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Homeowners Transform Unfinished Basement Into an Attractive Family Play Center

Like any new homeowners, Craig and Lita Keller viewed their newly built home in the Chicago suburbs as a wide-open canvas, laden with potential. With four bedrooms and 3,200 square feet of living space in the main and upper floors, it appeared to them a cavernous space that would take years to fill.


Four years and two children later, not only had the Kellers filled every nook and cranny of the house, but they again longed for more open space. Fortunately, the solution to their needs lay right beneath their feet—in the form of a 1,600-square-foot unfinished basement.


“With all that comes with turning a newly constructed house into a home—from painting and furnishing to installing new landscaping—finishing the basement was simply not a priority,” said Craig. “But it was amazing how fast the house seemed to shrink once our kids got older and more active, and as we accumulated more things. We soon realized that we needed more room for entertaining and a dedicated room for the kids and their toys.”


Fortunately, the home’s nearly square footprint of 43 by 40 feet carried down into the large, unfinished basement. Lita played the role of architect, using a home improvement software package to create an open, flowing floor plan. Her goal was to harmoniously merge the Kellers’ four design priorities for the space: a built-in entertainment center/home theater, a bar area with upper- and lower-level cabinets, a large playroom for the kids and a generous storage room.


Concessions made when the home was built factored into the basement design process. With no roughed-in plumbing, the Kellers chose to forgo a bathroom or wet bar. Standard 8-foot ceilings (rather than optional 9-foot ceilings) necessitated the use of soffits to conceal steel I-beams and ductwork. And because it was not a walkout or English basement, natural light was very limited. Abundant electric light sources would be required.


Access Is Needed



Beyond their desire to keep the space relatively open, the Kellers also wanted to maintain access to water pipes, ductwork and electrical wiring. A suspended acoustical ceiling system was a natural solution.


Contractors Duane Sacrison and Joe Mancini provided the final reality check in helping Lita complete the design. Experience told them that the water heater and furnace location (including the low-hanging air return ducts) would dictate the general location and size of the storage room, as these unsightly elements could best be concealed there.


Working from this starting point, the trio then laid out two family room areas—a large L-shape room for the home theater/bar area, and a smaller but still sizable rectangular room for the kids’ play area—separated by large and small angled entryways. The wall locations allowed the Kellers to conceal five of the six load-bearing steel support poles, leaving only one that would need to be finished off in the larger room. Another efficient and fun use of space involved converting the area below the straight stairwell into a “bonus” playroom for the kids, complete with an open window and full-size door.


Sacrison and Mancini framed the entire basement using steel runner and steel studs (with the exception of the entertainment center, which required the use of wood 2 by 4 studs for added strength). Beyond being faster to install than traditional 2 by 4s, the metal framing featured convenient pre-punched holes for conduit piping, and ultimately provided a uniform surface for applying drywall.


The final design challenge involved the intended location of the home theater area. The home’s waste water pipe exit and water line shutoff valve were located on the desired wall for the built-in entertainment center. To overcome both obstacles, Sacrison and Mancini created large 36- by 24-inch openings at the base of each side of the entertainment center during the framing process. These openings permitted easy access to both the waste pipe cleanout and the water shutoff valve. As an additional benefit, the openings would serve as integrated bays for the floor speakers, and were eventually sealed using hand-built wood frames covered with black speaker mesh.


Once the framing was completed and R-13 insulation installed throughout the basement, the walls were covered with 80 1/2-inch thick 4- by 8-foot drywall panels.


“The project involved a lot of board cutting, so we went with United States Gypsum Company’s SHEETROCK® Brand Gypsum Panels, which score and snap more cleanly than other brands of drywall,” Sacrison said. “That benefit can really save time on a project like this.” And, for added strength, all drywall corners were covered with SHEETROCK™ Brand Paper Faced Metal Corner Bead.


The subtle texture of the ceiling panels plays well with the room’s lighting scheme, which features 23 recessed lights and 12 wall sconces in the main living areas. Eight dimmer switches provide flexibility in controlling lighting throughout the area.


Coloring Time



Despite the basement’s very open layout, the Kellers created a sense of separate rooms using distinct paint schemes, as well as different wall light sconces and window treatments. In the main bar/home theater area, a medium tan-colored paint was used to create a warm and inviting environment. This area also received a total of eight contemporary-looking aluminum and glass sconces to create a look of sophistication.


The children’s play area took on a lighter and more festive look through a combination of paint colors and wall appliqués. The Kellers applied deep red and off-white paint on the walls in this space. And in a unique touch, Lita created a “blackboard” for the kids using a special Crayola® paint, framing it in yellow paint with stenciled-in graphics for a finished look. Finally, the walls were adorned with a variety of oversized stickers featuring the central characters of Disney’s “Toy Story.”


The finishing touch for the basement involved the installation of a neutral-colored, short-loop berber carpet throughout all living spaces and stairs and, of course, the addition of a big-screen HDTV as the centerpiece of the home theater unit.


“Looking back, I wonder how we ever did without a finished basement,” said Craig. “The kids play down there all the time now, and every family function we have starts and ends there. Plus, the home theater is the kind of toy that never gets old. Needless to say, we’ve added an entirely new dimension to this house, and we now have more than ample space for years to come.”


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