A Guide to Bonus Rooms

Lower level rooms are tops with families

Let’s get one thing straight: We’re not talking about basements. Thanks to technology that keeps them dry and more careful siting and designing to maximize exposure, modern lower levels are awash in daylight and as comfortable as the rest of the house.

In fact, sometimes they are even more comfortable.

“I’ve had clients say, ‘Thanks for building a cabin in my lower level,’” says Jeff Grundahl, owner of JG Development, a Blue Mounds company that offers full design, remodeling and construction services. “In essence they go downstairs on Friday night and don’t surface again until after the weekend.”

Who wouldn’t want a getaway just steps away?

Doug Widish says the most common requests for lower levels involve creating a relaxing recreational space that the whole family can use. The manager for Gerhards Showroom, the area’s largest retailer for kitchen, bath and other remodeling projects that involve cabinetry and plumbing (such as lower-level bars and guest suites), says everyone still wants a place to play.

But these aren’t the knotty pine rec rooms of yore. These rooms feature bars and big-screen TVs, Wiis and dartboards, or pool tables and air hockey. They have guest suites for those fun friends who want to escape to your house, and kitchenettes so life is easy for everyone when they do. You have playrooms and theater rooms and game rooms. You put it all down there.

Just remember not to put it all down there. Most homes don’t have unlimited space or unlimited budgets. So if you are remodeling or finishing a lower level, try to section off the space into multiple rooms. When you’ve got just one room—even if the room is big—you’ll have to make some decisions about what goes in and what gets left out.

“I think the biggest mistake people make is they ask these spaces to do too much,” says Kelly Hofmeister, manager of west-side furniture retailer Woodworks. “TV, relaxing, gaming, computer or work and guest space is a lot to ask of one area. I usually tell people to think of the two ways that they will primarily use a space, and that should be the focus of their decision making process.”

Grundahl agrees that thoughtful space planning leads to a better, more comfortable outcome. He points out that not only do some homeowners ask a single space to do too much, but also that other homeowners look to finish too much space.

“One mistake is thinking that they’ve got to use every inch of that lower level. They’ve got that big old space, so why not tile it? Why not finish it?” Grundahl says. “But the key is coming up with the right size, style, fit and flow for what they want to do.”

Grundahl typically walks clients through a needs/wants assessment to determine the best solution and plan for the project, and he often urges homeowners to think twice about finishing all the space they currently use for keeping camping gear, holiday decorations and off-season clothing. “Almost all people need more storage,” he notes.

Hofmeister encourages homeowners to take advantage of various retailer design services even when they already have their own designer or contractor. Different professionals have different areas of expertise, and putting all those heads together leads to a better result or spots problems that the homeowner might not recognize.

“No one is happy when that 60-inch TV is waiting to go on a console that will not go around a turn in the stairwell,” Hofmeister says. “Our complimentary design service can help the consumer space plan, troubleshoot and pick out pieces that will give them long-lasting use.”

Widish says another advantage of talking to designers early on is that it can help determine whether budgets match dreams. While it is true that finishing existing lower level space is usually less expensive than adding a new room above grade, the costs can vary dramatically depending on the plans for the project and whether or not rough plumbing is already in place.

“Homeowners need to understand what is available to them,” Widish says, explaining that tearing through concrete to add a half bath or to run plumbing for a wet-bar sink is going to add to the cost.

Once you move past space planning, a few other considerations will make a lower level more comfortable. Alicia Szekeres, co-owner of Nature Stone of Wisconsin, notes that basements often have a lot of hard surfaces, which isn’t always easy on the ears. She says Nature Stone, a permanent, stone-epoxy flooring material, “provides a high degree of acoustic, noise-dampening properties.”

That means your kids can whoop and holler at the Wii while you have a conversation at the bar across the room and nobody has to ask anybody to keep it down.

Szekeres notes that while lower levels are dryer than ever, floors are often still cold. She advises homeowners to consider that when making finish choices. “When applying Nature Stone in basement applications, homeowners benefit from the added warmth of the flooring. In fact, Nature Stone flooring has ahigher insulation value [R value] than carpeting, tile or wood,” she says.

Widish points out that another way around cold feet is in-floor heating. “It is absolutely wonderful,” he says. “No one will be disappointed with in-floor heat on the lower level. It’s fantastic. It makes all the difference.”

– Jennifer Garrett


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