Finishing Our Basement -- a Five Month Project is Complete

(posted 10/2/2014) - We had our final inspection yesterday and are now officially done with our basement project which began in early May.

Pat took pictures along the way and posted them to our facebook page. I grabbed some of her photos and am re-posting them here along with my own comments. I especially wanted to journal our experience with some newer products targeted for the DIY community doing basement finishing/remodelling.

Here's a link to the initial permit application I submitted which includes dimensions and materials descriptions -- including plumbing, electrical, HVAC, and fire-sprinkler upgrades for the finished basement. I prepared this and submitted it to the village in March of 2014; simultaneously lining up the sub-contractors. It was surprising to me that the most difficult sub-contracted work to line up was for carpentry (both rough framing and finish work). In the end a local recommendation led me to Firchau Construction, located literally around the corner from our home!

The water table in our area is such that without a sump pump actively moving ground water away from our full-depth basement foundation we will get wet floors and seepage around floor-wall seams during and after heavy rain. We have a very efficient sump-pump that can keep everything dry during the worst of storms -- but if the pump isn't running things get wet fast as the surrounding drain tiles saturate and static pressure allows the concrete to absorb too much water. Of course we've taken the reasonable steps of installing a natural gas based automatic backup system that takes over if the electricity goes out (14KW systems run about $6500 installed). We also replaced the mechanical sump-pump float and switch with an electronic controller. The latter additionally gives visual and audible alarms if the pump fails to start, or if the pump runs too long without the sensor detecting the sump pit has emptied (two level sensor). We've bought a second pump and controller with the intention of fitting our sump-pit with two pumps/controllers, arranged so that the backup triggers only if the primary pump fails.

A rational person also tries to minimize damage if the basement does take water. It turns out that mold growth in basements that have taken water is much more insidious than the direct damages due to water. We looked for flooring, insulation, and wall products that would reduce or eliminate mold from the equation after mild water intrusion. This journal is about the products we chose to minimize effects of mold and which insured that warping of floors and walls would not occur if we got water in the basement.

We chose to floor directly onto the concrete with an all plastic floating interlocking tile product that would not trap water under tiles, nor support mold growth under the tile. The usual problems with basement floors is that when they get water against the wood based flooring materials they begin to grow mold as well as to warp. The most common solution has been to mud-in vinyl, ceramic, or porcelain tiles over concrete. The problem is that the floor has no give, it is literally as hard as concrete and also conducts ground temperature (hard, cold floor syndrome). The tiles we selected are just over 1/2" thick and are flexible enough to feel pleasant underfoot. Underneath each tile is a gridded air gap to keep the cold concrete from making the surface of the tile equally cold. The grid has channels to allow water to flow underneath, so that it quickly evaporates in cases where the basement floor does become wet. Here is a link to the Modutile Website with full descriptions of the product. You can see the "slate" version we chose in the accompanying photos. I will say Modutile is easy to cut with a jig-saw and the locking system makes it the best floating floor I've seen to date for ease and speed of installation. We plan to do our garage using this product as well (a future project).

The next problem area in basements are the perimeter walls where wood and insulation come in contact with concrete and moisture can get trapped. Traditionally lots of special effort is expended to erect moisture barriers between concrete and wood or insulation. These days wood studs are usually not in contact with the concrete (only the base-plate is anchored to concrete). Using insulating-batts means that insulation needs to be shielded from moisture on one side while being able to shed moisture via evaporation if it does get wet. Satisfying the current R-15 insulation standard for basement walls translates to 5" thick perimeter walls! All of these strategies fail however if water comes from the inside of the basement! In those cases the wet soggy insulation looses most of its R-rating value and often begins to grow mold around the wood studs.

We chose to use a new product called InSoFast EX, which is made of 2' x 4' x 2.5" closed-cell EPS sheets with integral embedded vertical (plastic) studs every 16". The sheets are vertically ribbed to allow moisture on the concrete wall to run to the floor. The product has a built in moisture barrier, and meets all fire-codes when covered with dry-wall. Additionally, it will not support mildew and has an R-15 batting equivalent rating when used on 10" poured concrete walls.

There are 2" horizontal channels where sheets connect to allow for wiring (or conduit). There are 1.5" vertical channels on 16" centers for routing wire or conduit to outlet boxes. EPS foam is easy to cut with a saw or razor. The sheets use tongue-groove coupling to insure that studs run true floor to ceiling. The 2.5" wide plastic studs can be glued to the concrete wall with 3M PL Premium Construction Adhesive, and the tongue-grove interlocks make a very straight wall easily possible, even if your concrete wall is a bit out of true!

All conduit and outlets along perimeter walls needs to be in place before installation of InSoFast sheets (mechanically attached to concrete wall with screws). We erected interior walls first so conduit could be run through the framing at the same time the perimeter walls were done. After the electrician was done we put up the InSoFast sheets on the perimeter walls.

We did the entire basement perimeter in InSoFast EX sheets and it took the two of us 2.5-days to install (cutting and gluing as we went) about 1000 sf. The walls were straight and true and were easy to hang 1/2" dry-wall over.

