When the coronavirus pandemic forced families to stay home, many had to reconsider how to make the best use of their space. For some, renovating or rethinking what they wanted in a basement proved to be the answer for obtaining the extra room needed for work, study, exercise and entertainment.
“Basements used to just be a nice rec room that you’d send the kids down to,” says Mark Kaufman, principal of GTM Architects in Bethesda. “Now clients want to turn them into more sophisticated spaces: gym areas, nice offices, even golf simulators. Everyone is trying to get every square inch out of their property.”
Here’s a look at four homeowners’ basements that are made for everything from quarantining to entertaining.
A glamorous touch
A wine room with two glass walls. A bar decked out in gleaming metallic tiles. A pool table topped in dreamy sapphire felt. The vibe of the lower level in the Bethesda home of Lan and Michael Rosenblatt is more like a plush nightclub than a basement. “I wanted the whole space dark and clubby,” Lan says. “We both work in the hospitality business, and a lot of our inspiration comes from restaurant and bar design.”
Lan and Michael, who own a hotel investment company, chose GTM Architects to create a contemporary five-bedroom stone and glass custom home in 2018. Construction started shortly before the pandemic hit in 2020. “The basement was important to them from the beginning as a place for relaxation and entertainment,” GTM’s Mark Kaufman says. “That’s why we oversized the area, so it doesn’t feel below grade, and put in a big French door that leads out to a hardscaped patio outside, too.”
The 2,500-square-foot lower level provides space for the Rosenblatts’ diverse interests, incorporating a golf simulator, an exercise studio, a walk-in wine fridge/tasting room, and an outsize den with the bar and a pool table. “We wanted the bar to be inspiring and exciting,” interior designer Annette Hannon says. “The surface really has a dimension to it, which we created by covering it in a metallic Artistic Tile that really shimmers.”
The bar abuts a glass wall of the climate-controlled wine room, which holds 2,000 bottles stacked four deep, an artful showcase for the South African and French vintages that the Rosenblatts have collected in their travels. “We put low-voltage lights over that beautiful wine fridge, and you see it as you come downstairs,” Kaufman says. “It’s like you immediately relax and want to have a few drinks.”
The den, painted a deep navy blue, also has a pool table custom-made by Blatt’s Billiards in New York City. Its sapphire felt top complements the basement’s color scheme. “We picked the felt, the cues, the legs, everything,” Lan says. The pool table sits behind what Hannon describes as “an exceptionally comfortable Holly Hunt sectional.”
The art on the walls above the sofa is one of the Rosenblatts’ favorite elements of the space. More than 20 framed menus signed by chefs at restaurants where the couple has dined, such as Eleven Madison Park in New York City, hang above the sectional on a gallery wall. “We love to eat. We love to go out,” Lan says. “Michael and Annette spent a whole afternoon arranging them on the floor like a puzzle before installing it. It’s like a wall of memories, with things like an Inn at Little Washington anniversary date.”
Katey and Chris Brown and their three sons have lived in their six-bedroom Craftsman-style house in Bethesda since 2017. Like other families, the Browns knew the pandemic lockdown meant that they would be spending a lot of time at home. So Katey and Chris, both of whom work in health care, called in Rill Architects in Bethesda to turn their basic basement into a spot where everyone could hang out as a family or on their own.
“It had plain gray walls and carpet down there,” Katey says. “It wasn’t a very pleasing place to let the kids go.” To make the whole area work better for the family, principal architect Jim Rill flipped the existing layout to create a dedicated space for TV watching, added architectural details to the ceiling and walls, and designed a unique place for the couple’s sons to study and play computer games.
A game room next to the den was remodeled with a wall covered in cork (to protect drywall behind a dartboard) and open shelving; there’s also a ping pong table and a Pac-Man arcade machine. “Our kids love online gaming, but we’re also trying to get them away from their screens, and that room is a way to do it,” Katey says.
“It ended up being a very artistic venture with the Browns,” Rill says. “We added fun shelves to display their music collectibles and used interesting light fixtures.” Vinyl plank flooring that mimics wood was installed throughout the basement, a “lifesaver due to our dog, Fuzzball,” Chris says. “Now if he has a mistake, it’s such [an] easy cleanup.”
The most innovative elements of the project are hidden along one wall of the den: a pair of 8-by-8-foot study carrels with sliding barn doors. The carrels, created with space taken from an existing bedroom, “each have work counters, fans and lights, so they’re comfortable for a long day at [online] school,” Rill says.
