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CAW Architects Blog

By CAW Architects, Inc. | Real Estate Pro in Palo Alto, CA

It's Not Your Grandparent's Basement

Strolling through the wonderful neighborhoods here in Palo Alto, California, you have no clue what’s happening underground.  We’ve been designing projects with spectacular basements for years; wine rooms, golf simulators, game rooms, pistol ranges and home theaters.  If you can dream it, we can design it, and probably have.


Basements don’t count as developable area in the City’s zoning ordinance. If you are building a new house or doing a significant remodel many people see this as “free” space.  Of course it’s anything but free.  In our grandparent’s house, grandpa kept the train set up near the water heater and the furnace and grandma used the basement to keep her root vegetables from sprouting.  It was a good place to beat the summer heat.

Today, basements can cost a million dollars or more and house sophisticated electronics or home theaters. Moldy smells or water dripping down the walls is not acceptable.  Keeping basements dry requires expensive waterproofing and drainage systems, mechanical ventilation to keep air circulating, sewage ejectors and requires a civil engineer and waterproofing consultant to deal with the complicated drainage in and around a basement.  It can easily add eight to twelve months to a construction schedule and should be timed to start after the winter rains have stopped.  You don’t want to be caught building a basement during a wet winter as it can cause extensive delays to the project so timing is everything.  It’s hardly free space; in fact, it’s very expensive space.


However, if you can get past the cost, basements can be a world unto themselves.  Take for instance the Tintin basement.  Our client’s favorite book as a kid was the “Adventure’s of Tintin.”  In one book ,Tintin is chased by his would be captors through the underground catacombs of a old castle.  Seeing no way out for him and his dog Snowy, Tintin used an old wood beam and a rope and made a battering ram and busted through the brick wall and escaped to safety.  That story became the central theme for the game room in the client’s basement, complete with broken brick walls and heavy reclaimed timbers.


Basements can add a lot to a project, including significant cost.  You should be aware of the complexities of building a basement.  Special attention should be paid to the waterproofing systems. We prefer a belt-and-suspender approach to waterproofing. You shouldn’t look to the cheapest solutions since this is an area where you want to have experts advising and monitoring the installation for you. A failure in this will be expensive and disruptive to all the vegetation around the house should a problem ever develop.  It can all be managed but it’s often far more complex than people think.  Like I say, “it’s not your Grandparents basement.”

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