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Daylighting Your Home: Basements

Daylighting: Adding Natural Light to your Basement

A large percentage of the remodels we do is on post World War II homes, commonly built with basements.  Back in those days, basement use was rather different than Boulder’s concept of a basement today.  In the 50’s and 60’s, basements mostly housed mechanical equipment, maybe laundry, and mostly used for storage.  The ceilings were usually shorter, around 7-feet tall, and there were minimal, tiny windows, if any.  But in today's market, the Boulder Basement is a prime commodity.  It is valuable “existing” square footage.

I currently live in one of these homes.  When I first purchased it, the basement was poorly modified and was a little bit creepy, honestly.  I remember when we first walked through the home, my wife told my then 6-year old son to not touch the grimey handrail as we descended the stairs into the basement.  Luckily, I have the vision for what things can become, and my main focus for the basement was to increase the natural light, aka “Daylighting.”

Egress Windows

First, there were 6 tiny basement windows in the 1,000 square foot basement.  We converted a couple of them to “egress” style window wells and added a large family room window.  We didn’t need the large family room window per code, but we knew the effect of natural light would really benefit the space.  The first day after cutting the 6-foot hole in the foundation was truly transformational.  The amount of sunlight coming into my future family room was fantastic.  It even made the construction more fun…

Frosted Glass Doors

The second trick we used was to add glass panel doors to all of the rooms, except the bathroom.  We ended up with 2 offices, a guest room, a bathroom, a laundry room, and a large storage room.  Most of the doors have frosted glass to allow the daylight to filter through into the dark interior corners of a basement, while still providing plenty of privacy in each room.

We also added an exterior exit to the basement.  The door has a glass panel in it so we got a 2-for-1 with the daylighting and the access.  It was perfect for the office.  And it has been handy for our guests, especially if they’d like to discreetly head out for a hike in the morning.

Window Wells

The last trick has to do with the exterior window wells.  There are many to choose from and for personal aesthetic reasons, we avoided the prefab steel wells. They are very affordable, but tend to feel cold and industrial.  Instead, we used concrete blocks so we could form terraces and build them to suit.  Then we covered them in a light colored stucco and capped them with a Colorado flagstone, creating a pleasing, organic feel and the lighter color helps bounce the light even more.  Two of the window wells were close enough together that we combined the terracing effect, which in turn made the basement feel less underground.  If possible, avoid covering the window wells in steel grates.  This cuts off so much light and makes the basement feel more confined.  Add a simple guardrail if safety is a concern.

To read more about daylighting your home, check out this other blog post.

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