By Steve Maxwell

Finished basements sit at the top of the wish list for many homeowners, but making them happen is specialized work. Besides the really obvious issue of having a reliably dry space before finishing, advances in building materials, design options and homeowner expectations are some of the reasons the basement finishing business is changing. And the best place to find out how is by looking at basement specialists at work.

Guy Solomon is the founder and owner of Penguin Basement Systems and his 30-person team focuses exclusively on basement renovations, with particular attention to creating a 100% mould-free finished environment. “Our main role is as a building science solutions company,” says Solomon. “We allocate significant time to researching the best products, studying their associated certifications to ensure they are the best choice for the environment and our homeowners. For example, we only use magnesium oxide board for all finished walls. No drywall, no wood. Vinyl click flooring is another favourite. Keep organics out of the basement and mould has nothing to feed on.”

Norm Lecuyer is president of Just Basements, an award-winning Ottawa design-build firm that’s been creating exceptional finished basements for 16 years. Choosing correct materials and technologies is a constant focus for him, too. “We review every new building technology that could have some value for basements, from air supply grilles to lighting; from subfloors to ceiling materials,” says Lecuyer. “If it’s new, we look at it, evaluate its potential to our customers, its quality and potential lifespan, then make a decision about whether to use it. For instance, we’re installing more and more LED lighting in our basements these days, and not only for cabinet and accent lighting. LED pot lighting solves a lot of problems we used to face with standard pot lights.”

Don Clarke is owner of Clarke Basement Systems, and basements have been his specialty for 25 years. Clarke employs 40 to 50 people and has seen the emergence of many of today’s mainstay advances first-hand. “The appearance of non-organic membranes on the interior of basement walls is a big one,” explains Clarke. “The assumption now is that any outside system of water control will fail sooner or later. That’s why we need to build systems that stop moisture from the inside. Unlike an exterior drainage system that may work for years but eventually fail, interior systems can be monitored and maintained. Even something as simple as sump pump systems have dramatically improved. They’re quieter today, more reliable and include battery backup pumps in case the primary pump should fail.”

Enlarged windows offering more natural light and legal egress sizing, foam-based wall insulation systems, vented subfloors, spray foam sealants and basement-tough flooring systems are all part of leading-edge basement construction these days, but there’s more to the game than just materials.

Changing Homeowner Expectations

Stan Boigon is the owner of Renovation Experts/Basement Experts and he’s noticed a fragmentation in the basement market over the 11 years he’s been in business. “The underground market is blossoming in the basement finishing sector,” says Boigon. “We’ve also noticed more of a downward trend for what certain demographics are willing to pay. Heavily mortgaged young families just need more living space, and they have less concern for quality. Homeowners who have been in their home for more than 10 years, or have higher discretionary income, are more concerned with build quality. We just finished an $80,000 basement with a home theatre and high-end trim, but there’s less of that work around in our area than before. That’s why 75% of our work is now above-ground renovations. It used to be 100% basements when we started.”

“It’s true that some people are spending more than $100,000 on basements and their expectations are high,” explains Clarke. “This is the one area of the house that’s typically unfinished when people buy a house, so homeowners have complete say in how it gets done.”

Guy Solomon has noticed an increase in expectations among homeowners too, mostly because of an upward trend in house prices. “When we first started in business, we found homeowners were typically looking to add extra space in the basement for a specific purpose, such as storage,” explains Solomon. “These days, people are buying less square footage in a home, so they need the basement finished for everyday use. That’s a whole new ballgame. There’s also a new level of respect toward the materials being selected for basements. The technicalities here are quite different from trends we see in above-ground areas, because the basement is ruled by a completely different set of conditions than the rest of the house.”

“Every basement is different, and that’s why we only have one firm notion of how things should be done,” says Lecuyer. “The only constant is that we aim to do things exceptionally well. How this happens varies. If you’re going to create great basement spaces you have to embrace the unexpected. You have to be flexible and creative to find solutions to the many, many obstacles and objections that get in your way. Basements are not clean slates. They’re minefields. Each and every basement we finish is a custom, one-off creation. We stand firm on being ready for anything the house or our customers throw at us.

“We’ve steadily moved our customers from the ‘just finish it’ attitude to the ‘addition to your home’ concept, says Lecuyer. “Our customers have come with us on this, and are now pushing us in that direction too.”

“The internet is changing everything,” says Solomon. “Customers are better informed now. More and more people are using websites like ours, or Pinterest and Houzz for design inspiration. Some basements have to be redesigned four or five times before we start construction. Also, many customers are looking to add legal basement apartments to help pay for their common living expenses.

Basement Finishing Advances

Over the last 20 years, basement finishing materials have changed more than any other single area of residential construction.

“We’ve installed subfloors on every project for a while now because they offer a great return on investment,” says Lecuyer. “Warmer, dryer, softer floors are now available with less than 1” loss of headroom. Engineered hardwood flooring, as well as better laminate flooring, allows the look and feel of the main-floor levels to transfer to the basement.”

“We use either DRIcore or Barricade subfloor panels on all our projects,” says Boigon. Spray foam on walls adds thousands to the cost of a 1,000 sq. ft. basement, so some clients opt for Roxul stonewool batts to save money. Foam is best when clients can afford it. ”

Access to a larger network of resources has helped provide an edge for companies like Clarke Basement Systems. “We’re fortunate to be a part of Basement Systems and Foundation Support Works,” explains Clarke. “Both are international companies that research and develop solutions to basement and foundation problems. As all these resources get pooled together, they come up with effective solutions to keep basements dry, healthy and more durable.”

All are reasons why work downstairs is looking up for Ontario’s basement renovators, whose work is following the path of rest of the building world, with rising consumer expectations, greater price competition on the low end, advances in material technology and increasing customer sophistication.

It all leads to more specialization and, in the end, some really spectacular basements.