Help me not move my office into a dank cave
June 3, 2011 6:27 PM   Subscribe

What’s the cheapest way to make an unfinished basement work as usable living/working space?

I work from home and plan to move my office from a crowded corner of our family room to our unfinished basement. Any extra basement space will be a play area for my two young kids. Money is tight & my husband and I aren’t handy, so I’d appreciate any tips or suggestions on how to do this and not dread going down there every day once it’s finished. I did find some great advice in these older threads 1 & 2 but have a few more specific questions and would love any updated information that might be available.

1. Ceiling - Should the ceiling (exposed joists) be painted dark brown, white or remain unpainted? The ceilings are low (7’1” to bottom of joists/7’8” to the ceiling) so I’d like to maximize the perceived height and I’ve seen all three ideas suggested as solutions.

2. Lighting – The main space is approx. 25’ x 20’ and has only one tiny window. My husband and I both hate fluorescent lights and prefer something that’s energy efficient, dimmable & pleasant to spend time in. Is halogen the way to go? Would 9 individual track light fixtures mounted between the joists be enough to light the space? (An electrician friend has suggested 6 but we’re worried that the area will still be dark).

3. Flooring - I think we’ve got any potential water issue handled (new basement windows) but I’m still hesitant to put an expensive floor down. I’m considering FLOR tiles for my office area (approx 10’ x 10’) and throw rugs/carpet remnants for the rest of the space.

4. Walls - We’re planning on renting a sprayer and sealing/painting the concrete walls white. I’m thinking about hanging fabric against the walls (just in my office area) to help soften the look but am worried it will look weird. Should I just put up bookshelves, posters and/or mirrors instead? Is there a way to make a huge bulletin board on the cheap?

Thanks for any advice or warnings you can give me.
posted by victoriab to Home & Garden (11 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
For at least one wall consider covering it with chalkboard paint then let the young artists in your family go crazy. Or, you could install cork board (or something similar) and cover it from top to bottom with your kids' artwork.
posted by tidecat at 6:42 PM on June 3, 2011

Best answer: 1. For a ceiling that low I would go white rather than black. It will reduce your lighting needs and feel higher.
2. Be aware that the life of halogen bulbs is reduced significantly by dimming, especially prolonged use at lower levels and less-frequent use at full strength. Go with an on-off switch unless you really have a practical need for dimming. Number of lights depends on brightness of each bulb, but for that size space, 9 sounds more reasonable than 6.
3. I think you're on the right track with the flooring thoughts.
4. For the giant bulletin board, just put some furring strips on the concrete wall and nail up Homasote. It's cheap, it's recycled, it's green, it's paintable, it's tackable.
posted by beagle at 6:53 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

If there is only one small window in the basement, I would make sure that you are getting enough fresh air in there.

Could you try hanging a few large mirrors in there? They will help the room appear bigger and reflect light. You could even consider positioning a mirror outside the small window to reflect more light in. I would paint all the surfaces white and try to have a light colored floor (within reason, as light-colored floors show dirt more quickly).
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 7:11 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

A former colleague of mine had a basement office. The walls were painted white, and then each of his three young daughters was given a section of wall to decorate. Periodically, they could have their section repainted so they could redo the drawings they did.

Yeah, it looked like exactly what it was -- places where children had drawn on the walls -- but it was charming and lovely and it made him happy to work surrounded by the love of his daughters.

So, consider something like that instead of posters, etc.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:46 PM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Test for radon first. Second leading cause of lung cancer, first leading cause for non-smokers.
posted by Anonymous at 8:10 PM on June 3, 2011

Best answer: You're right on track with the white walls and ceiling. Fabric on the walls will look cool, or if your basement's cool/cold--mine is--you can hang tapestry fabric or even Turkish carpet. Any kind of fabric will help cut the echo-y noise, also. You'll need that if you're going to try to work with kids downstairs. Multiple carpets and area rugs laid out on top of each other is a great way to make the floors comfortable. If you have a mill-ends fabric shop near you, and you can get upholstery fabric cheaply, make a couple big colorful floor pillows 4x4 or 5x5 feet and heavily stuffed. A friend has a futon mattress on the floor for her kids to hang out on. 'Floor furniture' is great for a kid to sit on and read, watch TV, or just hang out. Leave a section of floor bare for play with wheeled toys--play trucks really zoom on concrete floors. Get a radio-controlled car and you can sit at your desk and play with the kids. Way to avoid working!

I hate basements because of the lack of light and closed in feeling--one of the neatest things I saw done in a basement apartment was a section of wall had a been painted white and then a gauzy fabric panel about ten feet long hung like curtains. LED light rope had been put under the fabric at the top and bottom. It was great, and gave an open, airy feel. It sounds like you're going to have to have the lighting wired in. Do you have the option of putting in other lights? If you're thinking nine lights, I'd go ten. You NEVER have enough light in a basement, especially at night or in the winter. On the kid's side of the basement, hang stars or fish or butterfly lights.

