Finishing a Basement

We’re about to embark on another project at our house. We’re making over our cellar (aka basement) as a laundry room and storage area. Often the cellar is overlooked as an entire additional floor of living space in a Brooklyn Brownstone. While you might not want to sleep in a subterranean room, it’s a great place for a gym, laundry room, craft or artist studio, or even entertainment area. But how do you turn the damp scary head-knocking space into a useful area? Our space is going to be a DIY project but sometimes the project can be much more involved. Increasing ceiling height, reducing moisture, and finishing the space can be as involved as renovating upstairs.

Ceiling Height

Do you need to stand with your head tilted to the side in your cellar? One way to really make it feel like a part of the house is to increase the height of the ceilings. It’s very unlikely you’re going to move the ceiling up, so the best option is usually to dig down! We’ve heard from a lot of homeowners in Brooklyn looking to do that, and while fortunately we don’t have to in our cellar, we wanted to share what we learned about the process and possibilities.

This is a project for the professionals. You usually need an architect to file plans, city approval, and likely structural engineer depending on how deep you want to go. They will start by digging probe holes in the slab at the foundation to understand how low it goes. You can’t dig your cellar down past the bottom of your house’s foundation. So sometimes the foundation will need to be strengthened, a process called underpinning. Another technique is called bench footing, which will provide the necessary support so that the foundation isn’t compromised. The existing slab will be demolished, tons (literally) of soil will be removed, and the foundation will be reinforced (with the method of choice mentioned above) and a new slab poured. Now with your new high cellar ceiling (or lower slab) you carry on finishing the rest of the project.

There were many jobs in our basement that we did with the initial renovation


If you’re going to finish your basement with new electrical, flooring, plaster, and paint, you’ll want it to be as dry as possible. The place where the most water tends to penetrate the foundation walls is in the back. The sides are typically other houses, and the front is usually mostly cement to prevent much water from entering. To truly make the back wall of your foundation impenetrable you’ll want to dig down in the backyard to expose the entire back of the foundation wall. There are many waterproofing techniques that can be used including building a secondary masonry wall or using a waterproofing tar like material. Once the back of the wall is water tight the trench can be filled back in.

The interior of the foundation walls can be repointed all the way around to make sure they are as water tight as possible. It can also leave them clean and tidy if you want to keep them exposed for a subterranean look and feel.

Finally, add a permanent plumbed dehumidifier to keep the air and walls dry.

Inspiration laundry stations for our basement makeover.
1st photo by Julie Carlson for Remodelista

2nd photo by Daniel Kanter for Manhattan Nest

Finish materials

If you want the cellar to feel more like a real room like the rest of the house you can drywall, plaster, and paint. Typically a studded wall is built all the way around in front of the foundation walls. Separate rooms can be created for the utilities to keep them out of the way of the living space. Many people choose to use cement boards instead of drywall just to further protect the space from moisture problems.

You can add electrical outlets all the way around for any appliances and recessed lighting can keep the ceilings feeling high.

On the floors, depending on what you plan to use the space for, you can do anything from putting a functional coat of drylok paint or laying tile or other finishes on the floor. Hardwood floor is not usually recommended because of the potential for humid and wet conditions, even with the precautions we mentioned.

One of the things we need more of in our basement is storage space and a designated area for tools and supplies


Most houses in Brooklyn have the main sewer pipe along one of the foundation walls about 3-5 feet off the cellar floor. This means that other than a washer and dryer, which can connect to the sewer through a hose, most plumbing will require a pump since waste will need to travel up to reach the sewer pipe. NYC code allows for a 2 piece bathroom, sink and toilet, but in our experience showers or bathtubs are not allowed.

Before we get too many ideas for our space, we better get to work on our DIY project. Happy renovating!

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