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Not Your Fathers' Basement

Love them or hate them Canadian winters come around every year. They are part of our national identity, providing us with many wonderful things; beautiful snow covered landscapes, glistening frozen rivers and lakes, a myriad of cool outdoor activities. Our winters also come with some less than great features such as frostbite, freezing rain and slush. Oh, and let's not forget our winters can be cold, so very cold. It is this annual dip into the deep freeze that has given us one more interesting very Canadian item; the basement.

A very short lesson on building structure helps us understand how our subterranean spaces came to be. Light things sit on the ground and heavy things sink into the ground. The first inhabitants of the Great White North were a hardy lot, living in simple structures like igloos, tepees and long houses. Fairly light and mobile stuff. Then came the Europeans with their big, heavy, permanent houses. These houses needed foundations to stop them from sinking into the ground. Any guesses what our Canadian frost likes to do to foundations? Well, when people finally got tired of their houses moving up and down every year they came up with the idea of digging their foundations down below the frost line. And voila...the cellar is born.

Starting out as spaces for storing potatoes and coal, cellars eventually evolved into basements worthy of storing old high school text books. And then the real revolution began. Somewhere in the 1950's we started, goodness me, living in our basements. Fast forward half a century and people are not only living in their basements, they are starting to think of them as part of their homes. Where will this madness end.

The latest trend in basements is not just to live in them but to love them. We are now making them part of our homes, making them part of our families. We are investing in our basements like no other generation ever has. New technologies, building techniques and products has allowed the lowly cellar to rise up to the status of other main stream, main floor spaces.

An interesting side benefit to loving a part of your home is that you start to care for and about it. You begin to see value in investing time and money in it. You begin to consider style, fit and finish. You see value in quality. You actually start to consider design, architecture and you begin to dream. Today's basements can be worthy of dreaming, they can be so much more than your father's basement.

New home construction technologies and techniques, such as exterior foundation wall water control systems, higher insulation levels and better structural systems allowing for longer joist spans and higher headroom, have all improved the basement spaces and prepared them for future finishing. Builders are roughing-in basement bathrooms and allowing homeowners to upgrade to 9 foot basement ceiling heights; again readying the basement for future living space.

Whether you own a newer or older home fit, finish, style and design are now very important factors in any renovation, including a basement project. Hiring a designer or a design-build firm are now common place for lower level renovations. If you want to create a space that feels like part of your home, functions well and does not look like a basement then a solid design is the way to go.

Ever advancing finishes and interior amenities are also fueling the new wave of stylish basement renovation. Natural gas fireplaces are one of the better investments in your basement; not only are they an attractive feature but offer additional heat, which is sometimes in short supply downstairs. There is fantastic variety of porcelain tiles that can create stunning fireplace surrounds and add texture, colour and flair to bar backsplashes, niches and feature walls as well. Flooring products such as laminate flooring and engineered hardwood can add sophistication and connect the upstairs to the basement; continuity being an important part of any renovation. Low profile pot lighting and the availability of basement friendly ceiling lighting and wall sconces allow for lighting design that your father would have never thought of.

Outside of the renovation; appliances, electronics, furnishings and decor are all coming on line that help basements come alive. It's not uncommon to find a 75" television in a basement, but it might be tricky to work into you standard living room. Even traditional family room furniture such as sectional sofas are becoming more and more flexible allowing layouts in sometimes difficult basement space.

So if this is not your father's basement, then who's is it? Well, it's yours, yours and your families. What do you want it to be? A better question might be "What do you want it to do for you? ". More than any space in your home your basement can be exactly what you want it to be. It can do exactly what you want it to do for you. Can your kitchen be a games room complete with pool table? Can your bathroom be a dance studio for aspiring ballerinas? Well your basement can....a well designed basement can support virtually any activity your family could hope for in a home. Here is the true value of the space. Here is the true value of your investment.

Norm Lecuyer is President of Just Basements, an award-winning design-build firm specializing in quality basement design and finishing in Ottawa. For more information, please visit

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