Like many Washingtonians who live in older, urban homes, Andrew Selee and Alejandra Vallejo dreamed of renovating their dark, dingy basement. But it wasn’t until a flood two years ago ruined a stack of favorite books that they jumped into action.

The couple and their 8-year-old daughter, Lucia, had already been feeling short of space. They had started going to open houses near their 1916 Mount Pleasant rowhouse, as they didn’t want to move far from the neighborhood they loved. At one property they saw a beautifully finished basement that was integrated with the rest of the house. They realized that a clever, kid-friendly redesign of their own lower level could give their house a new lease on life.

“We were looking for more space in our old house that didn’t have lots of options for expansion,” Selee says. “We needed a space to live in and enjoy, part playroom, part office, part gym and part family room so we could all be together. It seemed a tall order for a very small space. It actually didn’t seem realistic, but we were hopeful.”

About the same time, their basement toilet overflowed, spilling water throughout the space. As they removed soaked carpet, the conversation turned to not what kind of floor covering would replace it, but how they could finally fix the basement. A friend recommended Johana Lukauskis, an architectural designer at Remodella Healthy in Gaithersburg, who specializes not only in renovations but also in helping homeowners rid homes of mold, asbestos and other toxins. Through her exacting design, the formerly boring basement became a cool family hub with a play zone for kids, a spa shower, and rows and rows of shelves for all those books. The heated tile floor is comfortable in all seasons, and the new laundry room is orderly and fresh. Modern touches include a hanging bubble chair and ethanol fireplace. Vallejo, who is from Mexico, brought back magenta and tangerine pillows from a trip there, and they inspired the accent colors in the entertainment room. “I feel like the space in our house doubled,” Vallejo says. “I just love it down there.”


The before and after floorplans of the Selee-Vallejo basement. (Johana Lukauskis; The Washington Post )

The plan was hatched in June 2014, when Lukauskis, 40, met with Selee, executive vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and Vallejo, a writer, both 48, to discuss plans for a better organized basement.


Lucia’s playroom in the Selee-Vallejo basement is a popular place for after-school fun. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

The space was not unlike that of many homes built in the first half of the 20th century: a chopped-up, semi-finished dark place. There was a concrete floor with old carpeting, a cramped bathroom, and a washer and dryer plopped next to a furnace in an area with exposed pipes. It included a makeshift home office, an exercise machine, a futon, a play area filled with toys, stacks of boxes and luggage, and sagging shelves stuffed with plastic storage bins.

When the group gathered at the dining room table, Vallejo produced a wish list she and her husband had come up with for their dream basement: spa shower, double home office, dog washing sink, toy storage, mini-bar, fireplace, guest room capability, fitness area and space for hundreds of books.


Before the renovation, the living area exited into an outdoor storage area under the house’s front stairs. (Johana Lukauskis)

Behind the frosted doors in the Selee-Vallejo basement is an office and workout area. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

One of Vallejo’s friends who came to the meeting was dubious when she heard the litany of requests. She quipped that Lukauskis was a designer, “not a magician.” They all had a good laugh, but Lukauskis wasn’t deterred. “I realized we would have to maximize [the space], inch by inch,” Lukauskis says. “I told them: ‘I love challenges, and I won’t say no. I will try and resolve every issue.’­ ”

An 8-year-old friend of Lucia’s came up with another room for the list: a tiny playhouse under the stairs where kids could hang out “and hide from their moms.”

Lukauskis needed more space. She was able to add about 150 square feet to the existing 600 by incorporating and insulating a storage area under the exterior front stairs and carving out the playhouse under the interior stairs. The work also entailed replacing the HVAC system and upgrading electricity and plumbing.


Andrew Selee and Alejandra Vallejo’s outdoor storage area before the renovation. (Johana Lukauskis)

Now, the gym inhabits the right side of the former outdoor area sharing the space with the office. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

But the first thing Lukauskis did was to arrange for a professional inspection for mold and asbestos. An inspector took samples all over the basement, found a bit of both and removed it. Vallejo says it’s made a big difference in sinus and respiratory issues for the family.

Lukauskis created a series of small rooms and added more light. She used white paint punched up with bright accent colors and installed recessed lights. The home office has desks with lots of shelves plus a small gym; the entertainment lounge has deep library built-ins plus a fridge, microwave and a cafe table with stools; Lucia’s playroom (decorated with a cherry blossom tree wall decal) has a futon that can serve as a guest bed; the hallway has built-in storage closets; the bathroom offers a steam shower and a custom-made vanity with a quartz top and stone vessel sink; and the laundry room has a high-efficiency washer and dryer, utility sink (Freckles the dachshund comfortably gets a bath in it), and a drying rack.


Lukauskis designed an adorable playhouse for Lucia and her friends under the main staircase. The cherry blossom tree wall decal is from Simple Shapes. The playhouse was painted with the Benjamin Moore colors Lady Liberty, at top, Hot Spice and Golden Nugget. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post; paint chips courtesy of Benjamin Moore)

Lukauskis kept to a tight budget for furnishing the space, shopping mostly at Ikea. She used indoor/outdoor fabrics and washable slipcovers to keep it kid- and dog-friendly.

The family uses the space in many ways: tossing Super Bowl parties, enjoying the fireplace while reading, hosting out-of-town guests on the futon. “It’s so versatile,” Vallejo says. Selee is usually there working in the morning and brewing a cappuccino before he leaves for the office. In the afternoon, Lucia and her friends descend on the playhouse, and in the evening, Vallejo might use the exercise equipment and take a relaxing steam shower.

The flood now seems like a bad dream.

“We all have our own space down there, and yet we are also there together,” Selee says.

“Our basement went from being an afterthought to the central living space of our home.”


The basement is furnished with lots of color splashes and modern touches, including this retro bubble chair. The color used are Benjamin Moore’s Twilight Magenta, at top, Gray Mirage and Tangelo. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post; paint chips courtesy of Benjamin Moore)
Tips from a pro on renovating your basement

Here are five suggestions from designer Johana Lukauskis if you are considering a renovation of your basement.

1. Do a health inspection. Hire a professional to inspect and remediate your space, especially if you have an old house. Basements are particularly prone to dampness and mold. Discuss any family health issues you may have. This is the time to take care of long-term problems.

2. Choose materials wisely . Build with materials that prevent mold growth. Avoid carpet and wood floors in basements. These can encourage mold down the road, which may trigger allergies.

3. Maximize storage with built-ins . Lukauskis installed bookshelves in the Mount Pleasant project that were extra deep so two rows of books could fit on each shelf. Other storage cabinets were built in throughout the basement wherever there was a bit of space.

4. Use doors to define spaces. Choose your doors carefully, and if possible, use them to let light through. In this project, Lukauskis chose frosted sliding doors, pocket doors and French doors with small windows.

5. Install a heated floor. This saves energy and makes a basement feel cozy. Each room can have its own thermostat. She used the Ditra-Heat electric floor-warming system with 12-by-24-inch porcelain tiles.

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