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Solid Concrete Walls

The Basics of Basements

By Ethan Davis

In Utah, foundations tend to be a bit more than in some other places in the country. A foundation in Utah tends to be a full concrete basement and in many cases these can be quite elaborate. Let me provide a bit of history on basements.

From the Building Science Corporation website, it states that buildings used to be constructed over cellars. Cellars were dank, dark places where coal was stored. People never intended to live in cellars. Now we have things called basements that have pool tables, media centers and play rooms. Cellars were easy to construct – rubble, stone, bricks and sometimes block. If they got wet or were damp so what? Basements are different. They are not easy to construct if we intend to live in them. They need to be dry, comfortable and keep contaminants out. Over the last 50 years there has been a notable expansion of living space. The useful conditioned space of building enclosures is expanding to the outer edge of the building skin (Figure 1). Attics, crawlspaces, garages and basements are valuable real estate that are being used to live in or used for storage or places to locate mechanical systems. Basements are viewed by many as cheap space that can easily be incorporated into a home. Keeping basements dry, comfortable and contaminant free is proving to be anything but simple.

The fundamentals of groundwater control date back to the time of the Romans: drain the site and drain the ground. Today that means collecting the run off from roofs and building surfaces using gutters and draining the water away from foundation perimeters. Roof and façade water should not saturate the ground beside foundations. Grade should slope away from building perimeters and an impermeable layer should cover the ground adjacent to buildings. There are various drainage and protection options, but handling ground water is a critical concern in basement construction.

Comfort and energy costs have lead to the necessity in some cases to insulate basements. Heat loss from basements accounts for a significant portion of the total space-conditioning load – upwards of 20 percent. In many jurisdictions, basement insulation is a building code requirement and the trend to more basement insulation is expected to accelerate. Additionally, many homeowners with homes with basements finish the basement area for additional living space. When they do, they typically insulate the perimeter walls. Homes with basements often end up with basement walls that are finished and insulated. There are many types, processes and ways to provide the necessary insulation for a basement and while some are inexpensive and rather simple, others can be very expensive and complicated. Getting the right contractor will help you navigate what is best for you.

Basements are here to stay and are a great part of any home, but making sure they are done right will avoid a lot of headaches and provide enjoyment for many, many years.