If you're looking for extra space to expand your home and haven't considered the basement, you're missing out on the possibilities of this perennially underrated room. Long relegated to use as little more than laundry rooms and storage areas, basement remodeling can enable everything from guest suites to media rooms. Try these ideas to turn your lowest room from a cold, dark afterthought into a warm, inviting centerpiece.
Accentuate the Positive
The obstacles that come with basement renovation ideas are many: little to no natural light, exposed ductwork, concrete structural beams, and low ceilings are just a few problems many homeowners encounter when planning a basement remodel. But instead of looking at the basement as a hopeless case, consider the room's positive aspects.
“A basement provides a lot of raw space to work with,” says Sharon McCormick, principal of the Durham, CT-based Sharon McCormick Design, LLC. “Ductwork can be boxed in with hollow beams or drywall, creating an interesting coffered or soffited ceiling. Or suspended square ceiling panels made of copper or tin can lend a historic feeling.” For a more modern look, McCormick suggests painting exposed mechanicals and joists black to create a trendy, loft-like ambience.
Choose the Purpose Wisely
Choosing the right purpose for the room and planning it wisely can give homeowners a head start on making the area more inviting.
“The first thing to do is detail what activities you would like to accommodate,” McCormick says. “Game rooms with a billiards table, poker table, arcade games and bar are well-suited to a basement space, because you don't have to worry about the weight of the equipment. Creating a moody, masculine game room is a breeze in a dark basement.”
Another room that uses a basement's natural characteristics to its advantage is a home gym. Designer Nicole Sassaman, owner of Los Angeles-based Nicole Sassaman Designs, turned her basement into a workout area. “A room that benefits from the cold, like a gym, is a good choice for a basement makeover,” she says.
Other rooms that work well in basements include home theaters, which benefit from the naturally dark character of the room, and family lounges, which can have open areas that allow little ones to run and explore. “A wide expanse of space lends itself to laying out race tracks or large dollhouses,” McCormick says.
Let the Light Shine In
One of the most commonly cited problems in basement spaces is the lack of natural light. But with some careful planning and creative lighting design, even this seemingly fatal flaw can be corrected.
“As you plan for basement lighting, remember you will likely need more light than in other places in the home,” says Jeff Dross, lighting senior product manager for Cleveland-based Kichler Lighting. “Because the basement is located below grade, natural light does not provide the baseline ambient light that is found in the above-ground floors.”
That doesn't mean, however, that quantity should rule over quality. Dross says tricking the eye to “see” natural light is one way to make a basement space feel more inviting. “To supplement the light that would typically come from a window, consider washing the walls with light or using recessed can lights close to the walls, or even energy-efficient fluorescent linear fixtures hidden in a cove,” he says.
When choosing your lighting, think about the room vertically, considering the effect each level will have on the room's feel, says Atlanta-based interior designer Melissa Galt of Melissa Galt Interiors. “Light is best created in layers: ambient or general lighting, task or specific lighting, and accent or decorative lighting,” she says. “Soffit lighting and bookcase lighting are great enhancers for accent lighting, and torchères work especially well in corners, since they bounce light up the corner and across the ceiling.”
Finally, when choosing your fixtures, think about not only the light they give out but also their look in relation to your space. “Shorter lamps or lamps that have stout or squat bases with wide shades will look more natural and more fitting in conversation areas,” Dross says, adding that choosing both bulbs and fixtures carefully will accentuate your space. “Consider using warmer fixture colors, which will of course make the whole space feel warmer and more inviting.” If you're using fluorescent lamps, he says that finding the lamp with the highest color rendering index (CRI) will give the room the most natural feel.
Paint with Purpose
If you're trying to make a room feel lighter and more inviting, the first instinct is often to wash the walls in white. But Ann McGuire, a Valspar color consultant and the founder of Beehive Studios in Buck Hill Falls, PA, says it's time to toss those ideas out the window. “People sometimes think, 'Oh, I'll paint the walls white, paint the ceiling white, and put in lots of fluorescent lighting',” she says. “It makes it really bright, but it also makes it really unpleasant. The key with a basement is really warming up the space to make it an inviting environment.”
McGuire suggests that no matter what function the room will serve, going with colors on the warm end of the spectrum is a good choice. “No matter if it's a home theater or a children's play area, starting with a warm color will really make the space much more livable,” she says, noting that while yellows tend to look dingy, colors like a light caramel or a warm ivory can soften the glare from all the lighting without making the room feel too enclosed.
Because basements are often huge, undefined spaces, using paint to clearly delineate areas according to their purpose can make the room more livable. “Use paint to visually section off different areas of play,” McGuire says. “Creating activity spaces for the kids can make it more fun for them, and it can also help keep the room more organized.”
Wow with the Unexpected
When finishing your basement space, don't forget the details. Because of the sublevel nature of the room, people often neglect finishes that they would put in other areas of the house. “Use architectural details just like you would in the rest of the house,” McCormick says. “Crown molding, substantial baseboards, wainscoting, and beadboard ceilings all go a long way toward eliminating the 'basement' feeling of living in a substandard space.”
Finally, don't be afraid to express your decorating personality. Because basements present unique challenges, homeowners are often afraid to do anything too daring with them. But Sassaman says that's the wrong idea if you want to make people think about the room rather than its location. “Be bold in your style, whatever that is, and give people that 'wow' factor when they enter the room,” she says. “It will take their minds off the fact that they are even in a basement.”
Feng Shui for Your Basement
Want to take your quest for a livable basement a step further? Space design consultant and feng shui expert Suzy Minken offers these tips for a more balanced basement environment:
- Reconsider the basement home office. Minken says home offices in the basement can be a real feng shui challenge. “Energy, or 'chi', enters the home through the front door and flows upward, not down into the basement, she says. Because of the energy profile of a basement, rooms that are higher-energy naturally, like a children's indoor play area or exercise room, are better choices.
- Stay clutter-free. One problem Minken often sees in basements is furniture that's too big for the space, overpowering the room.
- Fake the natural. Choosing a wall and creating recessed boxes where you can place outdoor-themed decorative accessories, like silk plants, along with small upward lights, can give the appearance of a window, which makes the enclosed interior feel more open.
- Relax with water. If you really want to give your basement a refreshing twist, think fish. Minken suggests using a wall-mounted aquarium. “It looks like it is built-in, and it will add a wonderful sense of comfort and harmony,” she adds.