My Old House Basement

Our basement before

When we moved into our house five years ago the basement was just one large concrete hole that contained an octopus style gravity furnace and a washer and dryer. There were no walls and definitely no insulation. That didn’t bother us because we knew that the foundation was in good condition because we could see it with our own eyes. There were no walls to hide problems. (If you are thinking of buying an older home always beware of any house with a basement that has just been renovated before going on the market).

That was the good part.

The bad part was that there was a lot of work to do and it sure wasn’t cheap. Replacing the gravity furnace was expensive because it contained asbestos. The floors all sloped towards a big drain in the center of the basement floor making the space useless. The walls although in good condition weren’t exactly straight (surprise surprise!). The windows were small and had been painted shut. You get the picture…

Another photo of the the basement

Another photo of the the basement

The first year we put walls up and insulated just so we could feel warmer. This presented its own problems as we had to work around the pipes that we were not prepared to remove yet. For example, the sewer pipe from our kitchen sink was across the house from the main drain. The pipes were sloped downwards and set into the walls.

We made the decision to replace the old windows with wooden windows from Pella Windows that looked almost identical to the originals. The gravity furnace was replaced with a high efficiency furnace. We had all new heating and cold air return ducts installed. Ditto for new gas lines.

The concrete floor was cut out to allow us to move the drain away from the center of the room. We mixed buckets of concrete in an attempt to level out the floor. We would have needed a truckload of concrete to even it all out and we had no ceiling room to spare so that is why we now have carpeting. It’s warm underfoot and very forgiving. We don’t have a moisture problem in the basement so that’s why it’s an ok choice.

Our basement after

Our basement after facing same direction as top image.

By moving the drain to the far side of the room we were able to have a bath / laundry room. There just wasn’t enough room to have two separate rooms so we put the two together and it works well.

We raised the floor in the bathroom to make sure that the tiles did not sit on concrete which would have been way too cold especially in the winter. We installed the 2 x 2 floor system ourselves. This also gives us that bit of insulation between the floor and the concrete. The drain is set below and if there ever was a problem the substrate of the floor would not sit in the water as would be the case if we had used plywood on the floor.

My brother and I built some side cabinets and enclosed the new washer and dryer with top shelving. We used a set of louvered doors that were on sale for the cabinet doors. (see photo 3) This is because there wasn’t any doors in the size we needed so this turned out to be an inexpensive solution to our problem.

The walls were drywalled and painted a warm pinky- beige much like the colour of natural maple. The colours in the room are monochromatic to keep the space looking open and bright.

We struggled with the choice of ceiling. At first I wanted a beadboard panel ceiling. It became clear that this would be a problem because the joists were uneven and because there was sagging in the center of the house that made for an uneven ceiling. Then we thought of drywalling but that was no good either because we needed to have access to gas lines that were in the ceiling. We had the gasfitter put in these lines for the future when we wanted to get a gas insert installed to replace the antique one that no longer works. What to do?

A different direction

A different direction – where the washer and dryer used to be

After some soul searching we made a decision to do a combination of drywalling and dropped ceiling. Drywall was necessary because of the ceiling height where the heating ducts were – the clearance is just 6 ft 2 inches. We did the dropped ceiling where the ceiling was 7 feet in height and we were able to “straighten” it out. We used plenty of potlights to keep the ceiling flat and the room bright. We also installed dimmers for lighting around the tv.

This space, for all intents and purposes, is a modern space. There is no precedence for basements when our house was built in 1912. The basement was a storage space and there is no way that the original homeowners would have even considered doing any living in a dark basement. So modern is the way we went. (Although having antique furniture does tend to still give it a connection to what’s happening in the rest of the house).

I looked high and low for furniture I liked for the basement but none of it would fit through the narrow stairwell to the basement. The furniture you see in the picture on the left actually comes apart. The backs come off so it can fit through small openings where other pieces just can’t. They are recliners with attached footrests and are very comfortable. All in all we captured some more square footage for living in. The space is toasty warm and we love watching a good movie here. It’s become a favorite space for my husband and I have to say that it’s nice to have a modern room in an old house!

6 responses to “My Old House Basement

  1. Loved the article about the basement, and also the comment about the home in Kamloops! The floor plan is sounds almost identical to a home I rented years ago in Kitchener Waterloo Ont.

    We are currently in year 5 of a 10 yr complete retro-reno of our 1980’s BBB…badly built bungalow, and like many older homes, our basement has similar challenges of low ceilings, ceilings of differing heights, no sub-floor, small windows…At present we are still working on the upstairs- soon to tackle expanding the MB closet, stealing extra space from the hallway broom closet, laying hardwood in the hallway , creating some wall niches to make the hallway look wider, and a new paint job facelift. This leaves just the kitchen, bathroom, (both complete guts) and the soon to be dining room. In March, we are installing new windows and doors, but leaving the replacement of the basement windows until summer. The basement article has given me problem solving ideas as I am always looking ahead to the next project, thinking about what I would like, what needs to be done, cost efficiency and practical logistics.

