SOME PEOPLE look at a basement and see a dark, dank place to be avoided at all costs.
Others see a gold mine of extra living space.
Club basements, rec rooms -- whatever you call them, they're popular projects for a lot of homeowners. Basements traditionally are among the most underused spaces in the house.
But before you buy the pool table or the wide-screen TV, you need to do a few things to make sure the basement will be a comfortable place.
The first is to make sure that the basement is dry.
Newer houses are built with drain tile that runs below the level of the floor slab all around the perimeter of the space. There is a gap, called a French drain, between the slab and the basement wall so any water that gets to the surface of the basement wall can drain into the tile below.
The drain tile leads to a sump pump, which turns on automatically when the water in its well (or sump) reaches a certain level.
It pumps the water out of and away from the house.
If your house has such a system, you need to make sure it's working. If you have an older house with a water problem, you'll have to solve it before doing any renovation.
You might want to install a French drain system, but retrofitting is not cheap. If you just moved into a house, you might want to wait a season or two to find out whether the basement has a tendency to collect water when it rains.
Check for radon
The second thing to do is to make sure that the basement doesn't have dangerous levels of radon, a colorless, odorless, radioactive gas that is emitted from underground rocks. It is more prevalent in some parts of the country than others.
(Much of Maryland is prime radon country.)
The federal Environmental Protection Agency considers radon gas to be a cause of lung cancer and recommends that all homes be tested for radon. Radon can be abated, so if you have it, you can include a system to reduce it to a safe level as part of your improvement. According to the EPA, it costs about $350 to $500 to install radon-control features during construction and can cost as much as $2,500 to retrofit an old house.
A third precaution, especially if your plans include sleeping areas, is to make sure that an oil or gas furnace is separate from the living area. The furnace should be in another part of the basement, with a wall and door between. Some building codes, such as those for multifamily dwellings, require more stringent construction for furnace rooms -- a 2-hour-rated fire wall and door.
Even though single-family residential codes are not as strict as multifamily codes, if you are building walls in the basement anyway, upgrading to a furnace room might be a good idea. You can build the room with two layers of two-hour-rated drywall on the inside walls and ceilings.
Another good reason for isolating the furnace is that both it and the water heater should have plenty of outside ventilation, so the air in the basement living space is not used to support combustion.
After you have worked out the preliminaries and made sure that your basement floor is going to be dry, that the area will be radon-free and that the furnace will operate without using all of the available air, there's one final step: Make sure that the walls will also stay dry.
In most basements, the walls are concrete, brick, stone or block that has to be framed out and covered with drywall or paneling for a finished appearance.
The framing system, with one small addition, can also insure that moisture won't reach the wall covering. The addition is a layer of plastic at least 0.6 millimeters thick between the original basement wall and the new framed wall.
The easiest way to do this, according to Robin Culver, president of Walter H. Bryan Plumbing & Waterproofing, is to lay the studs out on the floor, attach the top and bottom plates (joist and sill plates) and then, using a staple gun, attach the plastic to the foundation side of the studs. Then the framed section can be raised and leveled.
It's important to place the wall so the sill plate doesn't interfere with the French drain. Culver likes this simple and effective solution so much that she includes it in a handout for customers who are having basement waterproofing done.
The plastic places a vapor barrier between the studs and the foundation wall. If cracks develop in the original wall, allowing water to enter, the water will run down the wall or down the plastic into the drain system.
The plastic will also keep insulation between the studs from getting wet. Besides smelling musty and horrible, wet insulation doesn't insulate.
Once the space is dry and airy, you can decorate for the club room, playroom, in-law suite, hobby room, or teen's room.
Randy Johnson is a Baltimore home-improvement contractor. Karol Menzie is a feature writer for The Sun.
If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, e-mail us at homeworlark.net, or write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.
Pub Date: 9/21/97