How Have Basements Improved Over the Last Century?

How have basements gotten better recently? They're lived-in spaces! The right flooring and finishes add usable square-footage to your home.

Basement Improvements: How Basements Are Better Now

Today, when we think of basements, most of us either think of the cool, dim room or rooms below us where we have a movie or game room, home gym, or laundry room with a finished floor and walls. But that’s a relatively modern idea. Before the 1950’s basements were primarily damp, musty spaces below our kitchens where we stored produce and pickles or home-canned goods.

Basements were known as cellars, or root cellars, with dirt floors, and often dirt walls. Walls were lined with storage shelves and floor space was filled with bins for root vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, and onions, with other bins reserved for apples and dry goods. Basements at that time were primarily accessed through outside cellar doors or kitchen trap doors.

Eventually, in the larger homes of the wealthy, drainage systems were added to remove moisture, and floors and walls were added to basements to make room for servants’ dwellings where they wouldn’t take up space in the main part of the house. Kitchens, butler’s pantries, wine cellars, a servants’ hall, and bedchambers were all neatly hidden below stairs with separate entrances at the back of the building or from the courtyard. This kept cooking smells away from the main part of the house while still being convenient for delivery drop-offs.

What are the Major Changes in How Basements Function?

It wasn’t until the 1950s that basements began to function as something other than storage areas, wine cellars, or servants’ quarters. Once people began to be more aware of the dangers to both health and home from the presence of mold and mildew in basements, architects and engineers began experimenting with new ways to drain and use moisture barriers to dehumidify the damp, musty spaces beneath our homes.

In new homes built during this time period, basements were generally being expanded, built with concrete flooring, framed walls and sump pumps to keep the dampness out. Instead of dark, damp storage spaces, basements began to be used as a convenient place to keep hot water heaters, boilers, deep freezes, and washers and dryers out of the main part of the home.

It was soon after these improvements in basement standards and uses that people began to see the space below them as something that could be usable living space. Windows were added at the ground level to let in light and plumbing was hidden behind drywall.

By the 1970s upscale basements began to take on the That '70s Show style of rec room, lounge or den, with fake wood-paneled walls, drop ceilings, and built-in bars. Cold basement floors were warmed with shag carpets; the shaggier the better. Large, heavy console televisions often took up pride of place as the focal point, along with record players for teenagers’ parties.

What Modern Updates are there in Basements

Eventually, those groovy basement dens began to seem outdated, and basement doors were closed once again except as a place to do laundry and store Christmas ornaments. Eventually, enough time passed that people began seeing past the embarrassing basement dens of the ’70s and started to see renewed potential in basement spaces.

As generation Xers entered the new millennium, basement areas once again got an overhaul. Today’s basements have been modernized, often beginning with window expansions to let in more light. Basements have moved away from the dim, shag-carpeted, nicotine-stained dens of our parent’s era, and moved into brighter, healthier spaces. Homes now feature their basements as yoga studios, home movie theaters with movie theater-style recliners, and popcorn machines. Many have become home gyms, guest rooms, mother-in-law suites, or small apartments to be rented out. Shag carpets and linoleum have been replaced with warm hardwoods, beautiful laminates, and durable tile flooring.

Basements have come a long way from the dark holes beneath our homes where we once stored the harvest, grandmother’s homemade pickles, and peach preserves, or kept servants invisible while they worked hard behind the scenes and below the stairs. Today’s basements are still the places where we conveniently store our laundry rooms, hot water heaters, and deep freezes; or the place where we have guest rooms for visiting company. But they are also becoming valuable living spaces that add to our usable square footage and increase our home values.

Resources— Matrix, Apex Foundation Experts, Gordon Energy and Drainage