Part 4 – The basement

The basement in this house was a place you didn’t go. It was poorly lit, was damp, smelled musty, and if you didn’t watch where you were going, there was the very real risk of KO’ing yourself on one of the many steel radiator pipes down there. The massive 175,000 BTU boiler sat in the middle of the floor like a big orange monster. Little did it know its days were numbered. It was going to a nice new home up in the Muskokas (north of Toronto).
However, I digress. Early on, we recognized the potential of the basement, but the low pipes weren’t the only problem. The basement was built with the house and was probably never really intended as livable space (that concept came many years later) so if we to fully develop that area, we needed a plan. The headroom to the 1st floor floor-joists, was simply too low for comfortable living (they were barely over 6′-0″). Additionally, the house, being built on a slope actually had the basement dug at different levels. You have to sympathize with the labour force of 125 years ago. Digging a basement was long hard work. They didn’t have the mechanical means that we do today and the time it would have taken them to dig the hole for the basement and foundation was probably not counted in weeks but months, and probably lots of them!
So the fact that the basement wasn’t dug flat, and that the concrete on the floor was only 2″ thick (at most) is certainly forgivable.

Our plan was simple. Get rid of the pipes, the boiler, the horrible concrete floor and dig down far enough to make a proper basement. We knew that digging too far could put the foundation at risk, so we settled on a compromise between having to underpin the foundation, and having a non functional basement. We settled on 7′ 2″ for our final headroom which, after floors and drywall, will probably be around 7′ even. This meant that on the low side of the house (tall headroom) we only had to put down some fill and pour the slab, but on the high side, we would have to remove the slab and some of the dirt underneath and beside the foundation. To get to the height we wanted, we were looking at removing 30-50cm. (12-18″) of dirt, and that much dirt would leave the footings exposed, and increase the risk of a foundation failure. To ensure this would not happen we either had to underpin the foundation (digging under the foundation in sections 3-4ft at a time, pouring concrete, and then doing it again, and again), or pour a bench beside the foundation to brace it and prevent it from shifting. We opted for the bench, and although we would end up loosing 12″ of floor space to a height of 18″, this was easier and less risky than digging under the foundation 4ft at a time. By building the bench, we could also pour the entire bench in one shot, versus underpinning, which is would require small pours of concrete. The other advantage was that we didn’t have to disturb the back door elevations.

But the first thing we had to do was remove the old concrete floor, the 125 year old brick pillars (that were supposed to hold up the 1st floor), and 3 brick walls. This would effectively open up the entire basement. We installed 5 temporary jackposts to hold up the sagging 1st floor.

So, long and short of it is that you plug in the jackhammer, put on hearing protection and a mask, and start chopping up floors and walls.

The entire job of breaking up the floor and walls took about a day. The following day I rented a quickcut (diamond blade cutting saw used to cut concrete and rock) and cut a new opening in the back area of the basement. There was already a doorway, but it was very small. I decided that moving all the debris by hand wasn’t going to happen, so the only good solution was to rent a small narrow skidsteer and haul it all out by machine. Hence the new opening. We were planning a new entry door in this location so this new doorway had to be done anyway. It would also bring more light in to the basement suite when everything was done.


So we ordered an inert container (holds less volume than the big ones)  and started loading it up. Fortunately our dump doesn’t charge for inert rubble. As I was moving debris out into the dumpster I noticed a rather foul odour. I hadn’t noticed that the old sewer line (vitreous clay tile) was close the surface in the basement and I had run over it and it had cracked with the weight of the skidsteer. That had to be repaired right away, so a bit of a delay.

But this little faux pas caused us to stop and think for a moment. What was the condition of the sewer line, and more importantly where did it go, apart from out into the street? Before you proceed, I encourage you to see the very large subsection on “the sewer adventure”.

So, back to the basement (did you read the sewer adventure? Not too late. Link to it.. here ) Now that the sewer was repaired and the new water line installed, we could continue grading the basement floor to proper height. I brought in a truck load of gravel and rented a fantastic little skidsteer from Home Depot.

A few days of grading, digging and moving gravel into the house, we had a terrific level basement ready to install the plumbing rough-in.

Plumbing rough-in

Once it was inspected, we were good to go with the concrete work. Before we did this, I had a very important job to do. One of the reasons that the basement had never really been used was that it was damp, and when it rained in weeped a small amount of water. As we all know, moisture in a basement is all too common, but also very undesirable. There are really only 2 solutions to the problem. Drainage (weeping tile) on the outside, or on the inside. Outside involves digging up everything around the foundation, installing a drainage plane (a water resistive barrier), the weeping tile and then back filling with gravel. It is expensive, labour intensive, and completely destroys the gardens around a house. The inside option is very similar, in that a water resistive barrier is installed, but it is attached to the inside of the house, and then any moisture that enters the house rolls down the barrier (it has dimples on it), and then is carried away by a weeping tile pipe to a sump pit and then pump outside the house. This is a good system, especially if you already have the basement dug up, which of course we had. So the next step was to install the dimple board against the wall, and run it down over the foundation so that any moisture would carry on down the wall, move behind the new bench we were going to build, and into the weeping tube and into the sump pit. No more moisture getting into the basement.

I enlisted my brother Dan to help me, and I know he’s going to regret helping me, because I keep sharing this awesome picture of him practicing his veterinary skills (imagine if you will, a cow’s backside).

I hired Mike Diehl to form the bench and pour the floor. It was a great choice, as Mike turned out to be a terrific concrete guy, and also very honest. After I had all the wall water barrier setup, he came in, formed the bench, set the rebar and then we poured concrete.

Mike came back a couple of days later, and stripped the forms off. It was then my turn again to get things ready. The next phase involved insulating the floor, vapour barrier, wire mesh and in-floor heating tubes. We decided that a basement floor could benefit from a heated floor and as this solution is not very expensive, we went ahead and installed it. We found a terrific supplier at the Millbank Country Hardware (just north of Stratford) who was more than willing to sell us the parts for the install. His prices were excellent and he rented me the wire mesh crimpers and the roll spooler (for unrolling a 1000′ ft roll of tubing). This is significant, because we tried to give our business to other suppliers (before we knew about Millbank), and all of them refused to do business with us. Why, you ask? Because I wasn’t a plumber. Are you kidding?? We ran into this problem back in BC as well. The supply houses trying to protect the trades. Well, it’s not working. With the introduction of all the big box hardware stores there is no way this can happen. You would think that they would be more interested in some revenue. Alas, no. Thank goodness for the internet and search engines!

So, I sent the plans over to the supplier, and the next day I had the layout for the tubing (not that I needed this, as I’ve done lots of them, but I did want the official piece of paper to show the inspectors), and complete list of supplies I would need, and I started insulating and laying pipe.

Everything was ready. The installation was inspected, the pressure test done and no issues reported. I cleaned everything off the floor and once again we were ready for the concrete.

And after the floor was finished, the whole basement had a new feel and look!

For now, we were done working in the basement. The next step was to order and bring in all the rigid insulation for exterior walls and roof. We moved over 8000 sq ft of 3″ rigid polyiso insulation into the basement. It was an immense pile that completely filled the basement up to the rafters. Gradually we will move it to the upper floors for use there and in the attic.

On to the next step, holding up the second floor, so we can dismantle the first floor.


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