Custom Basements And Luxury Lower Levels

Custom Basements And Luxury Lower Levels

Greg:     All right, we’re back with another episode of our podcast and we’ve spent a few weeks, Jason, talking about kitchens and some of the best things to put in a kitchen. I’m curious, I know there are other levels and other floors in the house. I’d like to go downstairs for a minute and maybe talk about the lower level of a property and how you approach that, I guess, from the very beginning all the way through to finding out what a client wants and how you finish out a basement.

Jason:    Yeah, finished basements, or as most people try to refer to them these days as lower levels, are high in demand, especially growing families. They want to have a little bit more elbow room and maybe send the kids or the adults downstairs and get a little separation.

Greg:    Right there, from the very beginning, are you finding now that lower levels are more for the grownups or more for kids? If they’re for kids, for really young kids or teenage, college-age kids?

Jason:    It really applies to all of those categories. There’s a lot of menfolk that come to me and want the typical man cave experience down there, but also it wants to be a space that can be utilized by the younger family members, maybe during the day when the menfolk are at work, so to speak.

Greg:    Okay. You’re dealing with bigger houses so are the lower levels, are they divvied up a little bit so that one corner might be your man cave and then your other corner might be, I don’t know what we’re calling it, women’s cave, and then another corner might be for the kiddos? Is it big enough that there’s sort of a separate feel, different rooms, like you’d have on the first floor?

Jason:    Yeah. Building luxury homes like we do, some of our first floor square footage may be 3,000 to 4,000 square feet, so that leaves a pretty wide footprint down in the basement, or lower level.

Greg:    That’s right.

Jason:    A couple different things are must haves nowadays. Not so much a dedicated theater room, usually it’s an open media room where you’ve got either a large projector TV or even an LCD screen that might be 80-85 inches.

Greg:    Oh my gosh, okay.

Jason:    Then, usually some type of connection to a wet bar with some decorative cabinetry, a lot of seating, probably an additional one to two or three TVs behind the bar. That’s pretty common where a lot of sports fans, especially during football, baseball, basketball season, you can see multiple games on one wall. Then there’s always a spot for a rec space, pool table, ping pong table, Foosball table, air hockey table. All those spaces flow into one. Then you have some auxiliary spaces. We’ll usually have an additional bedroom that is attached to a bathroom, and then also maybe there’s some access from the rest of the basement to that bathroom. If the basement is large enough we may have an additional half-bath over by the bar space.

Greg:    Do you have to have all this planned out when you’re building, or is it pretty much that the basement is an empty shell that you get to come back and build what you want to, or frame it out however you want to, or the client does? Do you have to know before you even pour the basement?

Jason:    Usually as part of our design process we’ll talk about the basement and design the basement up front. That way when we’re roughing in mechanicals and utilities we’re keeping in mind where stuff is going to go, so any soffits we can design and make tray ceilings. We really like a plan so it looks like we know what we’re doing when we go to finish your space. Some people will do the basement right away. A lot of people will opt to do the first couple floors just right and then come back down the road and finish the lower level.

Greg:    Okay. When you finish the lower level I know that you’re hiding wires and plumbing lines and that kind of thing behind drywall. Does it make getting to that kind of stuff … Do you have to plan ahead of time in case there’s a leak or there’s something you need to get back at? Do you try to plan future upgrades or repairs into that or is that just part of a house, that sometimes you have to move things to update it?

Jason:    No, if we do our planning right we’ll have all the necessary utilities and wires in the right spot, that there’s not a whole lot of demo required down the road.

Greg:    Okay, and then I’m curious on the level of finish … The lower levels that you’re doing, are they old-school shag carpeting? Are they a newer, nicer carpet? Is there hardwood downstairs? What are people going with?

Jason:    There’s been a trend over the last year or so that a lot of people are opting for an engineered wood product or even a luxury vinyl tile, which can be hardwood in a tile form that’s very, almost indestructible, good for moist environments. People still like some carpet in the family room area but some of the gaming areas, bar areas, it’s definitely going to be some nicer wood surface, possibly tile as well, under the bar, real durable surfaces. People are entertaining, having a good time. Drinks spill or whatever, it’s not going to be on the carpet.

Greg:    Right. When you’re putting a basement together is there something you have to do as the builder to make sure that there is not a lot of moisture coming in? Obviously you don’t want moisture coming in but do you have to take that into consideration when you’re putting things on the floor? Is there something you put under this kind of flooring or is it just basically build a good, solid basement and it’s really not a concern?

Jason:    Yeah, if we do our job right, build a solid basement with all the proper drainage, then as long as the flooring is the right type of flooring that is made to go up against concrete … Usually it’ll have some type of moisture barrier. You can’t go lay a traditional hardwood floor in a basement. It has to be an engineered product.

Greg:    Okay, so that’s my question. I’ve always wondered that. Do people not put hardwood floors in the basement, you’re saying, because you can’t, really, or because you don’t get your money back out when the time comes to sell, that the investment of hardwood floor is not a great idea? You’re saying that’s just the wrong material.

Jason:    Yeah. If you install traditional hardwood sand and finish floor that you have in your typical Highlands or St. Matthews home-

Greg:    It’s not a good call.

Jason:    -you’re going to have some warping, buckling, and it’s just going to absorb that moisture.

Greg:    Then, when you’re designing it and when you’re building the house, do you have a preference? A walkout, a non-walkout? Do you try to force a walkout sometimes, or is it really whatever works for the end consumer? I know some people who would hate a walkout and others can’t imagine a house without it.

