basement construction tips and tricks
Mastering Basement Construction

Mastering Basement Construction: Expert Tips on Framing, Insulation & Ductwork

Foreword by Ian Thompson, Editor

Mastering Basement Construction: Expert Tips on Framing, Insulation & Ductwork

Today, we’re taking you on a tour of a unique basement construction project right in the heart of Austin, Texas, a city known more for its live music than its basements. Read into that what you will.

Our host for today is Matt Risinger, a seasoned builder with a knack for unconventional projects. He invites his architect friend Steve to join him on a journey down under, into the depths of a project that took several months of excavation due to Austin’s rocky terrain. Their mission? To find out whether they’ve nailed the art of basement construction in a city that rarely sees them.

In the video, they discuss their approach to building in challenging conditions, the importance of natural light, and the innovative use of a large sliding glass door to illuminate the basement. They also delve into the details of the basement’s design and its various features, like a home exercise room and a unique concrete sill pan.

Matt and Steve also discuss the practicalities of basement construction, such as the importance of drainage systems and the use of fiberglass ties to prevent rusting. They also touch on the concept of ‘aging in place’, highlighting the installation of an elevator for the long-term convenience of the homeowners.

For me basement construction is a last resort, when we can’t build higher or wider, because the cost to construct is usually very high and slow. Anything under the ground usually leads to problems and maintenance, which can lead to headaches. But, as usual, make sure your contractor is experienced and has a high attention to detail and care.

Over to Matt and Steve.

Basement Construction Tips and Tricks

Mastering Basement Construction: Video Transcript

Hey Steve, welcome to Texas, my friend! Matt, we’re going down, we’ve got a basement episode for these guys, Steve. So, we are in Austin, Texas, and we do not do many basements here, as you know.

This is a rocky town, and at my house, we had about 6 inches of soil before it’s solid rock, and we actually had to excavate for several months to put this basement in. But I think we’ve got a couple of details that you guys are going to like. No matter where you’re building a basement, I’m curious, since we don’t do these very often,

I want to get Steve’s input – did we do it right? Did we not? At the end of the video, how about that? I’m ready, today’s build show is all about basements, let’s get going.

All right, Steve, let’s start here. First off, I like whenever I’m building a basement to have some light into the basement, and so we’re working with a great architect, a local architect, design trait here, who said, “You know what? We want more than just a little light, we want a lot of light.”

So, this light, well, that you’re seeing here with this giant sliding glass door, actually gets a Viewrail staircase up and into the second floor, and then this room we just came out of is like a home exercise room at this house.

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One detail from my team that I really like was instead of doing a normal sill pan, like you might see in above-grade, we actually made a sill pan out of the concrete on this job, so that this really nice view collection door from Weathershield would sit down into that, and we’re not worried about water getting in. That’s a great detail to manage, and I’m assuming the concrete is probably the finish, right?

This is going to be a stained concrete finish. Okay, so I’m a lover of light, Wells. Whether you do 6 or 8 or 12, it’s an incremental cost, you already paid to have the excavator here, and they’re doing the work, you might as well go for it.

Access, a lot of building inspections and a lot of jurisdictions now are asking for additional ways out of a basement, since it’s not just that main stairway. We’re doing a project in Indiana, they’re actually making us put a well in as a second means of egress from the basement, because they know people are using the basements a lot more.

Yeah, makes sense. Right, two other things I want to point out too, Steve. I’m sure you saw this, this will get a grade on it, and this ties into our sump pump. So, we’re not worried about water backing up, and then I thought this was a really great design too, this is a board-formed concrete that we do a lot here in Texas.

And you’ll also notice that our form ties, instead of metal form ties, we use fiberglass ties, they come in gray. So, when you cut those form ties off, you really don’t see any of the metal form ties, and there’s nothing to rust on that. It looks really good, that. That’s pretty, you got like a little bit of wabi-sabi, as they say, which I think is a – I’m thinking that’s a Japanese term for it’s not quite perfect, because board-formed, you never know what you get until you take the cake out of the mold.

Yeah, it reminds me of little, you know, brutalist architecture. Right, there’s a lot of buildings where that aesthetic of kind of concrete guesswork is part of the style. That’s right. I forgot to mention too, we’ve got a drain and a secondary drain. This will get cut flush, so we actually have two means of getting water out of this space.

