These homeowners were committed to digging into their basement renovation. Literally. “Excavating to get higher ceilings and natural light was very much worth the cost,” says homeowner and attorney Anna Cave, who served as her own interior designer on the project. The result is a basement with full walk-out access that gets a good share of sunlight and feels like a natural continuation of their lovely stone 1938 cottage.
Photos by Susie Soleimani Photography
Basement at a Glance
What happens here: A couple plays with their child, does laundry, watches TV, works out on the treadmill and has space to host overnight guests.
Location: Bethesda, Maryland
Size: 500 square feet (46.5 square meters)
Designers: Architectural layout: Pagenstecher Group; architectural construction drawings and collaboration/supervision: William Feeney; interior designer: Anna Cave
The staircase foreshadows what awaits below, with its tongue-and-groove paneling, graphic black handrail and brass lantern. “Our home has a classic and traditional feel,” Cave says. The basement stays true to that with the paneling, millwork, other finishes and traditional fabrics, but she went a little more modern with the furnishings.
The staircase, which they were able to widen during renovations, also had an impact on the layout of the basement, as the architecture upstairs dictated its placement. The mechanical room, bathroom and bedroom are to the left side of the staircase, and the living room is to the right. The open portion of the staircase and new columns festooned with brass sconces keeps those descending from feeling like they are heading down a tunnel into a brick wall. Instead, it announces that they are entering a special space. “That wall needed the architectural interest of the columns, and I added sconces to create different layers of light,” Cave says.
“Their ceilings down here were only about 7 feet high, and they really wanted this to feel like a nice space that felt like the rest of their home,” architect William Feeney says. “We had to break through the slab floor and excavate about a foot.”
Sconces: Circa Lighting
A long living room is a great place for movie night, visiting, entertaining and playing on the floor with the toddler. The staircase wall, paneled in 1-by-6-inch tongue-and-groove paneling, houses the media equipment. “The paneling’s character just adds to the coziness,” Cave says.
The 1930s home’s existing brick walls are two bricks thick, which helps with insulation, and due to 1938 construction, they extended well beneath the original slab. This was a lucky break — even with excavating it meant they extended all the way down to meet the new lower floor with a well-proportioned baseboard at the bottom. One brick wall had been covered up in the past, and unearthing it was a happy surprise. The builders, Finecraft Contractors, sandblasted the bricks to freshen them up, but the fact that they are around 80 years old just adds to the room’s charm.
Cement floor tiles that look like limestone complement the original brick. The warm color contributes to the coziness, as does an area rug.
Floor tile: Peacock Pavers
The couple had bought the distressed leather pullout sofa at ABC Carpet and Home years ago when they lived in Manhattan, and it was just right for the room. “It weighs a ton. Getting it down here and through the door was a challenge,” Cave says. But it was well worth the effort for the comfort and style it adds to the living room area.
The curtain next to the door conceals a small exercise room that has a treadmill and TV. The fabric coordinates with the window treatments and contributes to the cohesive look of the room.
On the side of the basement that was only halfway underground is a full walk-out. (You can see the retaining wall through the door’s glass panels on the right.) While there was an existing stairway between the backyard and a door, it was not a full-height door, and the window openings that are here now were blocked. Now they have larger widows that extend lower than you’d typically see in a basement.
“This was why we invested in excavating,” Cave says. “The natural light we gained makes the basement feel like a main-level floor.”
After the excavation, the ceilings stand at 8 feet 2 inches high. Feeney was able to reroute all the ductwork over to the mechanical and storage areas so that it wouldn’t interfere with the ceilings.
“It’s a basement, and recessed lights were the way to go as hanging lights don’t work as well on lower ceilings,” Feeney says. “But Anna added so much ambience by choosing other light fixtures that help finish the look of the space.” This includes the sconces on the columns, the sconces over the wet bar and the Bunny Williams Home flush-mount fixture, which creates an interesting shadow effect on the ceiling.
“Anna didn’t want a laundry area that felt like a laundry area,” Feeney says. Instead, she shared some inspiration photos, her husband came up with a design for the cabinetry and Feeney and Finecraft collaborated on how to complete the clever camouflage job. Now the laundry nook is one of their favorite parts of the basement.
And if you’re thinking, “Wait, what laundry area?” the built-in drawers are really doors that swing open to reveal the washer and dryer. On top, the doors open to reveal a counter for folding and storage shelves. The wet bar area’s sink also serves the laundry room.
“The homeowner came to me with all of these great ideas,” Feeney says. “She’d show us a photo, I’d draw it up and Finecraft would figure out how to make it happen.” One example is this backsplash. Rather than going with a typical 4-inch height, she came up with this furniture-like silhouette that has ogee edges. It’s another one of her favorite features.
“I like to use a mix of metal finishes, nothing too matchy,” Cave says. “There’s a combination of unlacquered brass and nickel throughout the house, which I continued down here.”
At the time they renovated, the couple had recently welcomed their first child. “We didn’t have a guest room upstairs and wanted room for grandparents and other visiting family,” Cave says.
The guest room is located on the opposite side of the staircase. It’s placement was strategic — the room enjoys the windows along the half-underground wall for light and proper egress. The painted walls have substantial millwork that give the room a main-level finished look. Cave painted the walls and the moldings the same color to create the illusion of higher ceilings.
She chose a graphic black on the doors to give them a more architectural feel, and they are another element that ties the entire basement together. Brass doorknobs add architectural style to the doors and coordinate with the lighting and other hardware used throughout the space. “It was all of these little flourishes Anna came up with that make this basement so special,” Feeney says.
The bathroom serves the living room and the guest room with a spacious shower and elegant materials. A pedestal sink is a space saver that makes the room feel bigger.
Renovating the space was a game-changer for the house; Cave reports that the family heads down here every night to hang out, and when her mother comes over to take care of their toddler, she loves the new guest space. And should Cave ever want to switch gears career-wise, her architect has his eye on her. “This space is cohesive and so nicely done,” Feeney says. “If Anna ever wants a career change, I’d definitely hire her as my interior designer.”
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