- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 5, 2005

Every afternoon after school, Holden and Aron Wegner head downstairs to the recreation room in their Bethesda home, at least when the weather is cold.

Holden, 9, and Aron, 11, can play air hockey, pingpong or pinball — or they can head to the media room, where their family likes to watch Super Bowl games, movies and television shows. The soundproof room is equipped with a viewing screen and two levels of reclining theater chairs and love seats that all together seat 10.

“When there’s big events, it’s really nice to have it. It makes everything into a party,” says Susan Wegner, the boys’ mother.

As for their sons, “We wanted to give them an area they could call their own,” Mrs. Wegner says.

Mrs. Wegner and her husband, Adam, with the help of the interior design firm Sroka Design Inc. in Bethesda, planned the basement four years ago when the Wegners’ four-story home was custom-built.

“Essentially, basements [originally] were created as storage space and to rest a house on a foundation,” says Skip Sroka, owner of Sroka Design Inc. “Today, they are built as part of the house, and so people are choosing to capture that space now, because it’s basically free space.”

Today’s basements are being designed for a variety of functions, including home offices; workout areas; playrooms; party rooms; family rooms; media or theater rooms; rental units; and rooms for guests, in-laws or live-in help.

“At one point, people viewed [basements] as a second-class part of the house,” Mr. Sroka says. “They are now embraced. People don’t have hang-ups about using them.”

Over time, homeowners began using basements as secondary parts of the home, including recreation rooms, hobby rooms and extra bedrooms instead of just for storage, Mr. Sroka says. The typical basement in an older home was unfinished with small windows or well windows, he says.

In today’s new homes, the basement is left unfinished or as a pay-for option to have it finished, says Ronald Holbrook, owner of the Design Studio in Chevy Chase. He is a professor of interior design at the Georgetown campus of the Corcoran College of Art and Design.

“The guts are there. You just have to finish it up later,” he says.

A few things can be done to a basement to turn it into a living space. First, if a guest room is built into the basement, the room can be required by local code to have closets and egress windows to allow for fire escape, interior designer Peggy Fisher says.

Below-ground basements require minimal insulation because the earth provides an even temperature, says Mrs. Fisher, co-owner with her husband, Ken, of Fisher Group in Annandale. Insulation is necessary for basements that are partially above ground, according to the specific conditions of the site, she says.

In addition, Mrs. Fisher recommends enlarging windows to bring in more light or using artificial light to increase the livability of basement space.

“Often, there is not natural light, so you want to compensate with artificial lighting,” she says.

If the ceiling is low, however, ceiling lights can cast the ceiling into shadow, so different types of lights are preferable, Mrs. Fisher says. Options include floor lamps that direct light toward the ceiling, wall sconces, recessed lights, or pendants, which are lights that hang from the ceiling. Lights can be put on a dimmer or on several switches to control lighting levels, she says.

“Lighting can date a room more quickly than anything else,” Mr. Holbrook says.

Mr. Holbrook recommends using light-colored paint and combining incandescent and florescent lights, which together create an effect similar to daylight, he says. He also recommends track or recessed lighting.

The choice of color is another option to improve lighting, says Yanitza Tavarezl, interior design director at the Art Institute of Washington in Arlington. She recommends choosing a color that reflects light and using a lighter color on the ceiling than the walls to give the illusion of higher ceilings.

“When it was dark and grungy, it made sense that you could throw things down there,” Miss Tavarezl says, adding that with rising real estate prices, putting things into storage in order to use the basement can prove more economical.

“Realistically, a basement is a good space for a [supplementary] living area,” she says. “You want to maximize its use.”

Interior designers have a few suggestions for designing rooms for specific uses.

A play area, for example, is best served by using easy-care materials and surfaces and proper lighting for playing games, Mr. Sroka says.

“If it’s truly a play area, you want it to be practical. It’s really meant to be used,” he says.

Lawrence and Eva Bell of Chevy Chase converted the play area in their basement to office space, a project that was completed in January. Mr. Bell, a lawyer consultant, decided to start working from home now that his 18- and 20-year-old daughters do not use the room as often, Mrs. Bell says.

With the help of Mr. Sroka, the Bells redesigned the basement with one wall for displaying the art and pottery they collect and a media area with a sofa and two chairs, all in one large room. The Bells built a combined family and office library and a bathroom in two separate rooms.

“It’s very simple,” Mrs. Bell says. “It’s very pretty, and it’s very calm, very Zen-like.”

Another use for the basement is as a theater or media room.

The walls can be insulated with an acoustical wall covering and the ceiling with a double layer of drywall to prevent sound traveling outside of the room, Mr. Sroka suggests. Sound-absorbing carpeting, draperies and upholstery can be chosen, he says.

Mr. Sroka suggests the room have enough seating to allow easy viewing of the screen. The seating can be put on two levels, and recessed lighting or dimmers can be installed to achieve a theater effect, he says.

“If people plan to spend $100,000 for a medium-sized basement and less for a smaller basement, [about] $60,000 to $80,000, they probably could have something really fun that adds a lot of value to the home,” Mrs. Fisher says. “People should expect [that when] they do a basement, it will cost a reasonable amount of money.”

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