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.

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.

 

3 Takeaways From the Kitchen and Bath Show

Kitchen and Bath projects have a great deal of product choices involved in the process. It should be no surprise that the Kitchen and Bath Industry Show (KBIS), held annually, has a great deal of vendors vying to impress the attendees, and influence them; as well as the consumer on their goods. I just returned from KBIS and there were a lot of new and interesting things to see, but I emerged with something more valuable for you than a new product- knowledge :).

One of my pet peeves in my industry of design is the designer that hides behind the cloak of the product. It can be easy to impress some folks with your design savvy if you can rattle the names of famous designers and suggest only “the finest” wares. Just as annoying is a masterpiece of a tub, Maybe hand struck from a solid cube of copper, then gently (or not) placed into a space without consideration of the user, the ergonomics or the entirety of the design aesthetic. Remember the Kohler ad? “Design my house around this.” The client says, holding the faucet out to the architect.

A word of caution to anyone embarking on a renovation involving a kitchen or bath; the suppliers want your choices to be product driven, and a good designer knows that your choices should be lifestyle driven. Here are the 3 lifestyle choices I think hit the mark with a good explanation.

Ergonomics on lifestyle

When it comes to selecting a bathtub, the first question should be: Who is the tub for? You and the children? Just the adult runner in the family who trains annually for a marathon, aging parents who the new suite is for. Those questions result in narrowing the sizing and utility of the right tub.

Quality of the lifestyle

There are tubs available from $250-$20,000 and more. If you have 3 boys and the oldest is 4… cast iron is in your future :) so plan on spending $1-$2k. If you are building your dream retreat that you have been waiting for to be your sanctuary that you have earned the right to be “selective” with, then maybe it is a volcanic ash tub, that maintains a terrific consistent heat, even if it retails for $5,000 or more without the tub filler. Understanding your needs, your value proposition and the time you’ll use something are the right next questions for the designer.

Your Style in your lifestyle

After you and your designer discuss the top 2, then it’s time to put the “look” together, and a knowledgeable designer knows what brands meet the requirements while putting all of these together (Ergonomics, Quality and style) without designing around a faucet.

Happy shopping!

Choosing The Right Wood Floors For You

Times change, and wood flooring in today’s homes is no exception. I know that including pre-finished wood floors in the discussion will spark some doubt in my Old Yankee-purist area of operations, New England :).  However, just like the popularity in the once shunned gas fireplace, there are situations that make pre-finished floors a good choice even if the tried and true finished on site floor is still in wde use.

I would like to start off by saying – nothing offers more choice than a hand selected and finished on site floor. The Owner who works with a true wood floor specialist can have floors in any width, specie and then customize the finish from natural, distressed, dyed and other opaque options. This is ultimately the only way to achieve a completely custom floor. In remodeling, this is almost always the choice because we are either matching something or need to compliment something that exists. My top choice in site finished flooring is 8 inch quarter sawn oak- glued and nailed with a beautiful walnut stain and satin finish. It is my top choice because it is extremely durable and stable, true to local building materials and history, and is a timeless material that can be re-sanded and stained.

This hardwood floor in Needham was installed onsite to match existing flooring throughout the home

The earliest versions of pre-finished wood flooring left a lot to be desired. There is a bevel on each flooring strip that is the first and most obvious sign that a floor is pre-finished, and earlier versions had a much larger bevel. Enough of the down sides- here is why prefinished flooring has gained momentum: 1- prefinished floors have a tougher finish due to materials that can only be applied in a factory setting, 2- prefinished floors are now available in a wide variety of widths, species and finished that cannot be duplicated on site, 3- engineered products with natural wood finishes are ideal over concrete subfloors in high rise and basement applications, 4-prefinished flooring can be installed virtually odor free.

This is a prefinished floor we are currently installing in a Dover basement remodel

A few things to ask your designer or contractor will include: what to do with stairs that are in the space, if the floors can be refinished at a later date,  and whether the thickness is OK for adjoining flooring. I should also note that one of the most common mistakes I see is walking into a home with multiple finishes, probably because of all the choices…..consistency in flooring has always been important, so narrow it down to one!

Kitchen Countertops as Architectural Features

Can you imagine a kitchen without counter tops? It wasn’t that long ago that the kitchen table was used as the main prep space- with minimal counter clean up space reserved for the sink. Once the marvelous concept of preparation and clean-up space was introduced, there wasn’t much call for improvement. The kitchen counter has evolved based on a few very important reasons: 1. Times change and so have the materials available – (stainless, laminate, solid surface, natural stone and glass, concrete and wood) so we can change the look as well as mix things up. 2. Times change and so have our lifestyles- Mom is not cooking alone in the kitchen anymore – the duties have been split and the children are more involved. Because of our busy lives it is one of the activities families do together now so the layouts of the counter tops have changed (islands, peninsulas, L and U-shaped kitchens as well as the most current use of multiple triangles of task-connecting stations for prep, clean-up and cooking… and the all-important homework while being in the same room with each other) 3. Times change and the kitchen is not just the nucleus of the home, it is the center of our life at home. This creates a need to blend the best practices of what the kitchen needs to do while making the kitchen a beautiful part of our family area… “wait, I think this is how the pioneers did it” In the following examples are a couple of counters that have more than one purpose:

Butcher block countertop

Butcher block countertop

The chopping block above faces the family room and dinette and provides relief by not being on the same plane as the main counter.  The warm color of the wood offers a casual change of definition, and the lower height is actually more conducive to cutting and chopping.  The butcher block also means no more bringing out a cutting board at prep time.
Large kitchen island

Large kitchen island

The length of the counter above allows two accomplished foodies to work side by side.  There’s more! The extended casual dining is scalable and was designed to help manage the client’s invited guests and create more “gathering space” to keep the work zone free of unwanted participation. The extension is also scalable in that it can be used to bring little cooks in on some cookie making, be used for casual dining, or allow homework or other projects to be done while a meal is being prepared. One more benefit of this design is that the extended dinette is an architectural bridge helping transition the adjacent family room into the kitchen. The moral of the story? When you are designing your next kitchen, imagine all the things you want to accomplish in the space and use that as a creative start to your counter space.