Basement: Do it Right so You Don’t Have to do it Over
Having a nicely finished basement is a luxury that any homeowner can appreciate. After all, there’s a big difference between the bare concrete surfaces and exposed framing of an unfinished basement and the inviting environment created by finished walls, flooring, ceiling panels and recessed lighting. Finishing the basement expands your living space for about half the cost of a similarly sized above-ground addition and increases home value.
There’s A Problem, Though
There’s a dark side to finished basements, however. Many of the building materials used in above-grade applications have a short lifespan in the basement, primarily because of moisture problems. When you add even a small amount of water to building materials like wood studs, plywood sheathing, wall-to-wall carpeting and paper-faced drywall, you soon get blotchy mold deposits, rotted wood, and sour smells. Mold is one of the worst problems a house can have. In addition to damaging organic materials that provide a food source, mold fills the air with microscopic spores that can cause serious allergic reactions and respiratory ailments.
“It’s a huge mistake for people to assume that the same materials that work well upstairs will be OK in the basement,” says Chris Schmidt, who provides technical support for Total Basement Finishing (TBF), a network of basement finishing contractors spread throughout the U.S. and Canada. “Many of our dealers end up spending just as much time removing moldy or water-damaged materials as they do installing new moisture-proof materials in the basement.”
Basement moisture can take many forms. Sometimes it’s a slow leak in a washing machine supply hose, or high humidity from soil moisture that permeates through foundation walls. Other times, a burst pipe or a severe storm brings a high volume of water into the basement. Either way, porous materials like wood and paper tend to absorb and hold moisture.
“Mold loves damp cellulose,” explains Schmidt, “and that’s exactly what you have when wood and paper-faced drywall get wet. In spite of this fact, some contractors continue to use these materials in the basement. It’s just a matter of time before mold takes hold.”<
Better Materials for Basement Finishing
Recognizing the folly of finishing a basement with mold-friendly materials that will eventually need to be torn out, Schmidt and his colleagues developed a number of basement finishing products that can’t be damaged by water or mold. Examples that have proved to be popular with homeowners include flooring tiles that look like wood but are made of high-strength plastic, wall panels faced with textured vinyl rather than paper, and galvanized steel studs that can replace mold-prone wood studs.
Doubling up on Moisture Management
“Even with waterproof finishing products, we don’t want to take chances with moisture in the basement,” says Schmidt. “That’s why we also recommend waterproofing the basement and installing a dehumidifier. Mold needs moisture and a food source, so our strategy is to keep the basement dry and eliminate organic materials. When you pay attention to these details, it’s really possible for a finished basement to be as comfortable and attractive as upstairs living space. Even more importantly, you can do the job right the first time, so you don’t have to do it again.”
Tim Snyder is a journalist specializing in sustainability, energy efficiency and home building topics. Tim has written for many publications including Mother Earth News.