A huge decision on the basement: to dig or not to dig

Just a few days into work on our basement renovation, we had a big decision to make and only moments to make it.

Once I get all the old plans scanned in, I’m going to go back and fill in the details on the process for getting this project planned and underway and how we got here, but for now, we’ll roll along.

The first thing that started in the basement was obviously the demolition. We still had a poorly laid-out “bedroom” if you can call it that, a bathroom, and a few other random walls and whatnot. To save a few bucks, I did all of the demolition myself of the old walls, ceilings, studs, floor tiles, and everything else I could easily rip down with a hammer or just my own hands and muscled, rippling, buff arms (!) before getting the subcontractors in to start the framing and plumbing.

Just in case I forgot what to take down, I left myself a reminder painted on the wall around the spot that I kicked in one day a few months ago in a moment of frustration. (What was frustrating? Georgia football loss? Braves loss? DC United’s entire season? I don’t remember.)

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But after a long weekend of breaking stuff, I had the basement cleared out and ready to go for the remodel.

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So on the first day, the plumber came and started breaking up some of the concrete floor to run a new kitchen drain, the new drain for the new laundry room at the bottom of the stairs, and a drain for the bathroom — all tied into the existing drain line which we thought ran out of the front of the house, but as it turns out, runs out the back by the vent/drain stack.

When I came home that first day and saw the work and how easy they had broken up the entire concrete floor where they needed to to run new pipe, I had a brainstorm: we should at least ask our framing/gc guy how much he would charge to dig out our basement 6-12 inches.

Honestly, it’s something we thought about doing from day one, but just ruled it out mostly because we were already looking at an expensive project from start to finish and knew that it would probably just be prohibitively expensive. But I couldn’t resist at least finding out how much it would cost now that I knew how thin the concrete floor was.

The ceiling joists were somewhere around half a foot over my head in most of our basement, with the exception being where the beam runs down the middle of the ceiling that I have to just barely duck underneath. Which meant that we wouldn’t be able to just rent this to anyone. It would feel small for two people, no matter how well we used the space, and any tall folks were going to feel cramped no matter what and limit the pool of potential renters/housemates.

Pre-closing: basement inspection
Here’s our home inspector for the closing letting us know that there’s not a lot of headroom in the basement. Noted.

With construction already underway and framing due to start any day, we had to make a decision. Fast. I asked our architect/construction manager to check in with our GC about it the next day. Rachel and I looked at money and budget that night. We got the news the next day while I was at work: About 12-13% increase to the budgeted cost of the entire project. We consulted some family and other folks in the middle of the workday when I got the answer and decided to pull the trigger.

By the time I got home that afternoon, this was the view when I opened the kitchen door to the basement.

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I had called our real estate agent and friend to ask his opinion about it, figuring that he knows better than I do whether or not the extra few thousand dollars are worth it. He was out of town and didn’t get back to me until we had already started it, but his answer was instructive when he found out we’d decided in the affirmative.

“Glad you guys decided to do it. I was going to tell you that I would’ve loaned you the money if you’d decided against it for that reason. It’ll be worth every penny and you’ll be so glad you did.”

This also tacked on an extra month to the project by the time all was said and done. A few days to break up and remove all the concrete, couple days of digging and leveling, a day pouring concrete, and then working slowly on everything else other than the floor while trying to let it cure for a few weeks before putting walls up.

The good news is that our plumber didn’t change his bid at all with the tweak to the scope. They started work and then immediately had to stop for a few weeks and didn’t blink. Same for our electrician.

After testing out in a few spots to see how deep the footers were, We lucked out and had footers that were at least 7-8 inches down from the level of the old floor, so we didn’t have to work around them at all. The new floor ended up close to the level of the top of the footers.

Wide west first dig
southeast corner first dig
After removing the concrete and a little bit of digging….

south wall post dig
After the digging was mostly finished.

mech area dig cross section
And the mechanical room with a cross section so you can see how far down we went. We didn’t touch the mech room, but it’ll be inside a closet so the step up won’t ever matter.

northeast corner post dig footer detail
Here you can see how we lucked out — the tops of the footers turned out to be right around the level of where the new concrete would come up to, meaning no ledge around the new rooms or altering footers.

We ended up netting about 6-7 new inches of height in the room. We dug down somewhere close to 10-11 inches with several inches of concrete on top, for a net of about 6. The difference was huge — it felt like at least a foot of difference, even after the concrete went back in. For me, as a taller fella, walking around in the basement now felt like a totally different experience. After 3 years of being so used to walking with a slight crouch down there, I had to force myself to stand up straight. And it just felt huge.

We’ve been so glad that we decided to do this. It makes a world of difference with the quality of the final product.

After making an expensive decision on the fly while at work one day in what seemed like an instant, and about a week of digging and grading, we were ready for pouring the new concrete floor.

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