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Elevating 'Basementy' Lower Levels

by Hoffman Weber Construction, on July 16, 2013

Outside of providing shelter from severe storms, basements seldom get the respect they deserve. Sure, natural light is more is limited, dampness may be a problem and heating ducts can cramp ceiling heights. But these challenges usually can be overcome to reclaim valuable bonus space. My basement remodeling philosophy is straightforward: First, address moisture issues. Second, don’t let the finished space look ‘basementy.’

Basement Remodeling Composition

Achieving a dry, safe basement may demand a variety of remedies including radon mitigation, drainage improvements, humidity control, ventilation, crack filling, roof gutter and leaf guard installation, re-grading and a good sump pump with either water or battery backup.

With the right design elements and materials, lower levels don’t have to look or feel low class. At Hoffman Weber, we’re not satisfied creating a nice basement family room. We would much rather build a beautiful, functional family room that just happens to be in the basement.  Same goes for the below-grade bedroom and bath. Here are a few of our favorite strategies.

Comfort starts with Heating, Ventilation & Insulation

I’m a big fan of low-voltage electric in-floor heating that’s installed above an insulating layer.  It puts the warmth low where it will do the most good. I love the STEP Warmfloor system from Electro Plastics Inc. that’s distributed in the Twin Cities by Rockford-based HeatMyFloors.  Any type of flooring can be placed directly on top of it. STEP Warmfloor is not the cheapest, but I really think it is one of the best systems out there for in-floor heating.

Achieving a comfortable and safe basement climate requires proper air exchange and humidity control to introduce fresh air and prevent dangerous backdrafting of combustion sources such as fireplaces, water heaters and older furnaces. Vents with built in fans can alleviate a lot of air-flow problems. Excessive humidity makes cold rooms feel colder and hot rooms feel like a steam bath. So, ventilation and humidity control need to be considered together.

Finally, spray foam insulation is ideal for basement walls because it leaves no gaps, delivers the highest R-value in the least space and blocks moisture.

Ceilings and Windows Boost Appeal

Although acoustical ceilings tiles provide easy access to plumbing and wiring and reduce sound transmission, they typically lower the overall ceiling height and scream basement. A better approach is to build drywall soffits around rooms to incorporate heating ducts and integrate them with recessed lighting on dimmer switches. That way it looks like a tray ceiling design element rather than a cover-up. This works well when breaking a basement into multiple rooms, but moving mechanicals to achieve this look in an open floor plan is much harder and more expensive.

Below-grade basement windows can provide emergency egress (fire escape), natural light, ventilation and view. Besides, you can’t claim a room as a legal bedroom unless it has an egress-approved window (and a closet), so that’s an important consideration for resale value.

I’m not a fan of the stepped plastic egress window wells. The more natural looking the well material is, the less basementy the below-grade space will feel. If the budget allows, a stone or stone veneered well is a beautiful option. You could even install a larger window because the stone makes the well a design element for the basement rather than simply a functional necessity.

What’s it really worth?

I’m often asked how much someone should sink into a basement remodeling project. According to the Remodeling 2013 Cost vs. Value Report[1], a $74,141 Minneapolis area basement remodeling will retain nearly 65 percent of its value at resale. But the real worth also depends on how the space will be used. If a homeowner (or potential homebuyer) plans to actively use the space for at least five years, the budget should reflect that.

I like to compare the cost of basement remodels to the price of a new car. Many people would spend $50,000-$75,000 for a luxury vehicle but scoff at the idea of investing that much in a basement. Well, if your family spends much of its free time in the newly designed space, isn’t that worth it? Seriously, no one has movie night in their Lexus. Well, at least not most people. I don’t want to judge.

[1] © 2013 Hanley Wood, LLC. Complete data from the Remodeling 2013 Cost vs. Value Report can be downloaded free at


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