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Do-it-yourself basements

11 Aug 2010

The area below ground is often neglected when it comes to planning and decorating the home. But a little thought can turn a basement area into a useful living space or even the smallest cellar into a well organised storage room.

Many older homes have basement areas, which are often by their very nature, dark and perhaps even damp and are usually used as a laundry, utility or storage areas. However, with space ever at a premium, it would be unwise for homeowners to continue to ignore a basement's potential for providing extra living area or work space. A basement is the ideal place for a playroom, a workshop, a bar area, or even an in-home theatre. The secret of a successful basement conversion is careful planning so that the natural benefits of the area can be exploited, and the drawbacks can be overcome.

Dealing with damp

As well as being the first part of the home to suffer the effects of rising temperatures, the often rather basic construction of basements leaves them wide open to other damp problems too. Inefficient water drainage, soil backing up against the walls, and minimal ventilation can all take their toll. It is important to sort any damp issues out before you carry on with other plans.

Start by making sure the basement is properly lined with a damp-proof course and that this is not bridged. Where the basement falls below the ground level, you may be able to clear a trench and waterproof the wall from the outside. If this is impossible, the wall must be “tanked” against penetrating damp from the inside – coated in bituminous waterproofing compound and then rendered.

Suspended wooden floors in basements are rarely in good condition, and usually prone to damp and rot. These are best replaced by a new solid floor incorporating both a damp-proof membrane and an insulating layer. Providing the membrane joins properly with the DPC or tanking in the walls, you should have no further problems in this area.

Light and lighting

The easiest solution to the problem of lack of daylight in a basement is to enlarge any existing windows and perhaps cut some new ones. A great deal depends on what is outside – for example, a small yard or sloping bank could be dug away to create a modest sunken patio, in which case French windows or a glazed door and wall-size picture window would be ideal to make most of the view.

If your scope is more limited, then simply try and make the most of what you have got by removing any obstructions or pruning trees that block the available light. Think of using lintels and glass panels instead of just plain blank walls and do not underestimate the difference even a small semi-opening casement can make to the overall amount of daylight.

Artificial lighting must inevitably play an important role in any basement area and bearing in mind the intrinsic basement problems, it should be designed to give the illusion of daylight. Fluorescent lighting is cheaper and softer on the eye where you need illumination for long periods of time; however it should be concealed under wall cupboards or used with diffusers. Concealed lighting around windows is a particularly effective way of creating the illusion of daylight.

When it comes to conventional lights, wall lights and spot-lamps are probably better than central ceiling pendants, especially where headroom is restricted. In fact, in most cases, the best option would be to install sunken spots or downlights in the ceiling.


Good heating can make all the difference to a basement, as it helps it dispel that dark, damp feeling and replaces it with an inviting and cosy ambience. Unless your basement has access to good ventilation however, avoid installing a fireplace or using any form of gas heating. Electric heaters are probably the best option for a basement, and if you have the budget, under-floor heating would be an ideal heating solution for these types of areas.

Decorating and furnishing

Whatever you decide to use your basement for, there are a few golden rules about basement decoration that you should always bear in mind. First and foremost among these is that your colour schemes compensate for the lack of natural light. Dark colours and heavy patterns almost always end up claustrophobic rather than cosy, so aim to use plenty of light natural hues.

Floor coverings will to a large extent be determined by what you will be using the area for. Tiles are a good, hard-wearing option for workshops and home bar areas. However, they can be very cold and hard. Carpeting is softer and more luxurious, but they cannot hide bumps and hence you have to make sure that your floor is 100% level before laying any carpeting. If there is even a faint suspicion of damp, carpets are not the best option as they will rot and smell. Solid wood and laminate flooring could also be a good option, as they offer warm underfoot comfort, but these floors too have to be laid on a completely level floor surface.

When it comes to furnishing, remember that basements were designed from the start as utility areas and that anything too classical or fussy will simply not work. Keep the furniture simple and to a minimum. Above all, remember that basements are distinctive areas offering great potential. Allow the style to inspire your decorations and you may be surprised what can be achieved. - Antonella Dési

Pictures courtesy of:

Basement Etc. Incorporated:
Apartment Therapy:

Readers' Comments Have a comment about this article? Email us now.

My guess is that you copied this article from an American website.

In your newsletter you state “thinking of building a basement ...”. This is not what your article is about as in the second paragraph you talk about “many older homes have basement areas ...”.

You then continue in your article explaining how to damp-proof the basement and what lighting should be placed in this basement, but nowhere do you explain the DIY of building a basement in the South African context.

I personally think that this article is not relevant to the South African market and that it was an absolute waste of time for me to read this. – Jan Viljoen

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