With renovated basement, Bethesda couple digs in to open up a home’s potential

May 16

Many homeowners spruce up their basements by installing game rooms, wine cellars, home bars, offices, workout rooms or media centers.

But retired architect Bob Schwartz and his wife, Carol, took basement renovation to a new level, excavating the bottom floor of their Bethesda home to create an extra foot of head room and dramatic floor-to-ceiling windows to illuminate what had been a dark, damp, dreary space.

While they kept the living room on the main level, they relocated the kitchen and dining room to the basement. To connect the public areas of the house, they had a section of the first floor removed, fencing off the opening with a decorative and functional wooden border creating a small-scale, residential atrium.

When they first toured it seven years ago, Carol, 71, dubbed the 2,700-square-foot rectangle house “a wreck.” It had a leaky basement, along with an ill-conceived and poorly executed addition off the back. Moreover, it was 1,000 square feet smaller than the house in the District where they were living.

“We wanted a house that we could fix up,” says Bob, 72. “Another couple was looking at the same house in Bethesda on the same day, and we overheard them saying they wanted a fixer-upper — but nothing this bad.”

Yet Bob said he saw potential.

“The house without the addition was about the right size, and the brick exterior shell was in good shape,” he says. The couple also liked the neighborhood and the location, which backs up to the Capital Crescent Trail. “We can walk to things in Bethesda, not use our cars and the view out the back looks to the southeast, so we could use some passive solar techniques,” says Bob.

The design goals for the renovation included a main-level master suite complete with adequate, customized storage and a “moon gate,” inspired by trips to Asia, a circular opening that Bob adapted into a window seat and storage solution.

Guest quarters for the couple’s visiting children would be configured on the upper level. When guests aren’t present, the second floor doubles as Bob’s home office. The previous addition to the house was scavenged for usable materials, then demolished.

To bring natural light into the basement, the Schwartzes instructed the contractors to excavate around the front and rear of the lower level, add larger windows and regrade the land so the exterior doors open to a landscaped back yard. Large windows on the back of the house provide a source of light and heat in the winter. The designer took advantage of using the earth as insulation by leaving the sides of the basement partially buried.

To make the house as energy-efficient as possible, Bob huddled with his HVAC subcontractor and shared his idea for a vent and fan system that would allow him to channel cool air from the basement to the upstairs in the summer, then reverse the flow for the winter, which would move warm air from upstairs down to the lower levels.

“The subcontractor told me he knew what I wanted to do, but there was a better way to accomplish it,” Bob says.

The contractor installed a new HVAC system and routed the main ducts into three separate trunks, one for each level of the house. He added a system of hand-activated diffusers that can be adjusted depending on outside temperatures, which allows the Schwartzes to control temperatures separately on all three levels.

“We don’t have to turn on the heat or the air conditioning nearly as much, and the house feels comfortable,” Bob says.

Other green touches include reusing as much of the original flooring as possible and using recycled lumber. The homeowners added a back porch and sheltered it with a green roof that helps control rainwater runoff. Rain is also channeled from downspouts to the extensive plantings in the back yard. Bob selected premium-grade, triple-pane windows for the home and insulated all the exterior walls with blown-in foam.

Although making homes more energy-efficient and green seems like a common-sense maneuver, it doesn’t always translate to higher resale values. “Green is the last thing that people will pay money for,” says real estate agent Jane Fairweather of Coldwell Banker. “It’s just not a major motivator for 85 percent of the people in the market for a new home.”

The Schwartzes weren’t keenly focused on resale and made other aesthetic decisions based on designing a house that worked for their tastes and lifestyle. Creative and unconventional choices, like removing a major chunk of the first floor of a home can limit the market when it’s time to sell a property. “People here in the D.C. market are often afraid of being too different,” Fairweather says.

According to data compiled by Remodeling Magazine, a basement remodeling project in the D.C. area recoups 79.7 percent of its costs, a higher percentage than what is generally achieved through a major kitchen renovation or a master suite addition. “People value basements that are finished and tend to not value basements that aren’t,” Fairweather says.

The Schwartzes’ reconfigured home features a landscaped front yard without any grass to cut, native plants and a slight incline that channels rain back toward the street. So far, the leaky basement is a thing of the past. The red brick is now a pale green with the front door painted in a contrasting orange. The exterior pop-out for the moon gate on the back of the house picks up the exterior orange accent.

The main level of the house has the feel of a small art gallery with casual seating for visitors and an intriguing view down to the dining room below. The master suite is thoughtful without being over-the-top. The moon gate offers a taste of the exotic by providing a framed view of the lush back yard.

The view from the main level pulls you downstairs past the custom woodwork, which is both functional and aesthetically pleasing. Downstairs feels comfortable, inviting, warm and very casual. The kitchen is compact and cozy but still big enough to accommodate an island. The tile floor on the lower level carries the flow of the space outdoors to sculpted retaining walls, a variety of plantings and a bubbling water feature.

The Schwartzes paid $650,000 for the house in 2007, invested another $350,000 and rented an apartment for nine months during the construction.

When asked if he had the chance to do anything different in the renovation, Bob says, “I think I would have added another moon gate off the dining room so we could have dinner and look through it. It’s like a gateway between two worlds.”

Scott Sowers is a freelance writer.

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