But as we move to the rest of the space, something I think is really interesting about this project, we’re thinking a lot about aging in place in this house, so we’ve got an elevator going in that’ll take us from the basement to the middle and all the way to the top floor. My clients are not elderly at this point, but they’re thinking they’re going to be in this house for a long time, and I love that long-term thinking.

Yeah, I mean, that certainly, we’re doing probably half the projects we do now have elevators in them, is that right? Yeah, it is. It is. Certainly, the prices have come down, or people have just accepted it as, “I need a powder room, I need a kitchen sink, I need an elevator.” It’s like, just slowly becoming integral to a lot of the designs.

And you know, for those of you out there that are saying, “Doing your first basement construction or second basement, you don’t do them a lot,” you put elevators, got to remember to have that elevator pit. And I notice your elevator guy around the corner, they’re going to put the elevator equipment under the stairs.

They actually recess that, so if you have a hydraulic leak or something, it’s not spewing out into the room, it’s contained in that recess, which is always a great idea.

Always like that. If you come around the corner, Steve, I’m proud of my frame carpenter, who realized, “Look, I’ve got a steel beam here, and in a basement construction, you know, that steel beam, it’s possible there could be some condensation.”

Automatically, he put a sealer in between our studs and our steel beam here, and that sealer is really just a way to get a capillary break, and we’ll use that on a slab-on-grade house, but I’ll also point out that he used that under my bottom plates on this house.

Yeah, you can see it in a number of locations, which I thought was a – I mean, it’s is pretty much a standard detail for us. Yeah, it’s a great way to go. It just gives a little bit of insulation value.

Now, Steve, when we come over here, this is – I thought a great detail as well by my team. We’re walking from kind of a family room space into this downstairs bathroom, and did you notice the lip that I step down into? Yeah, and I – I mean, I was, you know, Jason’s doing a really great job here out, it’s the project manager, and I really like that.

You know, it’s one of those things where you can come in here and you say, “Well, we’re going to do a tile floor, we’ll just do an elevated threshold there to make up the difference.” But this is a really nice house, it’s got a really nice, contemporary style, and I really appreciate when those details get carried all the way through the project.

Yeah, yeah. And I also like to point out that he not only recessed for this area that has the vanity and the toilet, but he recessed for the shower area, which is a great detail. Now, I’m a big fan of the Schluter systems and all their pans, but why not have a little bit of gravity helping you out as well, right, with that recess? What do you think about this sub-terra, that is the way to go?

Yep, so this is a GPS foam, if you’re not familiar, and this is right up against our concrete wall, and then we flat framed in front of that. You can hear the echo now that we’re in the basement, can’t you?

Yeah, there’s a little bit there, but but certainly a really great way to go, insulating right up against that concrete with the insulation. You give a little raceway there, yeah, for sure.

Speaking of insulation, my plumber does this now automatically. You’ll notice that all the hot lines in the house are insulated, and I’m curious on your take, you know, here in Texas, we typically have kind of higher inlet water temperatures, we don’t get much colder than about 50°. Should we be insulating our cold lines as well?

You know, it’s funny, when we do passive houses, I believe it’s one of their requirements that all the hot water and cold water lines, because they are – you know, down here, you have some humidity every once in a while, so you never know. It might only be one or two or three days out of the year, but again, you know, I tell people, you’re building a custom house, this isn’t a cheap house, it’s somebody’s dream, dreams cost money.

Yeah, that’s right. No doubt. Quick tip from me, I actually at my house had my kids insulate both my hot and my cold lines. I gave them a couple boxes of pipe insulation, some zip ties, and I paid them 20 bucks, and they had a ton of fun. So, that could be a great tip for you as a homeowner, if you’re watching this instead of a builder, get in there and do that yourself.

One of the things I tell a John contractor, the or the plumber, about the amount of time it takes to insulate all those is about the amount of time would take to figure out what the problem is when you get mold growing at the bottom of the drywall.

Great point, great point. Actually, I do want to I do want to address that. I think that’s worth saying. You’ll notice on any construction job, there’s always going to be a little bit of lumber that has some kind of blackish stuff growing on it. You can’t do a house and have it frame and have the frame sit here for four, five, six months and not see some of that. Let’s give some common sense advice for that, Steve.

I think you and I are on the same page of this. I went through the mold crisis 20 years ago. I think for a normal person who maybe doesn’t have crazy sensitivities, all you need to do when you see that is potentially go in with a product like Concrobium, give it a quick scrub, and then you don’t need to worry about it again, because this is in the condition space of the house.

