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Modifying basements into offices, bedrooms, etc.

by Jane Margolies, The New York Times | June 5, 2021 at 1:43 a.m.
In the coronavirus pandemic, basements have offered up new territory for hobbies, work and even glamour. (Courtesy Paul D'Andrea via The New York Times)

A recent home-related TikTok video that went viral begins with a woman's voice patiently explaining that during the pandemic her husband turned their basement into ... a video rental store. As she speaks, the camera pans over shelves stocked with DVDs, a drinks refrigerator and a viewing room with two recliners and a big screen.

The enthusiasm for this content was so vast — the praise in the comments section effusive, the questions numerous — that multiple follow-up videos were made in which Brian Hogan, the aforementioned husband, described how and why he undertook this do-it-yourself project in his Des Moines, Iowa, house instead of doing what his wife, Erin, might have preferred: refinishing the kitchen cabinets. Hogan's homage to the neighborhood movie rental stores of yore even landed the couple a guest appearance on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!"

And these days, their basement isn't the only buzzed-about one out there.

Pat Gagliano, founder of Finished Basements New Jersey, took on a renovation for Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino and his wife, Lauren Pesce, that the reality-star couple have been documenting in a YouTube show called "The Situations Under Construction." In the basement of the couple's sprawling house in Holmdel Township, N.J., Gagliano is conjuring up not only a home theater and spa but a "glam room" where Pesce can get her hair and makeup done before a day of filming.

"The projects just keep getting crazier," said Gagliano, who is currently working on 113 basement renovations and estimates he has done nearly 4,000 of them over his career.

LEAST LIKELY ROOM

Dim, dank and low-ceilinged, the basement may be the least likely room in the house to be basking in the spotlight. The space, which often possesses all the appeal of a meat locker, is commonly home to less-than-eye-catching features such as the furnace. It also typically serves as a catchall for such detritus as tangled strands of Christmas lights, cribs that children have outgrown and appliance boxes that people feel they cannot throw away on the off chance they will someday need to return their TVs and blenders.

But characteristics that turn some basements downright cavelike — few, if any, windows and separation from the rest of the house — also make them good candidates for things such as home theaters, which require darkness and quiet, and Pilates studios, which call for uninterrupted walls of mirror. And since the pandemic shut down offices and schools, basements have been pressed into service for remote office work and schooling.

"A basement is often a backstage area," said Sally Augustin, an applied environmental psychologist and co-founder of the website The Space Doctors. But as everyone Zooms from ad hoc home offices and classrooms, a space previously hidden from view now has been catapulted into the public sphere.

ROSE BY 29%

Houzz, a website that connects homeowners with renovation professionals, reports that inquiries for basement remodeling rose by 29% in June 2020, compared with the same month in 2019, as people sought to carve out more usable space in their homes.

But some contractors have been focusing on basements for years.

A decade ago, Steve and Colby Lindsey, father-and-son owners of LinCo Construction, a general contracting company in a Denver suburb, spun off a division called Basement Sanctuary to promote an expertise they had acquired finishing the unfinished spaces in the mostly new houses in their area. It worked. Today, basements account for 60% to 70% of their revenue, Steve Lindsey said.

The most common request, Lindsey said, is for a bedroom, a bathroom and a living area, a combination that runs about $60,000 — far less than it would cost to build an addition to gain the same amount of space.

The firm has dealt with unusual demands, too. One homeowner wanted the basement bathroom to look like an outhouse. "We used a lot of barnwood," Lindsey said. The door to the toilet had a half-moon cutout on it, he added.

This exterior photo of Steve Gray’s home in Indianapolis shows where the basement opens to the pool. 
(Courtesy Paul D'Andrea via The New York Times)
This exterior photo of Steve Gray’s home in Indianapolis shows where the basement opens to the pool. (Courtesy Paul D'Andrea via The New York Times)

LIGHT, AIRY DOMAIN

Adams + Beasley Associates, high-end contractors in Carlisle, Mass., recently transformed the unfinished cellar of an 1880s house in Cambridge into a light, airy domain that includes a media room, "European style" laundry room, full bath, butler's pantry and wet bar.

The project, which won a Chrysalis remodeling award and cost more than $1 million, required digging 2 feet under the basement to lower the floor and give the final space greater height. Windows were enlarged, and partitions between spaces were made of steel-framed glass to allow light to circulate. Radiant heating under floors and a Danish wood stove take off the chill.

Another Adams + Beasley project, in the Massachusetts town of Wellesley, was less costly, about $200,000. Christine Todd, the homeowner, said it has given her children, ages 17-26, a space of their own that has been a boon during the pandemic.

Before, the basement had been chronically damp, with a sloped cement floor and lots of rooms with doors on them, "like a jail," Todd said. "No one wanted to spend any material time down there."

The contractors removed walls, leveled out the floor and installed a dehumidification system to address the moisture problem. Now, a lounge with a sectional sofa flows into an area centered on a modernist pingpong table designed by Antoni Pallejà Office, a Barcelona firm. For the younger daughter, who plays field hockey, there's a "shot room" where she can practice indoors; it doubles as a bunk room when her older brother's friends need a place to crash after a party.

A PLACE TO HANG OUT

Completed just before the pandemic, the basement gave Todd's children a place to hang out with friends over the past year, helping them retain a modicum of social life. "All three of them say it changed the way they live," she said.

Hogan's video bunker was also life-changing for him, if not quite as rarefied. He accomplished his project on the cheap, salvaging shelving from local video stores that went out of business (no more than $20 per section), buying a door on Facebook Marketplace ($5) and a window from Habitat for Humanity ($20).

A barber by trade and a longtime film buff, he undertook the project as a way to organize his collection of movies, which number in the thousands. It also gave him something to do when work evaporated during the pandemic. Today, DVDs and VHS tapes are lined up alphabetically, within categories, just as they would be in a real video store. The decor runs to promotional movie posters and a large ET figure.

The project may not win any design awards, but even Eric Adams, co-founder of Adams + Beasley, was moved by the nostalgic appeal of the video bunker when he caught Hogan's segment on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!"

"It made me think back to when going out and getting a movie was intentional," Adams said, contrasting that with today, when movie-watching is always just a click away on Netflix. "There was something kind of romantic about looking at that."

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