Anything Goes in a Basement Buildout

Today’s basements have come a long way from the dark spaces of the past. To bring them into this new generation’s fully equipped entertainment space, start with imagination and planning.

Among some circles, the term “basement” is a dirty word. It conjures up images of dark, musty cellars with broken old furniture or smoky, wood-paneled bars.

Those images couldn’t be farther from the “lower levels” that are becoming standard in today’s homes. These spaces are fully finished, chock-full of personality, and totally equipped for entertaining, playing, even working. Some have full kitchens. Some have doors and outside access. Some are so fully formed they’re like miniature apartments.

Whatever you call that below-ground space in your home, opportunity is a good synonym.

“Basements are such an untapped space of possibilities,” says Anna Leimann, designer at Advance Design Studio in Gilberts. “It can really add some customization to your needs and your hobbies when you do a basement remodel.”

(Advance Design Studio photo)

A Blank Slate

Basements in the northwest suburbs come in all shapes and conditions. For the team at Advance Design Studio, roughly half of clients are starting from scratch. The rest have something that’s finished but needs improvement.

Clients often want it for entertainment, with spaces like kitchenettes and bars, home theaters, and children’s play rooms topping the list. Designers also see high demand for in-home gyms, hobby rooms, office space and extra bedrooms.

Natalie Spiniolas, owner of Tailored Spaces in Harvard, sees a combination of fun and function in the lower level remodel. She’s helped to create wine rooms, entertainment centers and, in one case, a secret panel in the kitchen that revealed a slide to the playroom below.

“Not everyone has room for everything on the first and second floor,” she says. “So, your everyday essentials are on your first and second floor, but then those things you’ve always desired or wanted, those things move into the basement.”

Best of all, the basement’s out-of-the-way location affords it a personality that’s very unlike the rest of the house. Its colors, styles, materials and finishes make it a fun and playful area, by design.
“I’ve had a lot of clients do it totally opposite to what their first floor looks like,” says Chris Low, a designer at Blue Ribbon Millwork in Woodstock. “For one client, it was very traditional on the first level, but the basement had this downtown Chicago feel with brick walls. It was a total change.”

The result is a space that’s warm and inviting, particularly for members of the family who don’t have a space elsewhere in the house. Designer Kelsey Bechtel, of Blue Ribbon Millwork, found this firsthand with a recent man cave basement.

“They were doing a bar and working in space for a golf simulator and poker area, so they could have the guys over, do a golf game, play poker and do it all together in one space,” she says. “The style was not at all like the main level of the house. The wife took the lead on everything upstairs, but downstairs the husband could pick the colors and finishes that he preferred.”

(Blue Ribbon Millwork photo)

The Mechanicals Matter

Spiniolas finds the vast majority of her clients start with a fully finished basement. For those clients, some of the biggest challenges are already accounted for.

Basements are totally unlike the rest of the house, for better and for worse. Not only do they have a lower ceiling in most cases, but they also have things like plumbing, air ducts, electrical work, support columns and other mechanicals that support the rest of the house. They’re not always in convenient locations.

“In a basement project, you really have to approach your design considering what’s there and how to work around what’s there,” Spiniolas says. “Those are large and expensive things to move. In a newer home, typically the ceilings are a little taller and the mechanicals are a little more condensed.”

Plumbing is one of the first considerations for a designer. Some unfinished basements may already be equipped for a bathroom. Others aren’t, or their location is inconvenient to the new design. To relocate plumbing, crews may need to dig up the basement slab and lay new pipe, a task that adds significant cost, Spiniolas says.

“Another thing to consider is that, if you plan to put in bedrooms, then you need egress windows,” she adds. “So, that’s something to consider early on because you might have to add one when you’re remodeling the basement.”

Depending on the complexity of the job, the home’s heating, ventilation and cooling (HVAC) system might also need an upgrade.

“A lot of times, if the house is built and the basement is unfinished, technically the furnace doesn’t need to accommodate that space because it’s unfinished,” says Low. “But now you’re finishing it, and if your furnace is older you might have to upgrade it so that it can handle the extra living space.”

Then, there’s the ever-present support system that’s holding up the rest of the house. Usually, this means a system of metal poles. Designers take it as an opportunity to disguise these structures, because relocating them is too costly. They might go behind a wall or become part of a decorative element with drywall, millwork, tile or stone. They can even blend into bars or become archways.

“That’s something we run into a lot, is when someone says, ‘What can we do with these poles?’” says Leimann. “You need them to support your house. You can’t take them out or your house would fall down. So, we need to keep them and just make them part of the design in some creative ways.”

And speaking of creative solutions, the ceiling is where you’ll see some of the most interesting work. This is where ductwork, electrical, plumbing and most other mechanical equipment hangs. Their presence can reduce ceiling height or force designers to build more disguises.

“Maybe you can clad it in reclaimed wood so it looks like a large beam running through the basement,” says Spiniolas. “Or you make a soffit around a certain area of the basement and make it look purposeful to your design.”

Then, there’s the question of how you’ll cover the rest of the ceiling. Drywall is still a popular choice, but it’s by no means the only – or the ideal – option. Believe it or not, drop ceilings present a good alternative.

“If you know you’re going to have a kitchen remodel on the first floor in your future, that is really nice to have an accessible ceiling below,” Spiniolas says. “Some people will drywall their entire basement, and then in the future when they’re remodeling in the kitchen, that can create some significant problems. You have to cut out the drywall, and now you’re making a mess in a secondary space.”

