On the Down Low

Technology and topography take subterranean fun to new heights

Lower levels in homes have a few things going for them. First, expectations are, well, lower. The finished space in a lower level is not like, say, a main-floor kitchen that has to function well whether there are two people or ten congregating around the stove. And it’s not like the upstairs bathroom that has to look pretty and withstand routine abuse.

In fact, the lower level of a home is often extra. As a result, lower-level rooms don’t have to perform as much as they have to accommodate. Most of all, they need to be comfortable and conducive to fun.

Sure, sometimes they also have to work a little bit. Lower levels are often the primary storage spaces for many families—the Christmas decorations have to live somewhere in July. But aside from shelving some boxes and housing some mechanicals, lower levels are usually extra space that families or couples use for relaxation and entertainment. Now, thanks to a few technological innovations, it is hardly ever a tall order to create a fun and inviting lower-level space.

First Things First

Lower levels can be a blast, but there is one thing that can dampen the fun quickly: water. A lot of rain combined with some grading issues or a crack in an aging foundation will turn lower-level laughter to tears.

That’s why, before you invest in a big remodel or finish out that extra space, you’ll need to check for water infiltration issues, says Keven Schmidt, owner of Dream Kitchens. “Before you get to the inside, you have to invest in the outside,” he says. “Sometimes that’s where your first money goes.”

Schmidt also cautions homeowners to ask contractors about water issues before finishing out a space. Some will not bring it up or might assume that the homeowner has already addressed water issues. “I think homeowners need to be savvy about it, if you’re going to finish a lower level, and make that investment in the finished space,” he says.

He recommends that all homes except new construction should be checked for potential water issues. A home can have flaws that could lead to water infiltration even though nothing has seeped in yet. “People can live in a house for fifty years before they have a first flood,” Schmidt says. “Some fixes, things like a sump pump, can be inexpensive at the front end but very important. Waterproofing is big.”

Roger Guest, architect for Veridian Homes, agrees. He points out that the drainage system in every Veridian home contains a sump pump so that “ground water will not adversely affect finished areas.”

Now the Fun Starts

Our cold winters play a role in creating the spacious lower levels found in many Wisconsin homes. Frost lines and building codes require fairly deep foundation depths in our climes, so excavating a little further to add a full lower level does not add much cost relative to the amount of space it yields.

Lower levels offer the most economical square footage in the home and, save for a few columns, also offer wide open spaces without all the requirements of the upstairs. You can gain additional space, too, beneath a garage, thanks to Spancrete technology. The precast concrete company makes it possible to add, on average, around five hundred square feet of space below the car park. Spancrete’s Clinton Krell says it is pricier than typical basement space, but still more economical than adding an equivalent amount of square footage to the house’s footprint.

“You can make it look like any normal livable space,” Krell says. “You get a long span with the precast product so you don’t need additional columns. A typical garage is around twenty-two feet by twenty-four feet. It’s actually an enormous amount of space. And if you have exposure that allows for it, you can certainly have windows. You can even have a door if you have appropriate grading.”

Much of Dane County’s undulating topography makes that possible for many lower levels regardless of whether homeowners decide to take advantage of technology to put rooms below garages. Our rolling hills often make it possible to incorporate large lower-level windows, sometimes even patio doors, into room designs. Alternatively, homes situated on flat lots can take advantage of skid steers and landscaping to do the same, if the budget allows. Once you have the space and natural light, any kind of room is an option and imaginations can run wild.

“The casual entertainment space is still the most popular [use for the lower level],” Guest says, “[but] there are as many different uses for these spaces as homeowners.”

For example, Guest has created sound-proof music studios, hobby spaces, exercise rooms, pottery studios, hydroponic plant-growing suites, and yoga rooms.

Jason Kratochwill, who owns Alterra Design Homes along with Ryan Werth and Jerod Bennett, says his custom-home company has also put a twelve-foot sunken hockey and sports room in a lower level in one home and a powerful cigar vent in a bar area in another.

“The paradigm has really changed,” Kratochwill says. “We now have people starting with the basement and what they want there, before they even go into the rest of the house. We would estimate up to thirty percent of new clients lead with their lower-level needs.”

Madison interior designer Denise Quade, owner of Denise Quade Design, is also witnessing shifting attitudes about lower levels. For one client Quade even moved one of a home’s traditionally upper-level mainstays into the lower level to take advantage of the vast space. “The master suite is moving to the lower level, incorporating almost five hundred square feet of closet, a fireplace, large TV, coffee bar and luxurious bathroom,” Quade says. “This suite is as large as some homes.”

Entertainment Tonight

There was a time when homeowners would finish off a lower level and then go shopping for a new television. Now tech-savvy homeowners go shopping for an entertainment experience first and then design the room around it so that they get exactly what they want without frustrating sight lines or regrets about the fireplace placement.

It is just a fact in contemporary American society that it is nearly impossible to talk about lower levels without talking about entertainment. It is just as impossible to talk about entertainment without talking about TVs.

The reality is that much of our down time these days involves a screen. Maybe it’s watching the Badgers or hosting an Oscars party or settling in with the kids to enjoy Pixar’s latest. It might be a bunch of seventh graders playing Rock Band or your teenager Facebooking between episodes of Glee.

In any event, one trend is that dedicated home theaters or specialized rooms have given way to multipurpose spaces that support a wide variety of activities and pastimes, says American TV’s Tom Spinoso. “If you’re going to have a multi-talented room, it takes multi-talented technology; the TV is what you see and it’s what delivers the experience,” he says.

The set-up can be as simple as a flat-screen and audio system, or it can be as intricate as a fully integrated system that allows homeowners to control the entire lower level—everything from audio and video to lights and temperature—from an iPad.

“We can take an idea about how someone wants a space to turn out, the things they want to do, the content they want to watch, and we can deliver that experience in a way that’s simple and easy to use,” Spinoso says.

And if what you want to do is impress your friends with the latest generation TV, you can do that, too. American carries LG’s 84-inch 4K model that has four times the resolution of high-end HD screens. “You can sit close to it and still have a fantastic image,” Spinoso says. And for nearly $18,000, it can be yours. “It’s the next watershed movement in TV technology.”

- Jennifer Garrett

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