Fantastic Finished Basements Begin with Building Science

We get many calls for finishing basements, especially as winter looms and families look to stretch the range of their home and entertain the children. The most important part of finishing these spaces is of course getting the space that gives you the most bang, tailored to your family.  The top contenders are: Play date spots for groups of toddlers, gaming space for tweens and teens, media and/or entertaining spaces and my personal favorite, the home gym.

Finished Steam Room and Home Gym in a Wayland Remodel

A common misconception about finishing the basement is one that I have heard from some of our clients. “What I want isn’t complicated, so I don’t think I need a higher level of expertise on a project like that”. Here are a few reasons this space needs to be treated with care and why the value priced quote you may get could be a poor investment.  There will be a wide range of value decisions along the way; however, what is underneath the walls in basements becomes more important than the rest of the home in terms of safety, health and comfort.  

Let’s start with the existing finished basement that many of you either have inherited or saw on your home search. In the 60’s or 70’s the homeowner put up some studs and paneling for a hip man cave or neighborhood bar.  These spaces are usually falling down, and don’t have any heat or insulation.  Then, as the energy crisis in the 70’s got folks geared up for insulation, some basements received a good dose of fiberglass between the sheetrock and the concrete walls… it was code after all! Now that we know what we know, here are the 3 MOST important things we believe are the foundation (no pun intended) for a healthy basement:

  1. We use metal framing studs on all perimeter walls. Metal won’t absorb water and the space between the finished walls and concrete can have much different dew points than the room itself.

  2. Spray foam insulation is used instead of fiberglass on these perimeter walls as well. We get a thermal break from the colder concrete and a much reduced condensation. You have probably seen copper pipes in the summer beading with water… once the foundation is insulated… we don’t see this. It is much more expensive, but the peace of mind on long term comfort and moisture reduction makes this a must for us.

  3. Proper air ventilation is something that is required for any space that is either new construction with foam, or for areas like basements that have less than 4% of the floor space in window openings that allow fresh air in. A good heat recovery ventilator keeps the air quality healthy at all times.

Metal studs and spray foam insulation in a Brookline basement remodel

There are a couple of code items that apply as well. The ceiling height for habitable space is a minimum of 7 feet 2 inches. Also required and extremely important is a means of egress.  Most basements have a door to a bulkhead- so if you are having slumber parties, make sure the kids know the way out in case of emergency, and clear any snow off the bulkhead in the winter.

Pros & Cons of both Gas and Wood Fireplaces

​The fireplace still remains a staple to our thoughts of “hearth and home”.  So much has changed with building codes and fireplaces that I thought it would be great to note a few of these if you are considering adding a fireplace to your next construction project.

Wood burning fireplace in Sherborn

I’ll start with the most popular fireplace we install…. A gas fireplace.  As a side note, if I had mentioned gas fireplaces in our greater NewtonWellesley area of operations 15 years ago, people would have thought I was uninformed or downright low-end :).  Today, the popularity has grown because we have less time to store, stack and start a wood fire.

This option does have a few things to consider.  Today’s gas fireplaces have to be efficient and deliver heat… that can be a bad thing if you put it somewhere that the heat zone is not separate which would either cause the rest of the home to become cold if the thermostat is nearby, or the room the fireplace is in could become uncomfortably warm… or not even start if you are using the temperature setting.  If you are selecting a gas fireplace, be sure to look at the screen options that will be part of the exterior façade.  These used to be recommended by our team to protect little ones from burns, but are now required in our state… this will change the aesthetic so it is an important choice.  One last item to think about is the ventilation of the off gasses.  If you are installing one of these in an existing fireplace, a new stainless steel flu will need to be installed. Another option is to ventilate directly outside, however depending on the location, this can look awkward if not resolved well architecturally.

Pros:

  1. Hit the remote control and “ta da!”

  2. Never run out of wood.

  3. Supplemental heat source in cooler rooms.

  4. Easier to get the popular TV over fireplace because of clearances.

Cons:

  1. May create hot and cold zones in the home.

  2. May be challenging to vent.

  3. Flames not as realistic as the real deal.

  4. Cannot roast marshmallows

Gas Fireplace in Dover

Wood fireplaces are still my personal favorite… but my wife would disagree because she doesn’t like the smoky smell- however; I’ll list that (in small doses) as a Pro.  There is nothing more real than a real fire and after all, this is part of our evolution as a human race.  Fire means warmth, hot meals and togetherness.  In one of my earlier homes I installed a metal hook that allowed a cast iron pot to boil water adding humidity in dry winter months.  I know that wood means a lot of effort in cutting, splitting or even bringing in fresh logs that may have been delivered… I just like the primitive fun of it and I find it easy once the fire has a nice set of coals, I can regulate the temperature and the kids can enjoy s’mores in January.

Pros:

  1. Real flames and crackle noise.

  2. Can roast marshmallows and hot dogs on camping night inJ

  3. Regulate the heat output while maintaining ambient flames.

  4. Supplemental heat source when the power goes off.

Cons:

  1. Inefficient source of fuel, and air leaks from the home.

  2. Can create odor that some folks don’t like.

  3. Requires work to keep wood coming and clean-up.

  4. More challenging to hang a TV over.

     

No matter what your pleasure… there is nothing like the dance of flames in a room to add ambiance, romance or conjure a holiday mood, so just make sure you are getting what you want from your fireplace.

 

 

 

 

Dust Control- Protecting Your Family During Construction

I know dust protection isn’t the eye candy most consumers are looking for in remodeling; however, it is one of the most important parts of your project. Today, remodelers are required to adhere to the Renovation and Repair Act that abolished ignorant practices such as fans in a window blowing hazardous material into the air- and possibly right back into the home.  What the act doesn’t prevent are the same poorly monitored or poorly managed practices that can effectively keep harmful and annoying dust out of your home.

