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Basements Are Back : If you can't go up or out, go down.


In the four-bedroom house they were building, Kathy and Howard Gillman wanted a gym, sauna, wet bar, laundry, maid's quarters, a billiard room and a darkroom. But these wish-list features would have taken up their whole back yard.

Instead, they built a basement.

"I'm from New York, so I thought of a basement when it came to needing more space," he said. "We ended up with a good-sized pool outside, a nice back yard and a lot of living space in the basement."

The basement is back, bigger and better than ever, in Southern California.

The trend started on the Westside of Los Angeles. As land prices soared and cities there enacted building codes to limit how much of a lot could be covered by a house, more and more homeowners opted to go down instead of out.

Since then, the movement to build basements, though still mainly confined to high-end housing, has grown.

"Economics is the driving force," said Dave Shaw, a Redondo Beach engineer and general contractor who has built about 30 basements along the Strand.

"When property values went up, people wanted to build the maximum livable area possible, but on most lots you can only go so high, and you can only build over so much of the pad. If you go below grade, you can get a whole other floor."

Some people want basements for such luxuries as screening rooms, indoor swimming pools, ballrooms, discos, hair salons, racquetball and handball courts. Other folks just want a spare room for a hobby or a place for the kids to play.

The decision to dig down for such rooms has even spread to the desert.

"Traditionally, nobody had a basement in the desert," said Rancho Mirage architect Steve Chase, "but now I'm doing three projects with basements, and the biggest reason here is that the cost to go down hasn't changed as much as the cost of land."

At Bel-Air Crest, a Westside Los Angeles development of custom and production homes, the basement is a standard option in three models.

"We show them as storage in our plans, but they are a good size--400 to 500 square feet, and some have been converted into offices or studies," said Suzy Hillshafer, director of residential and commercial sales for the developer, Goldrich & Kest.

The homes are priced from about $1 million each, a good $100,000 more than models without basements.

Basements aren't cheap. It's easier to lay down a slab than to excavate, and excavation brings extra costs. So, although some architects and builders say that basements can be built--as they are on the East Coast--in houses of every price range, basements in Southern California are being built so far primarily in expensive homes.

"Basements aren't usually something you would include in a budget project," said Hermosa Beach architect Jerry Compton. "About half the expense is doing the excavation and carting the dirt away. Then there's the cost of where to drop the dirt. Add to that the cost of footings and shoring."

Shaw, the Redondo Beach engineer, said it costs $7 to $10 a square foot to build a foundation at grade level, "but if you go down with the foundation, you're probably talking of doubling that when you include the concrete, masonry and waterproofing."

The price doubles again when building a basement under an existing house, said Erik Phelan, a Redondo Beach engineer/contractor/developer who builds about three basements a month.

There are other considerations, however, such as getting more yard and a smaller roof line.

Architect Gus Duffy designed his first basement in the Beverly Hills flats about five years ago in response to a neighborhood outcry about losing open space. Since then, he has designed many more homes with basements.

"If you take 15,000 square feet and distribute it in two stories, you get 7,500 square feet per floor, but if you take three stories, you get 5,000 square feet per floor and the other 2,500 square feet is trees and yard," he said.

"Basements aren't particularly expensive to build as compared with regular, two-story houses, because the roof on a house with a basement is a third smaller, and the level of finish isn't usually the same as rooms on the upper floors."

Santa Monica architect Ted Karonis, who has designed at least 15 basements, said, "Maybe 25% to 30% of the cost factor of a house is in the foundation, and it only takes another $2 to $3 a square foot to excavate, so it's not that major of an expense."

It's even less when the basement is smaller than the footprint of a house, as many so-called "California basements" are, or if the house is built on a slope, reducing the amount of excavation that is necessary, he noted.

Hillside basements also have easier access to natural light, but architects are bringing daylight into basements by using such design tricks as raising a house by a few feet so part of its basement is above grade.

Dr. Sy Morrow, who is building new houses with basements in Santa Monica with his son, Paul, uses light wells, which function like skylights, and underground courtyards to bring in light.

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