are even more adamant regarding the need for vertical volume in lower-level design.

“We consider 9 ft. to be a minimum height,” says Keith Sobczak, AIA, architect with Williamsburg, Va.-based Charles W. Ross, Builder. “And taller is better.”

Building technology is aiding the creation of these more spacious lower levels. For example, Sobczak’s firm uses a precast, insulated concrete wall system for their foundations, which max out at 10 ft. tall. Even with allowances for ductwork, plumbing and other requirements, home buyers are still left with 9.5-ft. ceilings — a substantial height in almost any room.
Workman says RWA uses similar standards when designing lower levels for its Cincinnati-area clients, with 10-ft. foundation walls enabling approximately 9 ft. 8 in. of obstacle-free space. He says these higher ceilings provide an added advantage where home theaters are a part of the plan, allowing designers to incorporate a raised platform to allow cinema-quality seating.

With added height also comes a higher level of finish for lower-level ceilings. Suspended acoustic tile has gone the way of the over-the-pool-table beer-company light, replaced by the same quality drywall found elsewhere in the house.

“The one thing that screams, ‘I’m a basement,’ is a 2x2 lay-in ceiling,” Stacholy says. “Sheetrock ceilings make a world of difference.”

Upstairs, downstairs

Making downstairs feel like upstairs also requires attention to the transition between these two spaces. At the least, the old-school, solid, top-of-the-stairs door should be replaced with a multipaned French door, to allow light to pass freely between levels. And some designers prefer to eliminate all such visual barriers.

“We like to open up the stairwell to the basement” Menn says. “That makes the transition a little more seamless.”
With the lower level becoming much more important to a home’s overall design, the staircase itself is gaining importance as an architectural element. Workman says he likes to look at what used to be a simple collection of nailed-together treads and risers as sculpture.

Stacholy takes this approach even further, saying she tries to make the stairway its own unique space. She says she often incorporates a U-shaped staircase, with a defined landing halfway down. This landing may become home to a small bench, flanked by bookcases and topped by backlit stained-glass artwork, giving the entire stairway a purpose in the overall design.

“Then, there’s a reason for it to be there,” she says. “And you’re not talking [about] that much more space.”