• Angela Pauldine, Director of Communications

Bungalow Expansions: Basements!


We had two seminar topics this month about expanding the living space in bungalows: One on finishing attics including updates on our #StopThePop campaign, and one on finishing basements. Our fabulous basement finishing presenter, Julie Liska of Liska Architects, explained everything you should consider when planning to finish your bungalow basement.

A word to the wise before we get into the many things you’ll need to think about when finishing your basement: hire an architect. It’s their job to take care of the multitude of things that go into a renovation project, so that the homeowner isn’t overwhelmed. Many people think they’re saving money by skipping out on architect fees, but that’s only true in the short-term. An architect can save you money in many ways. Part of an architect’s job is to plan and develop your ideas fully to avoid costly refinements after construction is underway. Read AIA Chicago’s reasons why you should work with an architect.

Considerations for Finishing Your Bungalow Basement

First things first: It’s crucial to find out if you have any basement flooding issues! Address any water issues before doing other work on the space to save you water damage costs later. Refer to our Basement Flooding page to learn what to look out for and how to address it.

Then, when designing your new basement living space, keep in mind you’ll want to insulate. The building code requirement is at least R-19 insulation value.

Throughout her presentation, Julie discussed building code requirements because once you start any remodeling work on your vintage home, you’re required to bring the area you’re working on up to code.

Another requirement: Ceiling height must be at least 7’ for at least half of the living space. So it’s fine to have overhead duct work that brings down the ceiling as long as at least half of the living space has a 7-foot ceiling height.

One last code requirement to consider (although there are many more that weren’t discussed, which is where an architect will come in handy!): 8% of the floor area needs to receive natural daylight. And, at least half of the windows need to be operable for natural ventilation.

Regarding basement windows, while we certainly advocate for preserving original wood windows, Julie brought up the point that most original basement windows were not built for livable space and were lower quality than upstairs windows. So, she recommends installing laminated glass windows with security glazing. (If you are removing original wood basement windows, make sure they don’t end up in a landfill! You can sell them or donate them to a reclaimed building materials center, like Rebuilding Exchange.)

Boiler heat is generally the most effective and efficient. Cast iron baseboard radiators will work very well in a basement, while aluminum baseboard heaters won’t heat nearly as well. Multi-zone boilers can allow each floor to be heated differently, since your basement will naturally be colder than your main floor.

If you can fit it into your budget, consider a hydronic radiant floor heating system in addition to the boiler heat. It’s most efficient when cast into floor slabs, but that can be more expensive since it requires your to recast your floors. You can also install it on top of existing floor slabs but that will add an inch of height, so you’ll need to compensate for that in order to meet the 7’ ceiling height requirement. If you install hydronic radiant floor heating, remember that your floor won’t feel warm on your feet! It just won’t feel cold, which it would if you didn’t have radiant floor heating. It would have to be heated to higher than your body temperature in order to feel warm, which would be bad for your floors!

For cooling, Julie recommends Spacepak and Unico cooling systems, which have been proven to be a great solution for vintage homes since they don’t require large ductwork to be installed.

When choosing finishes, avoid paper. In moist basements, paper can grow mold and mildew. That means no wallpaper or paper-faced drywall. Likewise, avoid wood. If you do use wood trim, be sure to paint all sides of each piece to seal the wood so that it doesn’t expand and contract in the moist air. One idea Julie presented was to use PVC panels and trim profiles to create waterproof wainscoting!

Avoiding wood also means hardwood flooring is a poor choice for basements. You can buy engineered plank flooring that looks like wood but is actually made of glue. Carpet can work for basements. It won’t expand and contract like wood floors, it’s thermal, and it can be inexpensive so you can easily replace it if it ever gets damaged. If you don’t like the look of carpeting, carpet tile is a great solution. It can be installed in patterns that tie into your interior design. Hard tiles like ceramic, stone, vinyl, or linoleum are also good for basements, but remember that the larger the tiles, the more level your floor needs to be. Leveling the floors perfectly can be expensive because a pricey self-leveling compound needs to be poured. So, Julie recommends using smaller tiles. You can even find tile that looks like faux wood!

One important piece of advice from Julie: Complete your home projects from the top down! Plan your attic finishing project first, and then the basement, because you’ll need to account for the added weight of the finished attic. In other words, if you finish your basement without planning for the attic, you’ll have to undo some of that basement work in order to add or reinforce the supports when you start the attic! The best way to go about renovating your home is to have an architect make a master plan for all the work you plan to do in the future. Then, the architect can break it up project by project. It will save you money in the future by preventing you from having to undo work!

As for cost, Julie explained that quantity, quality, and schedule affect cost. Define all of that up front in as much detail as possible in order to accurately assess the cost. Don’t trust a contractor who says they can do your project for a certain price without defining the quantity, quality, and schedule! Contractors should base estimates on a list of factors.

Leave a comment below or send us a message via the "Contact Us" button at the bottom of the page to let us know if you have any questions about finishing bungalow basements!

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