Drop ceilings haven’t always been the apex of beauty. Luckily, that’s changing, and it presents some fun options for designers like Low and Bechtel.

“I once did a library area that had a drop ceiling with decorative tiles that had a more copper look,” says Low. “It gave the room this low-key, low-light ambience, and the tiles look absolutely fantastic. When people think drop ceilings, they think of these hideous white tiles, but there are some options that are even more expensive than drywall. There are so many different looks and colors, finishes and styles – even some that look more like a decorative door with a raised panel.”

So, they not only look great but they’re also nice for our taller family members.

“I think you can gain a little more ceiling height if you do a drop ceiling,” says Bechtel. “Drywall needs a little more thickness overhead, so with a drop ceiling you can make the space feel just a little bigger.”

Spiniolas has found some families prefer a hybrid option that mixes drywall or drop ceilings with another trend: sprayed ceilings. In this option, homeowners opt for the industrial look, where everything overhead is spray-painted black or navy. It’s visually disguised, but it’s also accessible for the future.

“You might drop soffits over some areas, or maybe create spaces using different types of ceilings,” says Spiniolas. “So, you could put drywall over the TV zone or the louder areas, and that way you deflect some of the sound. But then maybe another area is sprayed black and it’s accessible.”

Storage is yet another component to remember. Basements have a way of accumulating extra things, whether or not they’re finished. Designers like Spiniolas can build extra storage into many parts of a basement, whether it’s a large closet for ski gear, a cedar closet for garments, or a corner of the mechanical room. She might even use kitchen-grade cabinetry to build bookshelves, entertainment centers or other storage solutions.

“Let’s say you have a storage room and you have all of these bins with decor or family memories,” she says. “We’ll create this large working table, using cabinetry and countertops, so that you can pull a bin, look for something and then utilize the drawers and storage around you.”

(Advance Design Studio photo)

Smart Budgeting

Basement buildouts are one of the most challenging projects to budget. While designers can readily estimate kitchens and bathrooms based on their experience, anything goes when it comes to basements. The family’s needs and the current condition of the space make it almost impossible to ballpark numbers.

“I think it’s one of the most variable budgets there is for a remodel,” says Bechtel. “What you spend will depend entirely on how far you go, because you could easily spend up to $200,000, or you could restrain yourself and spend around $50,000 to $80,000, which is what you’d spend on your kitchen.”

Why do the numbers vary so much? Like any remodel, it depends entirely on what’s there and what’s replacing it.

“Until you physically have a plan or layout, those numbers are always going to be variable and moving until you can say, ‘Here’s the plan, this is what we’re looking at, so where are we from a cost perspective?’” Low says. “Until you have things drawn up and have your contractors out there, realistically you’re just moving numbers continuously.”

If the basement is already finished and it’s getting only modest updates, that’s one thing. But if the basement is completely unfinished, there’s a lot more to consider. Plumbing, electrical, ventilation, framing, drywall and flooring – all of it is brand-new, and although contractors can more easily gauge the scope of their work in an unfinished basement, their costs also depend upon the little details that are easy to forget. Styles, finishes and materials can very quickly move you from one price point to another.

“Let’s say you want to go from a regular shower to a zero-threshold shower,” says Bechtel. “These look great, but they’re much more challenging in a basement. You’re talking about cutting into concrete, adding a linear drain and pitching new concrete to the drain. That alone can add almost $5,000. It’s possible your municipality may ask you to get an architectural engineer involved, which will also add to the cost.”

This is where it’s important to work with a qualified designer, because they understand how these decisions impact the bottom line.

“Sometimes, you have the option of relocating things like duct vents and electrical wiring,” says Low. “Sometimes it’s super simple and other times it’s not simple. We’ll work together with budgeting and planning, and we’ll weigh out the pros and cons. Is it worth it to do this or move this, or could we use that money somewhere else so we can get other items on your checklist?”

Leimann and the team at Advance Design Studio follow a design-build strategy, where designers and contractors work together under one roof. Their process for basements is the same as any other part of the home, where designers craft a layout, clients select materials and the builders offer their insights on costs through every part of the planning stage. At any given point, clients have a close idea of what it’ll cost.

This helps to take out some of the guesswork, particularly in basements, but it also underlies the importance of working with a qualified designer.

“Many homeowners may not fully understand how much goes into a basement buildout,” says Leimann. So, having a good understanding and budgeting for what you want out of this space is something to consider.”

(Tailored Spaces photos)

Dream Big

A great basement buildout is naturally a showpiece, for both client and designer. That’s why Leimann loves showing off the speakeasy room her colleagues created for a Barrington-area family. The custom bar is tucked into a corner of the basement, hidden behind a bookcase. The room boasts a stylish interior with faux brick walls and a copper sink statement piece.

“The homeowner loves sharing this space with anyone who comes by,” Leimann says.

Projects like this are also a helpful starting point for potential clients. The speakeasy frequently appears on the remodeling firm’s blog, where you’ll also find other fun design ideas.

Bring your favorite ideas and inspirations when you talk to a designer, says Leimann. This helps the designer and the client to produce a strong result.

At Blue Ribbon, Low encourages his clients to start with a wish list, laying out their needs and considering their biggest dreams and demands. This is a place to think big. The process helps to clarify their primary needs, their wants and the areas where they’re willing to compromise, because the reality is that, in a basement, anything goes.

“I always tell my clients that if your wish list comes back with everything at a price you feel comfortable exploring, then that’s perfect. You got everything you want,” Low says. “It’s a lot easier to scale down, and people find they have fewer revisions and they get what they truly want.”