Lighting fixtures need to be efficient and long lasting. LED technology has advanced dramatically: I found 13W LED panels that put out the same color frequency and more useful light than a 150W incandescent fixture. I bought two different kinds; a 10" circular fixture with motion sensing for under $70 and a 24" x 24" x 1.5" ceiling panel for $140 ( Link is here. The quality of light from the large panels is amazing. It fills the room with soft light, eliminates shadows, and draws virtually no current!

Our ceiling joists are 92" above concrete. Giving up 1/2" for flooring, leaves 7'7.5" to the joist. Every inch counts so a suspended ceiling was not an option in our basement. At the same time we didn't want to drywall the ceiling because that makes HVAC, Gas pipes, elecrical junction-boxes, and plumbing pretty much inaccessible without tearing down the ceiling... what to do? We looked at Armstrong Ceiling Plank systems with easy-up clips that allow the DIYer to attach firring at right angles to the joists, then attach 6" x 7' x 3/8" planks (we chose prepainted bead-board style) at right angles to the firring. If one uses the easy-up clips it is possible to screw the clips into the firring, then slide the tongue of the next plank over the clip holder so that there are no visible screw/nail holes on the underside of the plank. The planks are end-ship lapped to allow them to be positioned end-to-end with glue to make a very nice looking seam. Being a bit on the lazy side we chose to use an 18 guage 2" brad-nailer instead of the easy up clips in most places. The itty-bitty nail holes look classic (my wife says). Anyway, the plank system is easy to put up, accomodates slight variations in the ceiling firring with no complaints, and looks good. To gain access between joists it is possible to cut out a plank without destroying neighboring planks. Armstrong ceiling planks are expensive (about $1.50 / sf including the easy up screws and clips in the box).

The main advantage of this approach besides the cosmetics of a good looking custom ceiling is that it is only 1.5" + 3/8" below joist. Our floor to ceiling clearance ended up at a quite acceptable 89.5" (7' 5.5").

To meet electrical access and other building codes we put circular 4.5" access panels under each junction box, or built 5.5" square hinged doors for shut-off valve access in the ceiling. We got pretty good at cutting circular holes in our planking before putting it up (8 electrical junction boxes in the main room). Keep this in mind when you put up a basement ceiling -- all electrical junctions and shut-off valves must be accessible without having to cut away structural or trim pieces. This includes mirrors!

The last area of special consideration was the toilet. Having experienced the angst of a low volume flusher that doesn't always clear when flushed we looked into pressure assisted flushers. In the end we went with a Tota high-velocity flusher that only uses 1.2gpf but clears well. It is much quieter than pressurized tank flushers but seems to get the job done.

We learned that we needed a new escape window for the basement. The windows we'd had installed when the house was built were fine for an 'unfinished' basement but not sufficient for an occupied space. We assumed that Monarch Windows the supplier of the 3' x 4' x 3.5" window in our basement would also sell a compliant window (they have to swing inward for escape purposes). Nope - they don't sell escape windows for their own window frame! Pella, Anderson, and Monarch all suggested we pay thousands of dollars to knock out the poured in place steel window frame in our basement concrete and use one of their wider sliding windows. Bah! what a stupid suggestion. We searched the internet for a week and Pat found a small custom window manufacturer in Pennsylvania that advertized an escapement window custom built to fit a 3.5" sill in any width/height we wanted; delivered for $690. We ordered one to fit the inside dimensions of our Monarch steel buck and it dropped right in. We anchored the window unit by drilling through the steel buck into the concrete wall (2 screws center-mass) on each side of the window using tap-con screws. We highly recommend this window ( links is here.

Here are the photos from Pat's face-book page. Just click on an image to view a full-size image. These two images are of the basement before we began. Just one big open space with bare joists and concrete floor and walls. All lights were on one circuit (7 cfls).

Pictures of InSoFast on perimeter walls, with rough framing and soffits in place. All framing, soffits, door setting, door and window casings, and firring on ceiling joists done by Firchau Construction.

Dry-wall hanging, taping / mudding, and custom skim coating done by Mike's Speedy Drywall Service. A skim coating was done in the stair-well to make the concrete wall look like it had been plastered. There was no room in stairwell to install InSoFast and drywall...

The ceiling plank, horizontal trim (shoe, baseboard, chair-rail, and crown moulding), and lolly-column casings were installed by owner with help of talented son-in-law and faithful wife! Only extra tool needed was a compound 10" sliding miter-saw which was purchased for $120 from Harbor Freight (including 60T finish-cut blade). Some additional info on the project:

  • The 3 additional electrical circuits, conduit, outlets, and switches done by Little Electric. LED lights were purchased/installed by owner and verified by electrician on premise.
  • All plumbing connections and fixture setting done by Russ' Plumbing. All bathroom fixtures were purchased by owner. Owner set the floating vanity. Shower base was supplied by owner and installed by plumber. Shower Tiling was done under custom contract through PR Home Construction.
  • All HVAC ducting and venting for basement done by Superb Heating and Cooling.
  • Fire-Sprinkler basement upgrades done by US Fire Safety Sprinklers.
  • Floors installed by owner with assistance from wife, daughter, son-in-law (3 days work) for 1000 sf.
  • All painting done by Castle Painting with special thanks to Chris and Chris; a very efficient painting team!

Some shots taken of the bathroom and the rest of the basement after painting was completed. We're moving furniture downstairs now!