It sounds like you have one large open space. If so, consider putting your office back in the far corner from the stairs and partition it off someway so kids aren't actually *in* the office playing. That way they will know exactly where the boundary is between your space and their space. One thing you could do would be to face your computer desk out into the larger room and use that and a bookcase to create a barrier. If you back the desk and bookcase with a 4x8 sheet of plywood for a half wall, you could see over and watch the kids. You wouldn't feel like you were stuck in a corner as much. The plywood could be painted with the chalkboard paint, as kids aren't going to use a whole wall anyway. You can buy corkboard off a roll at the local big box store. Use heavy glue to attach it to 1/4 inch plywood, and get some molding and frame around it. This could be as large as 4x8 feet, if you want a really B I G bulletin board. Alternatively, get several smaller bulletin boards of different sizes, paint all the frames the same or different colors, and hang them all together as wall art. You could even organize different items per board.

Don't forget thrift stores for extra area rugs and bookcases, etc. You might find something that can be used as a toy chest or a neat picture. There are hangers for pictures that attach with glue, or you could hang items from the joists with fishing line, or colored string, or even chain. Colorful mobiles are great. You want to have color to break up your white walls. Will the kids have snacks and drinks down there? A dorm fridge, some cupboard storage, and a table might be nice.

Don't forget to hang a pothos vine in the window!
posted by BlueHorse at 10:36 PM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

1. Paint it white.
2. The overhead lighting is actually less important than the spot lighting. You need a desk lamp and a floor lamp at a minimum to get good light balance. Mirrors are also a good idea!
3. If your floor is level, FLOR tiles are a good choice. I would paint the floor first to seal in dust, etc if you currently have concrete floors.
4. I was also going to suggest homasote. It is good for sound too, in an echo-y basement. I do several panels floor to ceiling and tack fabric to some if them. Paint others and use them for corkboards, or use chalkboard paint or white board paint and make them even more functional.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:22 AM on June 4, 2011

You can do a laminate floor down there for $500-750 bucks and it will feel much nicer than rugs on concrete (will really help keep dust and dampness down as well).

Look for a product called Delta FL which goes down in large sheets. Thin laminate underpad and then the flooring goes down and you're done.
posted by davey_darling at 6:14 AM on June 4, 2011

Best answer: If you want a look at a wall treatment for a basement makeover that was done on the cheap using plywood to finish the walls, and nothing but white-painted joists for the ceiling and an area rug over a painted cement floor (and, to answer your lighting query, one track light, one fluorescent over the workbench, one task light at the work bench and one floor lamp), I'm very familiar with the poster of this third-last comment in this Apartment Therapy post, and will happily offer more information as to how it was done.

The basement is smaller than yours, with only one small window as well. And, the bookcases were mounted on the walls and supported by blocks in case of flood damage. The furniture is teak, which can take a bit of water in a pinch, as long as it's dried carefully. The rug is cheap and disposable - a remnant from a nearby carpet store that was bound at $1 per linear foot. And looking at the before and after makes me happy to this day!
posted by peagood at 8:38 AM on June 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great advice everyone! Okay, so here's where we are so far -

1. Paint walls and ceiling white.
2. Floor is already sealed with a medium grey paint so I think we're safe there.
3. Wall covering - I love the homasote idea because it seems to be about our talent level and provides a lot of flexible options for coverings. I also really love the plywood walls idea (see peagood's photo) but I'm worried they'd be harder to make look good (requiring trimming, sanding, painting etc).
4. My office will be in far back corner (near the only window) and I am planning on dividing the office space from the main room with bookshelves.
5. We're going to do a minimum of 9 track light fixtures (maybe a few more) along with various floor lamps & table lamps to make sure we have enough lighting. It sounds like halogen lights won't be a good choice since we want them to be able to dim them so maybe we'll just do incandescent or CFLs instead.

*Just to note, I'll only rarely be sharing the space with the kids during working will be my workspace during the day and a more family oriented space in the evenings and on the weekends.
* We might be selling this house next year so anything I do needs to be able to be neutralized quickly when we put it on the market. Although I love the chalkboard walls idea (and might do it in another house) I'm worried it might be hard to paint over and also our walls are so rough that it might be hard to erase the chalk once the kids do their first drawing.
* We had the house tested for radon when we moved in 5 years ago and were clean. I assume that this doesn't change over time or should we get retested?

Thanks again for all your help and feel free to make other suggestions as they come to you.
posted by victoriab at 5:10 AM on June 5, 2011

Response by poster: I'm having problems figuring out what lighting fixtures to use so please feel free to offer suggestions if you're still following this.

It seems like we should use recessed lighting because we have a low ceiling and track lighting could shine in peoples eyes or they might bump their heads on them. I've been researching recessed can lights but none of them seem to have a finished exterior because they're intended to be used in a drop ceiling. Any ideas or suggestions for what we should use would be great. Thank!
posted by victoriab at 11:08 AM on June 7, 2011

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