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Basement renovation

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Basement renovation
Our basement is unfinished. How can we make it a comfortable and useful space?

By Donna Cottell
First published in Chatelaine’s July 1998 issue.
©Donna Cottell

Before you begin, figure out what kind of space your family needs–storage, an office area, space for fitness equipment? Rooms tailored to specific needs are more likely to be used. Then, check building codes for light, electrical, plumbing and ceiling-height requirements. If your basement meets the criteria for habitable space, you’re ready to go ahead. Here are some tips for building better basements.

Keeping dry
Have the drain tiles and sump drain checked before renovating. The basement must be dry to be comfortable.

  • Tape a piece of plastic to the concrete floor for a few days. If moisture appears, seal the floor with epoxy sealer or install ceramic tile.
  • To reduce ambient moisture and improve air circulation, a humidistat can be wired to control a fan in the bathroom or laundry area.
  • If your basement has a wooden subfloor sitting on the concrete floor, it may have rotted. In that case, it must be replaced. If your basement does not have a subfloor, consider installing one if the ceiling height is adequate. A subfloor may increase warmth at floor level and allow more floor-finish choices.
  • Check the condition of the sill plates, the horizontal pieces of wood that sit on the concrete foundation along the wall. These are close to the level of the soil and sections may have rotted, allowing leaks. Any rotted plates should be replaced before insulating and finishing the wall.

Hot ideas

  • Heat outlets should be installed near areas of heat loss, such as windows, and as close to the floor as possible.
  • Insulate windows by adding vertical two-by-fours (known as “furring”) and fitting batt insulation between the furring pieces. Cover all with a plastic vapor barrier before applying drywall or some other finish.

Sound advice
Soundproof your basement by insulating the ceiling, either by hanging a suspended-panel ceiling or installing a metal sound channel across the ceiling joists to which the drywall is fastened. Panels allow access to plumbing; drywall has a smoother residential look.

Let there be light
Windows not only let in light; they play a role in conserving heat and circulating air. Installing larger windows is a job for a qualified tradesperson. Because an outside wall often bears weight from above, the opening for a window must be built to maintain the structural strength of the wall.

  • Evening and night lighting can be provided by lamps, ceiling lights or a combination of the two. Pot-style lights that fit flush with the ceiling surface are helpful if ceiling height is a problem.

Wires and pipes
Electrical and plumbing in basements must be done according to code. For example, electrical plugs must be provided for each wall with a minimum distance between plugs.

  • A bathroom or powder room is a convenience in a basement, and can be installed unless the sewer exit is too high.

Existing space in your home is too valuable to leave unused. A well-made basement renovation will make your home more useful now and pay off at resale time.

Donna Cottell is owner of DC Homespace Projects in Vancouver.