The Elevated Basement

By Andrea Cox
Photograpy by Bruce Edward
Styling by Shelley Megale

A basement renovation transforms the lower level of this family home into a space of high style and functionality

Sue Anne Valentine loves architecture, especially the subtle nuances that define early-20th Century homes.

So when she and her family moved to Calgary from Boston eight years ago, instead of tearing down and rebuilding the home they had purchased in the Elbow Park area, they tore everything back to the studs and did a complete renovation.

“When you renovate you can work around and incorporate all of those interesting spaces into the new design,” says Valentine.

At the time of that renovation, they didn’t make any changes to the basement, except to excavate a crawl space, which resulted in a lower-level living room.

“We moved into the home and waited for the family to age before making any[more] changes,” says Valentine.

And, over the years, her three daughters have grown from tiny tots to teenagers. Last fall, the time had come to take the basement to another level, so to speak.

To help with the project, Valentine turned to her long-time friend, designer Bruce Johnson, who had also designed the upper two levels of the home with Mark Russell.

“Bruce is so talented and so intuitive. His flair and attention to detail shine through in whatever he does,” says Valentine. “I tend to have a pretty good idea of what I want and he is someone that can realize that. He is one of those people that you can sit and talk over coffee about the concept of a room and then it just evolves.”

The goal with the basement renovation was to create a lower-level space that was both teenager-friendly and sophisticated enough for adults to use, as well.

“We wanted to combine the use and function of space and give the area a bit of sex appeal,” says Johnson, “but we didn’t have the advantage of high ceilings or lots of windows, so we had to play into the scale of the space.”

To deal with the dual needs of the space, Johnson created two distinct living areas: one sleek and sexy and the other comfortable and casual. Both areas utilize texture to create a level of warmth and sophistication that typically isn’t seen in a basement.

In the sunken living room space, Johnson used a neutral textured wall covering with a distinct vertical element, adding the illusion of greater ceiling height to the basement space.

The furnishings, upholstered in a fabric that emulates men’s suit material, are low slung and horizontal providing contrast to the vertical lines on the walls.

“I wanted this to be a lower living room, not a media or recreational room, so that if we had a gathering of people they would be just as comfortable sitting downstairs as upstairs,” says Valentine.

From the lower living room, you can look through an oversized contemporary glass-panelled door into an adjacent handcrafted wine cellar.

“It gives the impression that it is something older,” says Johnson. He likes to incorporate a few traditional references into new spaces to make them feel less sterile, or, as he says, “just to give it that vibration, that warmth, so it doesn’t feel like it is right out of the box.”

Up a small flight of stairs and through a hallway hung with works by Calgary artist Mark Mullin is the lounge area, complete with built-in banquettes, hidden trundle beds (perfect for sleepovers), a Ligne Rose adjustable coffee table (great for homework, board games or teenage dinner parties) and a beverage centre. The space not only provides a fun and practical space for the three teens now, but as they grow it is also flexible and stylish enough for alternate uses.

But the crowning glory of the lower level is Valentine’s home office.

“I needed a space where I felt comfortable bringing clients and I also wanted something that was quite feminine as the rest of the basement is very masculine,” says Valentine, who also has an office in Mount Royal with her partners in the real estate firm Rooney Cronin + Valentine.

“The space was really driven by glamour,” says Johnson, who used texture, a pale palette and reflective surfaces to achieve that effect. Lots of lighting was also essential to lessen the feeling that the office was in a basement.

To add height to a low ceiling (it is only 2.2 metres or 7 feet 2 inches), as well as to soften the space and add visual texture, Johnson used a floor-to-ceiling cut silk drapery to cover the entire back wall. Similarly, Johnson used full-height cabinetry and higher doors to visually lift the ceiling.

“We used as many tricks as we could,” laughs Johnson. Whether it’s a visual trick or not, the result is a stunning look that transforms a little-used basement into a sophisticated multi-use space.

Bruce Johnson's basement renovation tips

  1. Never underestimate the importance of lighting, particularly when you are working in spaces that don’t have a lot of natural light.
  2. Put some value on the space. You don’t have to go crazy with the budget, but there should be some sense of luxury, whether it is within the furnishings, an area rug or something that has a sense of comfort. You want to create a space that is pleasurable to use.
  3. If the basement has a lower ceiling height, use vertical elements juxtaposed with lower horizontal elements to create tension and to give the illusion of greater ceiling height. Look for ways to take lines right up to the ceiling. For example, with the millwork or draperies.