If we don’t have a moisture issue, that’s never going to be a problem for us. We could lick that now, and it wouldn’t hurt us, and it’s not going to grow unless it has a source of water. Would you agree with that?

Yeah, I would totally agree, and I mean, that’s not, it looks a lot worse than it actually is. I agree. Let’s keep going. I got a couple other details I want to show you. If you look up, Steve, these trusses are from our friends at Builder First Source.

Yep, and when we were working with the architect on the design, we said, “You know, we’d actually like to do a 24-inch deep truss in this basement construction.” We’ve got some steel in this basement construction, and we also have a lot of ductwork going through, and I’m so glad now that you can see the ductwork, that we went with that higher truss space. What do you think about that?

Yeah, I mean, there’s certainly an incremental cost to go from, say, the 14 or 16 that would be required, to the 24, but again, creating what I would call a manufactured basement, right, to run all that ductwork. It makes your client happy, ’cause they come down here, there’s no soffits, there’s no crazy little L-soffit to get ductwork, everything’s contained in that manufactured basement.

Yeah, that’s really nice. What do you think about my ceiling height down here? I’m curious.

Ceiling height is great too. We’ve been doing a lot, I mean, it used to be 8 feet, and then it’s 9 feet now, 10 feet. We’re doing a house where we have a golf simulator, yeah, so we’re doing, you know, 12-foot ceilings in that. So, yeah, it’s downstairs space for us. We’ve been doing basement construction for years, but it’s become that, “Well, we’re building the basement, might as well use it” kind of space, and we’ve migrated, you know, a third of the house is going down in the basement now.

That’s really cool. Another reason why builders are going down, Steve, is for us here in the city of Austin, this house is right in city limits. We have an FAR requirement, if you don’t – if the builder watching this doesn’t know, that’s floor-to-area ratio.

It got implemented years ago when we had this “McMansion ordinance” that got enacted, and so we can’t build above-grade any more than, I think the rule is, 4 times your square footage of your lot size. So, let’s say you have a 10,000-foot lot, that means I can only build 4,000 square feet above grade.

There’s a few exemptions you get, like 200 feet of garage, it’s exempted, and a few other things, but in general, that means, like, for this house with a two-car garage, I couldn’t have built any more than 3,800 feet of living space above grade. Actually, I want to say this lot’s a little smaller than 10,000, my point is though, anything below grade is exempted from that.

Yeah, so for us, normally, we wouldn’t build a basement construction, because it’s really rocky here, we don’t need a basement, there’s no frost line here. However, we’re able to build all this space and get away from that floor-to-area requirement, and now I can build whatever I want. So, I can get that downstairs media room, that downstairs exercise room, a meditation room, an extra bathroom, whatever I can build that all below grade, so that’s another big reason why we did this pretty large basement construction in an area that doesn’t normally get them.

Yeah, one of the things I noticed, you know, when we’re looking up at the trusses there, I know it’s Jeff, right? Yeah, yeah. So, Jeff, those guys, I follow him on Instagram, he does a great job. He does, doesn’t he? But you know, one of the things that I wanted to point out is, they put mastic on all of the duct joints here, and you don’t – you know, a lot of guys will sit there and say, “Oh, mechanical guy will save a little bit of bucks on that, and we won’t do that mastic.”

basement construction tips and tricks
Mastering Basement Construction

But the reality is, is that all of these rooms down here have a design load and a design flow, and the only way you can get that is to make sure that the ductwork is sealed up and nice and tight. So, when I see that, I know that immediately, that’s a mechanical contractor I don’t have to worry about, right, because he’s doing it right.

Yep, the metal ducts always make me smile, and Steve, I know it’s a little more common in your area of the world to see metal ducts, very uncommon down here. You know, this is easily 10 to 15,000-plus upgrade to go with the sheet metal ducts rather than flex duct. I think it’s worth every penny.

I mean, the longevity of those ducts is at least double or triple what a flex duct would be, and if I ever need to clean them, they’re very cleanable, they’re just a much better product. So, I always go metal, and I tell people, “Look, when you’re bidding your house, put that money in the budget, don’t expect that to be the same price as flex duct or as a standard bid.”

Yeah, a lot of guys up by us, they run, it’s hard pipe for the better part of it, and then usually it’s like the last six feet they’ll switch to flex. I don’t, and I don’t know if it’s true or not, maybe I can ask Jeff that next time I see him, but there’s this understanding that that last 6 feet, the air will start to tumble, but it’ll just be quieter coming out of the register with the flex duct.