Jason:    It really depends. We do a lot of work in Norton Commons. There’s no walkout basements in Norton Commons. Obviously, there’s no demand for a walkout basement in Norton Commons. When we’re doing our luxury homes, say we’re working on a new project in Anchorage, we may have a walkout situation there but, honestly, more people nowadays are gravitating towards flat lots or they really want to walk out their main area from the kitchen/great room to a level surface. If there’s a walkout, maybe it’s on the side so you can still get some larger windows. Again, most of my clients recently have wanted a flat lot in the back so there’s not going to be a walkout in the back portion of the house but, again, maybe on the side.

Greg:    Do you mean a stairwell off the side? Instead of a walkout in the back are you saying a stairwell on the side or the walkout, you would position it in such a way that it’d be on the side of the house and not the back of the house?

Jason:    Yeah, you’d have to have a [side-ward 00:08:10] sloping half lot, so it’s very site-specific. Obviously, some lots are going to be set up for a walkout right off the bat where it slopes from front to back.

Greg:    Obviously in Norton Commons, as you’re talking about, not a lot of demand for a walkout. Are you finding that’s true elsewhere, that it’s just not as popular as it once was? I know you’re saying that some people are going toward flatter lots. Is that only in the high-end, do you know? I’m just curious.

Jason:    The thing people like about a walkout basement is the natural light, so whether it’s a walkout or a flat lot we can try to get natural light into the basement.

Greg:    Okay, so work on the windows and getting enough elevation and you’re in good shape.

Jason:    That’s correct.

Greg:    Okay. You were talking about the game tables and some of the larger open spaces. How do you plan for that? I guess that’s a structural question. How do you keep the space as open as possible? Is that something you’re …

Jason:    Yeah, when we’re engineering the floor plan we’ll make sure we have wide enough openings. If we have to put some steel beams in there we can do that. A lot of times we’ll hide those with decorative brick arches or stone arches or even some rustic wood beams. That’s in those main areas. When we get back into the bedroom spaces, bathrooms, those are traditional wall framing that can be a little more segregated. A couple of the rooms that I haven’t touched on that are very important to some of my buyers are, we’re doing a lot of craft rooms in the basements for moms, children, dads, everybody to have a spot, wrapping rooms. All that can be a mixed use. Sometimes that takes place in the lower level bedroom but other times it’s a separate space. It just gives the families a place to interact, have a separate spot for them.

Greg:    What about a gym or a workout room? Do those usually go in the lower level or do people put those on the first floor?

Jason:    No, usually that’s going to go on the lower level. When you’ve got the heavy weights clanging it’s nice to have those on the concrete floor. That’s either going to be a mixed-use space where the bedroom is going to serve as a weight room, or the hardcore fitness enthusiast is going to want their own dedicated workout room that’s going to have mirrors on the wall, maybe a rubber flooring. Actually we’re doing a lot of workout rooms now where we’re putting some of that hardwood flooring that we talked about and then the mats over top of it so it has more of that gym feel.

Greg:    Right, okay. You were saying sometimes people think about the basement, they build the rest of the house, and then they come back to the basement. Does that mean that you’ve designed it and they’re just waiting to finish it out, as the way you all talked about it a couple years ago, or is this more a case of, “Let’s build a house and then we’ll call you again in a couple years when we’re ready to do the basement as a separate project”?

Jason:    Yeah, it all depends on the client’s financial situation. Most people, what I tell them is, “Let’s get the first floor and the second floor the way you want it.” It’s hard to change those down the road. We can always come back and finish the basement. We like to plan, and give them a plan. Whether they do it now or later the price is generally going to be about the same thing. Some people don’t want to fool with the inconvenience of having the basement finished and contractors coming and going while they’re living there. We’ve had instances where we’ll install a separate staircase through the garage, if it’s not a walkout, to where we can and go through the garage, finish the basement, and really not interrupt the family’s day-to-day lifestyle.

Greg:    Okay. Then, I have one more question for you about basements. We’ve talked a lot in the past about kitchens. You like to tie the outdoor space into the kitchen. I’m sort of food-centric here. Are people putting small kitchens or little kitchenettes in the basement? Is that something that’s coming along or is that just me dreaming?

Jason:    No, no, no. It’s definitely a requirement. When we do a bar we’re going to have … Again, that’s part of the conversation in the design phase, is, how are you going to utilize that bar space? If it’s merely for cooking popcorn to watch a movie we may just have a microwave and a small sink, but a lot of folks do a lot of entertaining in the basement so they want a larger fridge down there, definitely a dishwasher, and maybe a mini fridge and some type of cooking apparatus. You get into some code issues if you do a second kitchen, so we skirt around that sometimes and we’ll just do a microwave and all the other appliances we just talked about.

Greg:    That sounds very cool. I don’t suppose there’s anywhere I can go look at a good example of a finished lower level at this point, but if there is, if you could tell me about it or maybe one in the future. Do you have something coming up we can look at?

Jason:    Yeah. We’ve got a lot of homes under construction. I’ve got a couple models currently in Norton Commons that have finished basements that you can come check out. Also, we’re going to be doing a Southern Living showcase home in Spring of 2016 in Norton Commons that will have a finished basement that will have a lot of the cool features we just talked about. We’ll have an exercise room. We’ll have a cool bar. We’re going to have projection TV, maybe a wood plank rustic wall from an old barn here in Louisville. That’s one good spot to go, and then also we’re going to be the proud builders of two Homearama houses in Norton Commons in 2016.

Greg:    Then these are the homes that you’ve teased us before. You’re going to be sending out pictures and keeping us updated on how this progresses, so I’ll be able to watch your Instagram feed and it’ll be tagged basement, or probably lower level, right? I’ll be able to follow along.

Jason:    Yes. You can follow us on Instagram. You can always get a behind-the-scenes look at some of our work. Follow us on Facebook, then also at You can check out the blog there and see the latest, what we have coming up.

Greg:    That sounds great. I’ll see you next week.

Jason:    Thanks, Greg.