Where Have All the Basements Gone?

Here’s a weird fact unknown to most central North Carolina newbies … most houses here do not have basements.

It’s true! (And sometimes a sore spot for transplants to the area). Missing are the iconic downstairs rooms, illuminated almost entirely artificially save for the dim natural light from tiny, rectangular windows set up high along the wall. Missing is the faint musty smell that never fully goes away no matter the efforts at renovation, cinderblock walls that provide rugged defense against violently launched ping pong balls, the universal tomb-like feel kids of a room where kids disappear with friends to do God-knows-what a-la That 70’s Show. Even if you have a nicely redone space with drywall, carpet, and recessed lights, it’s still a basement, and they simply don’t exist here in central North Carolina.

In their place are brightly lit, tricked-out, second-floor bonus rooms with surround-sound speakers and 60-inch televisions sets, wet-bars, and full bathrooms with shower. Maybe even a wine refrigerator or a kegerator.

While some newer construction homes, usually at a particular price-point, have begun including “walk-out” basements in recent years, they’re not really what I think of when I hear the word ‘basement.’ In these, the house is built on a hill that slopes from front to back. The front of the bottom level of the house is built underground but the back of the bottom level opens out to a patio area (under the deck usually). This has the advantage of offering tons more natural light and is a dramatic improvement on the whole idea if you ask me.

But many houses here are built on either a concrete slab or a crawlspace, the crawlspace often being a creepy, dark, dank, dirt floor construction of uneven leveling that is now the subject of much debate as to whether it should be ventilated or fully sealed. Crawlspaces are foul places that necessitate the mitigation of dampness levels when installing hardwood floors, make the installation of dehumidifiers under the house a must, require the reinstallation of insulation after so many years and the tedious opening and closing of dampers around the perimeter of the house depending on the season, and are, I’m certain, the reason for the ridiculous amount of dust in my house since the air handler part of the HVAC unit is stuffed somewhere under there in the dark. (And the hot water heater, too).

Plus, there are spiders. And possibly monsters. I really, really hate crawlspaces.

The reasons for the lack of basement construction in North Carolina is multiple.

First, the entire piedmont region is composed of thick, clumpy, totally non-porous red clay. The other half is made of boulders. Not only does the clay provide ample opportunity for ripping one’s hair out when trying to grow any damn thing at all, but it also nearly guarantees damp basement walls at all times if you can even get a bulldozer to sufficiently scrape the earth deep enough (or blast it) to create one.

Second, the climate is much milder here. Up north, the frost line – that invisible depth in the earth below which the soil does not freeze – is much, much deeper. Footings for houses must be dug to a depth below the frost line, which means a basement is already being dug out – might as well use it. In North Carolina, the frost line is, based on a quick search, a mere 12 inches below ground. There is significant savings to be had by not digging deep enough for a basement, and it’s not necessary anyway, so why bother?

I have mixed feelings about the absence of basements. After a few years of living here, I stopped feeling as though something was missing, stopped opening my pantry door expecting to find a set of descending stairs, but I can’t say I completely forgot about them or stopped lamenting the absence of their unique usefulness.

While second-floor tricked-out bonus rooms are all fine and good, they can also be very loud. Nothing is quite so unnerving as the sound of a herd of elephants above you and spending an entire evening wondering when the ceiling is going to come crashing down. I think I’d much rather send the kids down below, not having to worry whether the ceiling overhead was going to cave in on me.

And it would be really nice to have an area where I could put things out of sight, as it seems the homes here never have enough meaningful storage. I can’t fit, for example, a spare mattress and bed set anywhere in my house when it’s not being used. Luggage gets shoved under beds, fragile Christmas decorations are subject to temperature extremes in the attic. Unless you’re lucky enough to live in one of the new, multi-gabled houses with hidden full-sized unfinished rooms lurking behind random doors, there is simply no room for anything bulky.

Most importantly, there is nowhere to hide when there’s a storm! North Carolina is subject to some severe storms – there are occasionally tornadoes(!) that have required us to take emergency shelter.

Where do you take shelter in a house that has no basement? I’ll tell you where. You cram yourself and two kids into the pantry under the stairs, which has dubious safety advantages other than the fact that there is readily available food which is a nice feature if your house falls on top of you and you need something to eat until you’re rescued. Your husband, meanwhile, gets to sit in the first floor bathtub with the dog.

Generally, my children find the whole basement idea a delicious novelty and still talk fondly of visits to relatives’ homes where they could disappear underground while the adults visited upstairs. They like visiting my sister because they know they can sleep in until noon if they want, no annoying natural sunlight to wake them too early.

I suppose, if I had to take sides, I’d be pro-basement, though perhaps of the best-of-both-worlds walk-out variety, over the second-floor bonus room. Especially if it included a wine cellar, in-law suite, and game room, and led to a full-sized swimming pool, garden/patio, fully landscaped type of area (as some upper end homes do include), but who’s being choosy here?

Anyway, what are your thoughts, dear readers? Would you lament the loss of the underground room, or welcome the idea of a second floor shangri-la? Is the absence of a basement weird, or welcome?



Categories: This and That

1 reply

  1. basements beat bathtubs !

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