What to Do with Your Unfinished Basement
By SARC Facility Planner, Don Epp
During my time as Facility Planner with SARC, I have had the good fortune to visit many of the group homes in the province. One question that I have often been asked during my visits is, “What can I do with the unfinished basement?”
Bare concrete walls, exposed floor joist, concrete floors, lit by bare light bulbs are common sights in many group homes. Apart from the furnace room, there is not much downstairs, other than some storage areas, in many homes. Basements have the potential to be used much more effectively and open further support options for CBOs.
How to Create a Useable Space with an Unfinished Basement
If the group home’s basement is unfinished or needs a rejuvenation, here are 3 suggestions to utilize the potential in your basement and get more use out of that unused space.
- Secondary Suite – a secondary suite is a self-contained living space, which includes at least a kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom. A basement suite could be used for a rental suite or a space for someone to transition out of a group home setting to their own place. There are numerous building code requirements associated with creating a secondary suite, however. These code requirements focus on life safety and creating a separate living space. Providing a separate exit from the suite is often the greatest challenge for some homes.
- Basement Development – a basement development is a catchphrase that deals with all improvements to a basement, with the exception of turning it into a separate living suite. There are also fewer building code requirements for basement development. Creating an additional bedroom (guest bedroom) or bathroom in the basement are often the most common basement development. Additional laundry facilities, an office or training space, recreational spaces, or exercise and entertainment rooms could be also be added to the basement. Some group homes have included an “emergency shelter” room in the basement as part of their emergency preparedness planning. There are many different options when planning a basement development.
- Increase energy efficiency – insulating basement walls is one way to improve energy efficiency and save money through a decrease in monthly heating bills. According to Natural Resources Canada, about 20% of a home’s heating loss is through uninsulated basement walls. When insulating exterior basement walls, it is important to consider future renovations as it is an ideal time to add electrical outlets and light switches. Replacing old energy-inefficient windows with new egress conforming windows (in potential bedrooms) will also increase energy efficiency.
Pay Attention to Local Zoning Bylaws
Regardless of your intention to finish the basement, a building permit will be needed before any work is started. It is recommended to speak with your town or city’s Building Officials first to find out if your intentions meet zoning and building code requirements. Apart from the standard building code requirements, Building Officials may take a look at how adding a secondary suite may affect some specific code requirements for Alternative Family Care Homes (AFCH), which includes group homes. AFCHs are to be located in single housekeeping units and some zoning restrictions may not allow a secondary suite. The local Building Official can confirm the zoning requirements needed in specific situations. Fire sprinkler systems may also need to be upgraded if there is a secondary suite in the building. Further, a fire alarm panel may need to be added if there are 2 dwelling units in the same building. Again, the local building authorities will be able to offer details on what is required.
Most basement developments are straight forward and do not interfere with AFCH requirements. It is also important to check with CLSD if a client’s bedroom will be moved to the basement. There are licensing regulations for basement bedrooms and additional Health and Fire inspections may be needed.
The City of Regina and City of Saskatoon have great resources on AFCH requirements as well as code requirements for basement developments and secondary suites. These forms and brochures explain what the code requirements are with detailed construction techniques to meet these requirements. Information is also given on what is needed to fill out a building permit application.
If you are considering improving the basement of a home owned and operated by your organization, please consult with your local building official. SARC’s Facility Planner, Don Epp, can also offer some suggestions to your basement development pre-planning discussions. Getting started in the right direction will save some time and resources when you are considering a basement renovation.