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High Highs and Low Lows:
The Story of a Basement Transformation

 
 
 

The story begins with me being called in to investigate a wet basement. The client had spent a good deal of money with a contractor to waterproof their basement, but the seepage hadn’t stopped. They’d paid for rough-ins on the plumbing, but there was no venting and the toilet drain sloped backwards. The mechanicals weren’t working properly, and so they weren’t getting proper cooling on the upper floor. They had called the contractor back to the house twice without any change in result — in short, they were just about ready to write off the basement altogether.

I saw a lot of things only a good builder would catch. The situation was bad — but I knew what needed to be done. We had to tear up about 20% of the concrete that had already been poured. Inside that concrete were hydronic tubes that heated the floor — we had to repair all of them by blowing the system out.

The mechanical systems also needed attention — we reorganized the entire area, with the exception of the forced air gas furnace. For instance, we relocated the central vacuum to where it could be properly cleaned with ease. These are the kinds of improvements that will never show up in photographs but are nonetheless vital.

And then, with the water problems remedied and mechanicals optimized, we implemented a series of transformational upgrades to the space.

 

“Some of the worst infrastructure work I’d ever seen”

- Yuill McGregor

 
 

Storage

With thirty years of designing living areas under my belt, I’ve become somewhat of an expert on how to make smart use of space. I will always develop an understanding of a client’s particular storage needs — every family is slightly different depending on things like hobbies — but then there are features that are universally appreciated, such as cedar closets.

This basement offers all kinds of storage, including space for overflow kitchen gear. It’s amazing how a well-organized basement can reduce clutter throughout the house and make the upper floors look better. But what good is a basement for storage if you dread the thought of going down there! So we gave it beautiful 1000-grit polished concrete floors — coated in Bellatrix, which gives it a luster and prevents stains from wines and oils — which are warmed in the wintertime and feel great even on exposed skin.

 
 

HOME THEATRE

An epic home theatre is more easily achieved than many people think. And with little to no natural light, the basement is the ideal location.

To prevent sound from filtering through the rest of the home, we add insulation to the walls and ceiling. To counter the acoustically bright drywall and concrete floors, we use pine barnboard as a sound attenuator to tune the room. In this case, it’s reclaimed from an Ontario barn in Orillia. Reclaimed pine has a huge surface area due to its eroded face, making it ideal as a sound soak insulator. Of course it has a second purpose, and that’s aesthetic.

 
 

WASHROOM

In a basement there are often irregular space constraints, such as in the area where put the washroom where we had what’s called a ‘bench footing’ — making it a bit of a challenge to find the right storage and floor solutions. As a result, one of these closets is 36”-deep for really large objects, and another is for towels and linens. The toilet paper holder, recessed into the wall, is an example of a small touch that helps make the space work.

 
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Office

The owner operates a business and wanted the ability to work from home using a stand-up desk. We created a tranquil space largely by considering the little things. We solved the wire management challenge of bringing receptacles into a concrete floor that had already been poured by using conduits. We projected where the desks would be prior to installing the overhead lights. And we gave each of the windowsills a mirrored surface, for two reasons: Drywall windowsills tend to get dirty, and a mirror provides a complimentary light-bounce, allowing sunlight deeper into the room.

 
 

Before & After
Slide the bar left/right to reveal the transformation.

 
 

“i Love it!!”

I remember the euphoric high when the barnboard got delivered — the client exclaiming “Oh I love it!!” even before we started applying it to the walls. Contrast that with the devastating moment two months ealier when they’d learned that the existing concrete would have to be torn up… A low low!

For decades, I’ve been pushing investing in the basement as the first and best place to renovate. It has the highest payback value because it’s the foundation of your home. When the basement is functional, dry and warm, the rest of the house is sitting atop those three things. That’s what’s critical in a home — to have the whole envelope working, not just what’s above-grade. And most people don’t have the vision when it comes to the basement because it has small windows and minimal light — but those things are easy enough to correct. Adding brand new square feet to a house and having to condition it — heat it, cool it, waterproof it — well, it’s not a waste of money if you actually need those square feet in addition to the basement square feet — but the first and best place to look for inexpensive space remains the basement. To spend well — not lavishly, just well — on a basement, you’ll get 1.5x back — guaranteed. I’ve been espousing this for 30 years. Realtors for 15… they’re a little slow to the take-up. They would say, “Who would want to spend time in a basement?” — but they were picturing a dark, damp root cellar! We just need to open our minds to what’s possible…

 
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