Our first line of defense is to avoid drop clothes where possible. They contain dust- and if used improperly could bring harmful dust from an older home into your newer lead free home.  We use a protectant that can be vacuumed up regularly like a carpet protection on stair runners and Ram Board on hard surfaces.

In the photo below is my favorite form of protecting our clients from dust… the “alternate means of travel” also known as staging or temporary stairs. You will see we have installed a locking temporary door until the new window goes in near the end, and we were able to close off all access points to the home making this Newton remodel 100% dust proof.  Because the cost of protecting the finishes inside the home and dust proofing need to be part of any project, this option also was the least expensive to the client so it was a win all around.

Happy Renovating, and stay safe!

Planned Obsolescence

Obsolescence (or reduction of serviceability) is something, that in and of itself, is why I have a renovation and construction company. In addition to growing populations, we have structures that are aging as well as lifestyles and designs that are changing. Even the well built homes constructed in an era when craftsmanship was more a standard than an exception eventually need repair and updating. It is the new era, that I believe has become an era of “unplanned obsolescence”, that we need to pay more attention to.

According to Wikipedia, the phrase “Planned Obsolescence” was first popularized in 1954 by Brooks Stevens, an American industrial designer. By his definition, planned obsolescence was “Instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.” By the late 1950s, planned obsolescence had become a commonly used term for products designed to break easily or to quickly go out of style. 

I do believe that there is a place for planned obsolescence… just look at the new swing set and club house I made for our 6 year old little girl. She loves the windows that make a face and can’t wait for her first tea party! You’ll notice it is a bit crooked in places because 1/3 of the materials were salvaged from the old ranch house roof we removed to add a second story, and 1/3 are leftover lumber culled because it wasn’t straight enough for the home under construction. This crooked nature makes things not bind together as well, and I didn’t bother adding water proofing and flashing to prepare for decades of solid building… Why? Because Charlotte is the last little one until grand parenting begins years from now… and I will probably want to build a playset my older body can move around in better- so I planned the obsolescence of the structure and spent less than $1,000 in materials to build the best ever 15 year playhouse my nieces and nephews can enjoy when our daughter has out grown it.


It is easy to find new homes, and renovations that are put together either forsaking sound practices for short term financial gain or taking advantage of a consumer’s lack of information to pitch a lesser cost. Even the consumer is driving this with thoughts of moving more often (a reality according to census), and not wanting to spend money that benefits the next guy. I call these practices, unplanned obsolescence, because many of these defects are born from short term thinking that will have a longer term impact on our housing market. One obvious thing I see are homes that are less than 5 years old that look like they need a new paint job. It looked great with one coat the day they bought it, and because people think it should last about a decade, they are surprised when the trim starts rotting in place. I have been called to look at 3 kitchens this month that are less than a decade old because a developer put in something poorly made that checks a kitchen box. My last rant is the disregard for buying quality windows… many new homes have generic windows with a serviceable life of 10 years installed incorrectly adding to the pain because they leak and create more damage… and surely we can’t be planning on these homes to be tear downs in 10 years.

As proof in the pudding, and me showing I put my money where my mouth is, here is a Halloween treat (and a picture of my house in Sherborn). Simple-yes, smallish – yes. But behind that higher grade siding we recommend to our clients is a layer of exterior foam and cedar breathing material, then a high R-value foam insulation. About 30% more cost than an exterior on any new home in the neighborhoods we work in. However; I will benefit because I won’t be painting for at least another 10 years without rot, my home will be more comfortable in the winter and summer even if I don’t get back all the investment in the insulation that was added, and hopefully no one will tear it down in 20-30 years when I am done with it.

Victorian Kitchen Renovation Provides Structural Surprise

Our firm always has a few hurdles to jump when we meet perspective clients. First, we have to perform the process of due diligence where we prepare detailed specifications based on what the client wants. Then, we get the budget drafted with painstaking detail and closely look at the existing conditions to understand what sort of trauma we will find when we open up those walls, or truly close in on the level of finishes desired for the project. Before we get the honor of working with our future fans, we have to present the budget, which requires showing people what it will cost in reality- and not some estimate full of errors or omissions. Since most of our clients are laypersons to the remodeling industry, education is the key component when you are looking to renovate your home, and that should come in the form of a number.

Poor quality carpentry is usually evident on the outside; however, we just opened a renovation project in Newton to find that walls in the rear of the home were removed that were actually structural. On the inside, the kitchen cabinets were dated, but pretty good quality… and the home was loved by the former occupant who was elderly and wanted to stay, so a bath was added in the 90’s with the kitchen renovation. What we found when we did the demo was appalling. In one room where an undersized beam was located we had already planned “surgery” because we could see the dipping floor. The area where the new kitchen is being moved to, the previous workers had actually just arbitrarily removed a bearing wall to make way for a shower and the only thing holding up the bedroom floor above was a nonstructural wall below. While arguably this wasn’t an imminent danger issue, the floor and ceiling had settled 2 ½” because someone wanted to save $500 on a major renovation (probably not the owner).

If you look at the picture you can see that all the lightly colored floor joists are brand new and all we have to do is connect the old and new. This was at no additional cost to the owner because we had anticipated this when we opened up the ceiling in a few spots to see what we would have to deal with before they signed the agreement. While having a permit won’t guarantee a quality job (building officials are zoning enforcement agents and public safety officials), it would have saved this structure and potential disaster because building inspectors wouldn’t have allowed this to pass muster.

Coming soon….… we are going to jack up this ceiling in Sherborn and see what happened to cause a 3 inch dip in the ceiling- look at the crown molding.