Lower Levels Become Functional

It’s easy to think of bonus rooms and lower levels as extra space—it might be nice to have but it’s not  essential. You could live without finishing off these rooms or investing a lot in them. They aren’t like a kitchen or a master bedroom. It’s not room you need. 

Well, that’s what you say now . . . but once you’ve taken that step, you’ll find that a well-designed, well-executed lower level or bonus room is like your garage door opener or even air-conditioning. You will use them so much that you won’t be able to imagine life without them.

“These rooms . . . often become the most widely used space in the home,” says Kelly Hofmeister, manager of west side retailer Woodworks Furniture

That is why they deserve as much attention and planning as any other room in the house, says Jocelyn Dornfeld, vice president of Ganser Company, a full-service remodeling contractor. Moving too quickly without forethought can result in a disappointing space that is inefficient, uninviting and underutilized. 

For example, Dornfeld notes, no one wants the traffic flow to the bathroom to pass right in front of the television. You also don’t want to have to run upstairs every time someone wants a glass of water, and you certainly don’t want to have to snake extension cords around the floor because you didn’t put in enough outlets or you put them in the wrong places. The worst might be water issues if you didn’t properly waterproof or if you made mistakes with plumbing. Even if you hire out the work, you can end up unhappy if you don’t consider everything from traffic patterns to lighting.

Dornfeld recommends starting with a prioritized wish list before meeting with designers or contractors. Many homeowners will expect their finished lower levels to serve multiple purposes: media room, guest room, home office, playroom, craft area or more. While lower levels usually offer space for more than one use, they often can’t accommodate everything on a homeowner’s list. 

That is where 3D mockups or 4D virtual walk-throughs are invaluable, Dornfeld says. Ganser uses the 3D and 4D computerized modeling to help homeowners visualize the space before any work is done. They can even “walk through” the entire lower level to get a sense of traffic flow and any obstacles or oddities to the design. “It can really help them realize when they are trying to do too much with the space,” Dornfeld says.

Laurel Brown, owner of architecture and interior design firm Brownhouse, also points out that homeowners will get better results when they work with instead of against the space they have. She notes that windowless areas of a lower level need not be relegated to storage; they are great for media or theater rooms. 

Craft or art rooms can also be tucked away in smaller nooks or crannies that might not be optimal for entertaining, and Brown says many homeowners can get a lot of mileage out of having all art and craft supplies stored and organized in one place—out of sight of the rest of the house. “Craft rooms or art rooms are great. You can leave a mess because no one is going to see it,” she says. “You can work, and then you can just walk upstairs and leave things as they are and not worry about it.”

Brown notes that it’s really never too early to start advance planning for finishing lower levels. In fact, Brown advises clients to think about future plans for unfinished spaces when they are building—not a couple years later. You can’t change ceiling heights once the foundation is poured, and the lower level ceiling height might not be consistent throughout the space because of ductwork and other systems running below the first floor. Plumbing, too, is expensive when you need to tear up concrete. 

Thus, Brown encourages clients to invest a little in lower levels right off the bat by factoring in higher ceilings and stubbing in plumbing for a bathroom and a sink or bar area even if the homeowner has no current plans for finishing off the space. It adds cost, but it ensures the most options down the road. “Lower levels are definitely areas that people will come back to and finish later,” she says, “even if they have no plans to do so when they are building the house.”

Jeff Grundahl, owner of full-service builder and remodeling contracting company JG Development, agrees. He notes that radiant heat is great for taking the chill out of lower-level floors, and running the tubing at the time of construction is smart. “You can finish it—hook it up—with a boiler and mechanicals later on,” he says.

Grundahl also notes that existing windows, views, decks and porches can affect finish options (or costs) for lower levels, so it’s wise to consider those as early as possible.

In the end, lower levels and bonus rooms as well will likely serve more than one purpose. Many will double as guest quarters at some point, and some will house some home office equipment if upstairs space is at a premium.

Hofmeister says multi-purpose furnishings can accommodate dual uses more efficiently and comfortably than ever before. Sectionals are great for watching movies, but they can also hide sleepers and table desks that can double as serving spaces. That way you won’t need a separate futon or table and chairs if space is tight. 

Jacob Harlow, manager of Century House, a west side retailer of Scandinavian and modern furnishings and accessories, agrees. “[This] is where the fun is!” he says. “Multi-function furniture and space planning go a long way toward creating a space that can easily transform or serve multiple functions at the same time.”

Harlow points to furniture equipped with outlets and other inputs to support a wide variety of personal technology. Form, he notes, does not require forgoing function.

While efficiency and style might be at the top of the shopping list, Hofmeister cautions homeowners to keep comfort in mind as well. After all, if the seating doesn’t feel good, no one will want to use the space. “Comfort is very key in selecting any furnishings for your home, but most important in a TV viewing area,” she says. “It’s kind of the Goldilocks thing. The sofa or recliner can’t be too hard or too soft. It has to be just right.”

- JG

Light Idea

Jocelyn Dornfeld, vice president of Ganser Company, reminds homeowners to consider lighting during the design stage. It’s a common mistake to put off lighting decisions to the end, she says, but it’s a hard mistake to fix. 

“Lighting is huge. It can make all the difference,” she says. “People might think about that before the project and after the project, but not during the project. But once the electrical work is done and the drywall is up, it’s too late.” 

- Jennifer Garrett

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