Basement: the Midwestern Ranch House’s Secret Weapon

A basement is the secret weapon of the midwestern ranch house.

(This is one clear advantage we have over all those cool, glassy California Pinterest ranches.)

Our basements secretly expand square footage, storage and differentiation of spaces all without bulking up the house to the street or eating up the building site.

Sure, basements CAN be your extraneous junk space.  They CAN be your quick and dirty work out or project space.  But they they COULD be the inner sanctum – the most private and cosy spot in the house, insulated from temperature, sound and other people’s view.   The secret of an effective basement is not to treat it like part of your home, not a second class space.

What Not to Do

It is easy to shut the basement off behind a door.  This strategy has a small upside; it can banish unwanted activities – storage, teen space, work out rooms – out of the main living area.  But, really, you’ve already separated it from the main traffic route by having it on another level.  If you want a truly cut off space, you can close part of the basement off behind a wall or door.  Losing the whole space to “underneath” is a big missed opportunity.

Instead

Ideally, you want the basement to feel like an integral part of the house rather than a lesser quality space.  You want to break up the dungeon-y aspect of having descended into the dark earth.  Note: a ranch basement isn’t a farm house root cellar; it’s part of your home.

How to make it happen

In order to make the basement feel welcome in your home, you need to do three things:

Finish it at the same quality level as the rest of the house

Make the basement feel like part of the house.  This is one of the Not So Big remodeling principles Sarah Susanka espouses in her eponymous book, and it is a great one.

Granted, its possible to have a very low budget basement fix up: paint the walls and exposed joists white, paint the floor dark, throw down a few carpets, bring in a few artistic lights and functional furniture and a TV and – bang – you’ve got a cheap game room, kids area, exercise space or workshop. 

But, if you really want the basement to feel like it contains the living space of your home, you’ll shell out for drywall on walls and ceilings, enclose all the mechanical conduit, put in can lights and real fixtures and lay a comfortable floor.  You can always compromise – as I did by creating a few rooms at “house” quality and walling off the back half as unfinished basement storage.

Visually connect it with the house

Basically, knock out the walls around the stairs both above and below.  You want to walk up and down the stairs with one eye on both levels.

This is common to the most stylish ranches and to mid century homes in general – they often have open tread stairs which give even more sense of connection.  They also sometimes go the half level route with a landing or even a floor arranged just six steps from the one before.  You can’t turn your house into a split level (more on my perverse love for split level houses at another time) but you can remove the door at the head of the stairs.  You can replace the wall beside that door with columns.  And you can knock out part of the wall surrounding the stairs down below.

If you still want an “away” space you can easily make it downstairs by closing off a room or two

Bring in More light

Opening up the stairway is a good start, but you are almost certainly going to need to pop in more windows. 

I know.  It can feel crazy to chop up the basement walls but is, in fact, remarkably easy, even DIY-able.  I did it here in two intense long-weekends worth of time.  If I were going to stay in this house longer, I would also have increased the den windows south and west and added a third window to the west.  

You can reliably double your square footage (and vastly increase your satisfaction) on any ranch house with an unfinished basement and if the basement is “finished” you can still haul it several notches closer to perfection with the three simple steps above.

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