That’s right, that’s typically what we’re doing on our jobs is, we’re saying, “The last 10 feet, we’re going to drop that last 10 feet in flex,” and it’s going to quiet it down, so it’s not hard pipe all the way to the register. It’s usually the last 10 feet or less, we’re trying not to make it more than 10. I will say, though, that we will use flex on returns to save a little bit of money.

I’ve already got a filter happening at the return, if there was something that was growing in there or was a problem, so I’m not worried about it as much as I am on supply ducts. Supplies are the ones that we really say adamantly, it’s got to be metal on the supply side.

Let’s end here, since we were talking about mechanics. This is my mechanical room on this house. You notice anything on this one, too?

There’s a black pipe, which I’m making an assumption on. It’s a good assumption, what is that?

That is the floor drain, probably.

That’s right, you got it, yes sir. Big fan of floor drains, we’ve got a drop down here of a 2×4 size, so this is an inch and a half drop. Interestingly enough, though, this client opted to tile in here, and then where we were standing before is going to be a space that’s going to be stained concrete, so we still have a recess, not as much of a recess, but I really like having that security of having a floor drain in a mechanical space. You got to think about that ahead of time, though, that’s not always easy to add.

You know, one of the other thing I’m standing here, I don’t know if it’s Jason or if it’s your framer, but when I see, you know, shims like this, my pushing it right was it Bill?

Yeah, it’s Bill, yeah. So, I’ve met him a number of times, just a great guy, but when you’re putting up a rigid board and the frame, you want that rigid board to be in contact with the concrete wall, and so many houses I go in, and you know, you again, people check off the box, say, “Oh, we got the rigid foam,” you come here, and the thing’s moving about, you know, 3/4 of an inch.”

So, the fact that they came back, shimmed it, and made sure that it’s really tight against that wall, you know, again, it’s – you see things like that, and then it’s like, “Okay, maybe I don’t have to really look hard.” Yeah, these guys are doing a great job.

Last tip that I will give you on that, for my builder friends out there, and that’s where this one comes from that you mentioned, is we use the same subs over and over and over again. So, for instance, Jason, my project manager here, has only worked for me for about a year, but Bill, my frame carpenter, has been with me, you know, just shy two decades, right?

And so, now I’ve got a guy who’s been around my jobs, knows what to do, takes the time to do it right. By the way, I pay him on a cost-plus basis too, so we look together at the plans and decide how much it’s going to cost to frame it, based on previous jobs and how many weeks they took, and then I plug in his 2024 rates that we’ve negotiated in January for that, and that’s how much we put in the budget.

Yeah, and then I tell my clients, “Look, if it takes him an extra week because we changed a detail because we moved a window, you’re going to pay for that, but you’re going to pay for that at a very reasonable rate because I’ve negotiated that, and we’re incentivizing him, the guy in the job, to do a really good job and to make sure he doesn’t speed through a detail ’cause he’s worried about being underwater on his bid price.”

I’m going to expand on that thought because, you know, working, again, I have a bunch of builders that I work with and their subs. One of the things that’s really good about that is, the building industry is about relationships, right? So, you have a good relationship with Bill, but I bet you Bill and Jeff have a really good relationship, 100% right.

So, when Jeff says, “Hey, Bill, we have this, you know, in the way, can I get some blocking up there?” Bill just says, “Hey, Jim and Tommy, get over there and get Jeff whatever blocking,” and they solve each other’s problems. They’re not coming back to Jason, the project manager, and saying, “I need the framer to do this,” and then he’s got to take time to do it. He’ll just walk over and say, “Hey, Bill, can you help me out in this corner?”

That’s right, I love it. For sure, it’s – it’s relationships, good stuff. Steve, last question, how do we do? You know, we don’t do many Texas basements. We don’t do many basement construction’s at all in Texas, so I’d be proud to call this a basement on my project, and I think Jason out here, you know, with his oversight, I think he did – I walked it a little with him, so his insight into what he’s doing, these aren’t – these aren’t lucky guesses. Jason’s doing a great job, caring details and thought.

Yeah, for sure. Guys, if you’re not following Steve already, go check him on Instagram, Stepen Basic Architect. We’ll put a link to that below, and by the way, Steve, the only architect I’ve ever met who’s willing to break out an overhead camera, show you his plans, and now he’s using this new Vibe board where he can show his plans, he can draw and write it up, so he’s looking at job sites that he’s designed, and then he’s going back to his office and showing you the details.

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