Dream Basement

Dream basement – years after the dream house

Richard Connolly built his house in Weymouth just 14 years ago, acting as his own contractor and doing the finish work himself. He had planned to finish the basement at that time, but, as with many projects, money, or the lack of it, forced postponement of that work. Fourteen years later, Connolly finished off the basement – all 1,100 square feet of it – with the help of his wife and two children.

by Richard Connolly

Boston Globe Correspondent

May 2, 1987.

Finishing a basement is a major project, but I had two good things going for me even before I started.

The basement was dry, and in 14 years there has been a minimum of water: once, during a particularly wet winter and spring, there were a few traces, but none before of after. The dryness of the basement was partly due to the 16 inches of crushed stone installed under the basement slab when the house was built and to the waterproofing of the exterior foundation walls.

My wife and I were also fortunate that we followed the advice of my watchful uncle who recommended that we rough in all the utilities, especially the plumbing, during the construction.

We wanted to be clear about our own expectations and the goals we had set for ourselves, and began the project by sitting down as a family and discussing what we wanted to do with the space and how we planned to use it.

The children and I had several fairly abstract ideas about the possibilities, but my wife was much clearer, "I don’t want four more rooms to clean."

Although we had originally planned for a full bathroom, a lot of open space, and a sit down bard (since we were pretty serious part folk back then), the final product was very different.

We agreed to the bathroom and an area of four separate rooms, each having a special purpose, but all intended to provide an atmosphere of instant relaxation and enjoyment.

We thought that rough sawn pine would be a perfect application, as it is particularly forgiving of mistakes by amateurs.

There would be room for the TV, stereo, and the many books we had accumulated over the years. A second room would be perfect for the ping – pong table that had become slightly warped over the years.

Another section would serve a dual purpose as my shop and an activity area for the children’s’ hobbies and interests, a special place where things could be left around without a complaint.

Finally, the fourth room would contain an area for table and chairs, counter and sink, cabinets, and still more bookcases. In effect, this area would function much like a kitchen, since most of the best parties we ever attended wound up there anyway.

The second thing that we agreed to was that the project would be long term and involve every member of the family to varying degrees, from each according to his or her own ability.

We also wanted to avoid buying new furniture of fixtures, and decided to refinish some old sets we thought would do nicely. Nor did we want to invest heavily in any specialized tools, for watching the dollars is always an overriding concern.

Everyone pitched in. My son and I began by framing all the outside walls and inner partitions, a job we had never really done before. This phase of the work took much longer than I thought it would (as did everything). The material I had bought on sale from a large local retailer had to be worked with a lot of effort before we could raise the walls and, once in place, needed rework to assure they were plumb and true.

For the most part, my son and I did all the framing, using 2 x 3’s, 16 inches on center. This material is fine for basements because there is no weight bearing on the frame and is also less expensive than 2 x 4’s. Boxing in the steel main beams was a lot of work.

We prepared the walls for half barn board and dry wall by nailing horizontal strips of 1 x 3 strapping to the studs, beginning 48 1/2 inches down from the ceiling. All measurements were taken from the ceiling to compensate for the unevenness of the floor.

Once the walls were in place, we insulated, using 3 1/2 inch foil faced fiberglass. We stapled the insulation in place as it had a tendency to balloon and slip. When the barn board and dry wall were applied, they compressed the insulation slightly and forced it to touch the foundation wall.

The hopper type steel windows were covered on the outside with combination screen – storm sashes made especially for this application.

Next came the electrical work, which included ceiling lights and heat. I helped the electrician by running what seemed like miles of wires. Drilling holes was kept to a minimum because the wires could be run between the strapping on the walls.
The small amount of plumbing that was needed next, I decided to do myself. I did not enjoy this phase of the work. for whatever reasons, I do not like working with metal, and the job went slowly.

Once all the rough work had been completed, we were ready to close in. On the upper portion of the walls, we installed 1/2 inch gypsum board, taped the joints with nylon mesh, applied and feathered the compound, sanded between each of three applications, and primed and finished with latex paint. The whole family helped.

Although there are more seams to finish, 4 x 8 sheets are easier to handle than the larger sizes. I learned as much when I wound up with muscle spasms and sciatica for the better part of a week.

This phase of the work is one that should be gotten out of the way as quickly as possible because there is an enormous amount of white dust that is created by the sanding. The cleanup is a job in and of itself.

With the dry wall in place, we began installing the barn board – which we stained in advance to eliminate noticeable seams when the wood shrank – by nailing it perpendicular to the strapping. We used five different widths randomly, picked from the pile to avoid a regular pattern.

Each piece was cut to fit and plumbed as it was installed. We avoided cutting holes in the middle of boards for electrical outlets by using two pieces of wood – instead of one – with a seam running through the box. This method required cutting only notches in each board. At the point where the barn board met the dry wall, we installed a chair rail.

The job of building the cabinets and bookcases fell on me. I decided to try something I had never done before: dowel the joints, flush mount adjustable shelves, make raised panel doors, and install drawers. All the screws would be countersunk and covered by buttons.

I needed a few special tools: doweling jig, reversible rail and stile bits for my router, and a raised panel cutter. I employed mass production techniques and pattern cut all the necessary pieces. This method saved a tremendous amount of time, and the results were very satisfying.

On the other hand, passage doors were made of planking and were much easier to build. I used a "Z" pattern on the back and screwed and glued the boards to it.

In keeping with the rustic setting the doors we attached to the frames with 14 inch strap hinges. Thumb latches complement the effect.

Supposedly, the easiest job for the home to do is to install a suspended ceiling. Despite my distaste for metal, I decided to give it a try.

After much frustration and swearing, I finally hired a professional who, much to my satisfaction, also had difficulty. The problem stemmed from the closeness of the ceiling to the floor joists above: there wasn’t much space to work.

One thing about this ceiling. It is suspended from the floor joints above with a minimum of fasteners and acts as an excellent sound barrier between the upstairs and down. Insulation in the ceiling added to the sound resistance.

I also wanted to try installing mosaic tile on the counter top and backsplash. The local retailer from whom I purchased the tile rented me the tools to do the job, along with instructions.

The most difficult part of this job was using the nippers because I cracked a number of tiles. I soon learned that a "nip" is somewhere between a hair and a tad. The sound of cutting the tile reminded me, regrettably, of a dental procedure. At least the result is satisfying.

The basement recently passed its acid test: my son’s 16th birthday party, which was quite a success. The real satisfaction in undertaking a project such as this one is in seeing other people enjoying it. Knowing that the design and intent worked well is a bonus.

I found it particularly pleasing to blend a number of contrasting elements – light and dark, smooth and rough, hard and soft – into a harmonious and pleasant atmosphere with professional results. The savings? Substantial, or twice the completed price of $12,500. Well worth it all around.

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