The boys frequently used the study carrels when they were attending school virtually during the pandemic. “It was great, because they didn’t always want to sit next to one of their brothers,” Katey says. Now that they are attending in-person classes again, at least one of the rooms remains in use. “Chris just took a new job that’s all remote, so he’s moved in,” Katey says. “It’s nice that the space keeps evolving.”
Built-ins and a sauna
When lawyers Erica Haggard and Stewart Crosland and their infant son moved into their Bethesda colonial in May 2019, “the basement was just a big open space, and we didn’t know what to do with it,” Erica says. “The couple who owned the house before us were empty nesters, and it didn’t seem like they used the basement much.”
The pandemic forced the couple to work from home starting in March 2020. Living in close quarters with each other, their son and his live-in nanny spurred the couple to hire InSite Builders & Remodeling in Bethesda that summer to rethink the basement. “We knew there would be demand for home improvements, and we knew we needed to get started, since we didn’t know how long it would take,” Erica says. “We needed space for our son and his toys, and we wanted a workout area since we couldn’t go to the gym.”
InSite architect and director of design Tom Reineberg helped them transform their 800-square-foot basement into a multifunctional family zone. “The biggest challenge was that the basement had several dropped bulkheads where there were steel beams and ductwork,” he says. “We had to come up with a design where the ceilings didn’t seem out of place or cut up too much.” In the central den, that meant adding built-in bookshelves and a niche for a television to conceal heating and cooling and electrical systems. The basement walls, as well as the bookshelves, were painted in Benjamin Moore’s Newberry Court Blue.
Two other rooms were turned into a small playroom and a home gym decked out with sports memorabilia. Reineberg installed interlocking rubber flooring in both.
The couple also remodeled an oddly configured full bathroom that had an off-center mirror and an outdated metal sink. “It wasn’t a nice bathroom,” Erica says. “Now it has a bespoke blue wooden sink vanity, a Serena & Lily mirror and a freestanding shower. It’s a tight space, but everything is upgraded.”
A small hallway between the home gym and the bathroom holds what may be the basement’s best feature: a cedar infrared sauna by Coastal Saunas. “This winter, I’m going to use it a lot,” Stewart says. “I don’t think we would’ve added it if we hadn’t been home all the time, but now I’m glad we did.”
Shiplap and study space
When the pandemic arrived in March 2020, Jessica and Patrick Flynn’s longtime au pair was living in the basement of their 1955 Cape Cod-style, five-bedroom home in Chevy Chase. Since their teenage daughter and tween son were increasingly self-sufficient, the Flynns helped place the au pair with a family that had younger children, and then “decided to make the basement ours again,” Jessica says. “We tore down the old walls and turned it into a living room and workout space.”
Bethesda architect Tom Flanagan, who spearheaded two earlier remodels and expansions of the couple’s house, added light and created a feeling of more space in the finished basement by reducing the size of the laundry room and installing French doors that open to the backyard. “I wanted them to come down the stairs and have it feel wider and more open,” he says. “We moved some walls and put in those doors that seem connected to [the] outdoors.” To make heating the area more convenient, a wood-burning corner fireplace was converted to natural gas.
During the renovation in the summer of 2020, the basement was reconfigured into a spacious den with an adjacent workout room and office space in a hallway. Rubber flooring was installed in the home gym, where Jessica and Patrick take turns using their treadmill and Peloton bike. “They’ve been great therapy during the pandemic,” Jessica says of the exercise equipment. “I think we’re working out more than before.”
In keeping with the home’s modern farmhouse style interiors, Jessica chose a custom-cut white shiplap for the basement walls and stairway. “It’s a great way to both add character and a nice reveal as you walk downstairs,” Flanagan says. Ankle-level lights in the stairway ship-lap act as a safety element as well as a design feature. “Patrick kept seeing that idea on Houzz,” Jessica says of the home design website. Vinyl planks resembling white oak cover the floor of the den and hallway.
The family of four—plus Hazel, their French bulldog—used the space often during the height of the pandemic. The couple’s kids attended online classes in the den while sitting at a repurposed Joss & Main dining table placed behind a comfy sectional sofa. The sectional faces a flat-screen TV and the fireplace. “It’s where we gathered then—and now—to watch a TV show or movie,” Jessica says. “It’s all just so cozy.”
Jennifer Barger is a local design and travel writer. Follow her on Instagram @dcjnell.