Structural Decisions: the Final Designs for Your Finished Basement

In part 1 of this “how to finish your basement” series we discussed the preliminary decisions and work necessary for finishing your basement. In part 2 we covered choosing a contractor to finish your basement. In this third installment we will discuss what types of rooms you want in your basement and some other structural decisions.

The most critical structural decisions are for the final design of your finished basement. You can do this task yourself, work in consultation with your contractor, or hire a designer or architect to do the job. If you are doing the job yourself it is a good idea to pick up a book or two from the library or a home-improvement store to help you draw out your plan. The first step is to get accurate measurements of the basement space and create a drawing on graph paper. Add into the drawing anything already in the basement that will be staying in the finished space, such as the furnace, water heater, stairs, doors, and windows. Also mark if there are any structural support columns in the basement.

After getting these initial measurements you need to decide what rooms you want in the basement. Do you want a bathroom? If one was not roughed-in when your house was finished then adding a bathroom can add significant cost to finishing your basement or even be cost-prohibitive. If a bathroom is possible then you do want a half or full bath? If a bathroom was roughed-in then that rough-in should be added next to your drawing as permanent fixtures to work around.

Do you want a bedroom? Most codes require a closet and a direct route of egress (door or window) for a room to be called a bedroom so do you have a space in the basement where a door or window exists or where it will be possible to add one? What size of bedroom do you want? Ten feet by ten feet is the smallest size room that really works for a bedroom and your local code may have other specific dimensions as a requirement.

What other rooms do you want in your finished basement? Do you want an office, a playroom, a family room, a media room, a kitchen, a bar, a laundry room, a mud room, a storage room? Do you want one big great room or do you want the space divided into smaller rooms? If the basement is small, then creating a great room will leave more open space and make the basement feel bigger. Flexible room dividers can be created later from a variety of methods.

What about built-in shelving? Built-in shelves offer lots of storage space and add some architectural interest to a room. A well-designed built-in shelf can turn a dead space in a basement into a highly useful storage spot. Books with design ideas for built-ins are also available at hardware and home-improvement stores.

How about wiring in the basement? The electrician will make most decisions about the wiring, but there are a few questions you need to ask yourself. If you want a media room where do you want to put your speakers and do you want the speaker wires put into the walls? Do you want network wiring run to the office? Do you want your cable or satellite input run just to the media room or also the family room or office? Putting wiring in the walls gets those wires off your floors and makes them nearly invisible. Having a house that is already wired for the internet can be a good selling point when you put your house on the market as well. It’s easy to do when finishing the basement and adds little cost to the overall project.

How will you heat and cool your basement? Just adding insulation to the basement will significantly alter the temperature down there, but you will likely still want a way to heat and cool the basement. If you want to use your existing heating and cooling system you will need to verify that it is rated for the additional space the finished basement will add. Your contractor will be able to recommend how many vents to add and where to put them.

Another heating option is a corn or wood pellet stove. These types of stoves require only a vent punched through the exterior wall instead of a full chimney, and offer a stylish source of warm heat in the basement. A wood stoves and fireplaces are also good sources of heat, but require more cost due to the need for a chimney. Other, less expensive, choices include baseboard heat and space heaters. If the basement is fully underground, then its temperature may not vary dramatically over the course of the year and you may find you don’t need much to keep a pleasant temperature in the basement.

The final structural question for your finished basement is “what kind of ceiling do you want”. Drop ceilings are commonly found in finished basements and are the easiest thing for a do-it-yourselfer, but decrease the height of your finished basement. There are a variety of choices today in the tiles for drop ceilings allowing you to use them as decorative features in the basement. A drywall ceiling will make the room more cohesive with the rest of the house and add more height, but is much more work for a do-it-yourselfer. If you are using a contractor the costs may not too much different.

Now you’ve made decisions for your rooms, wiring, heating and cooling, and ceiling in your basement, so what is left to decide? In part 4 of this “how to finish your basement” series we will discuss lighting, paint and flooring choices for your finished basement.

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