    B LaPorte

    • Hi Beverly: It sounds like you have your work cut out for you! Keep checking back – I will be doing blog entries on our kitchen addition – we just hired our contractor last week and I sure am looking forward to it – well, at least the final result of the project. We are tearing out the kitchen to the outside wood siding and adding on a small 150 square foot addition. I expect to be out of a kichen for about three or four months by the time all is done. Not until May though. Stay tuned!

  2. Hi Joanne,

    I enjoy your newsletter very much and am always happy to receive it.

    I, too, have a two-story heritage home built 1912 or 1914 that belonged to my grandparents. They bought it off the builder in 1923 and lived there until my grandmother’s passing in 1982 when it was sold and turned into a rooming house which seems to have become the fate of so many grand old homes.

    After 18+ years as a rooming house full of addicts,etc., my husband and I bought into the family in Dec 2002 when it came up for sale. Our plan was to restore it to its original glory and live in it ourselves once our children were grown. Perhaps rent the upstairs to university students or make it into a bed and breakfast. But my husband passed away unexpectedly in 2005 and so it remains rented. I would love to send you a picture of it if you’d care to see.

    Let me tell you about it. It is a two story (Edwardian or Foursquare style I think) built entirely of concrete blocks which were actually decoratively faced in a long shed in the back yard at the time. It is the only home like it in Kamloops. It has a wide front verandah that wraps around to a side entrance into the dining room. There is a windowed dormer in the attic. The front door is set to one side next to a large picture window with leaded glass across the top. On the other side of the door there is a small leaded glass window that lets in light for the staircase inside.

    As you walk in the front door there is a wide hall with the staircase on the right side turning at the top to the second floor. The front hall also has a door on the left to the living room and in the hall straight ahead is the door to the kitchen. Between the dining room and living room are pocket doors. The dining room and den share a back to back brick fireplace. Many many years ago my grandparents put in a bathroom on the main floor which used to be the pantry and a dry sink I’m told. There are two doors off the kitchen, one to stairs leading to the basement and the side yard and the other to a closed in porch out to the back yard.

    The upstairs bathroom has a separate toilet room. There used to be five bedrooms with one having a door leading out onto the wrap around balcony. There was also a sleeping porch at the back on the floor directly above the downstairs porch. This was closed in and made into a living room in the 1940’s when the whole upstairs became two suites for my newly married aunts and uncles.

    The original wood windows are counter balanced one over one, few of which still have the original storms. Even though the house was pretty badly abused during its rooming house days, the pocket doors remain intact and working and most of the woodwork (crown molding) and 9″ baseboards are original and unpainted. The den still has its original unpainted picture and plate rails and there are picture rails still intact in some of the other rooms as well.

    The fir floors on the main floor were redone just after we bought the house and I have a brand new more efficient gas boiler for the wonderful ornate radiators. Each of the bedrooms has a closet door as well as the hall linen closet upstairs. I am short half a dozen or more doors (6-parallel-panels are so hard to find—lots of 5-panel ones can be found) which I guess were probably kicked in and replaced with plain modern slab doors or they needed to be changed for fire regulations.

    This beautiful old home needs a lot of restoration but has good bones and has such wonderful memories for me. Actually you can see this old home on ‘Michael Kluckner’s Vanishing BC’ website. If you go there, click on #6 Fraser River and scroll down the water colour pictures to ‘673 Battle Street’ and click on this painting. There is a black and white photograph of the home C1929 further down the page as well. By the way, the concrete block fence is still there. The word ‘Ideal’ is one one of the blocks in the centre of the second storey.

    A major drawback is the fact the still-intact lath and plaster walls (which I love) are right against the staggered hollow concrete blocks so the house has no insulation in the outside walls. My aunt tells me that it was the coolest house in Kamloops in the summertime! There has been more insulation added to the attic, however, which has made quite a difference in the gas bill. And because a lot of the plumbing is still iron and caste and there’s knob and tube wiring and along with it being rented the house insurance is $1400 a year. Yikes!

    Thank you in advance for reading this ramble. I would appreciate any comments or suggestions you can give me. Especially if you know the whereabouts of some 6-parallel-panel doors!

    Sincerely, Arlana

    • Great to hear from you Arlana. Your house does indeed sound like a Four Square – and based on the details you give it would have been a higher end home. Do you have history on the original owners or were your grandparents the original?
      Regarding doors, I checked in my 1910 Sears Home Builders Catalogue. The only doors that have six panels appear to be the sliding doors – everything else is 5 panel. It’s not uncommon for people then to use what they had or could get cheap. It is possible, rather than buy new doors, someone at some point simply added 6 panel rather than 5 panel doors. On the other hand perhaps it was a unique detail in this nice house.
      I am so happy you want to preserve the home. Old houses need champions.

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