Whatever you want it to be


By Francie Healy

It used to hold muddy boots, old toys, ugly lamps, things in need of repair. It’s where parents sent kids to play ball hockey on a rainy day. It had fake-wood paneling, cheap floors and low ceilings. It smelled like wet dirt.

A basement was just a basement: damp, dark, moldy, junky. No matter how you tried to dress it up, you couldn’t fool anyone.

It doesn’t need to be that way anymore. Not even close.

A basement can be a home theatre, spa, office, family room, bar, fitness centre, wine cellar, bedroom. It can be beautiful, comfortable, practical, safe: a place to gather with family and friends, a place to unwind away from the tensions of the outside world.

You name it, says Norm Lecuyer of Ottawa’s award-winning company Just Basements. A basement, he says, can be whatever you want. Done properly and professionally, it’s also an investment in your home.

There’s tremendous design skill to creating a good basement. Norm knows. He’s been a leading basement expert for nearly 15 years, and, before that, a professional home inspector. So he has the massive scope of knowledge and expertise required to understand all the systems in your house (that end up in the basement): structural, electrical, plumbing, heating.

A basement doesn’t have to be fancy, says Norm. It can be simple, but to work and to last, it must be done well. There’s no way around that one critical fact.

“You don’t put down hardwood floor on concrete, for instance,” he says. “You don’t hide bad things.”

Because of a basement’s inherent dampness, darkness, smell, mold, low headroom and so on, there are plenty of important steps to creating not only comfort but a beautiful and functional space.

“It’s a challenge to get it right,” Norm explains, “not just to finish it.”.

He has seen too many bad examples of basements that were disasters.

“I always think I’ve seen everything,” he says. “Until I see the next thing. I’ve seen some unbelievably bad things in basements that we’ve had to remedy.”

When clients are ready to create an extraordinary basement of their dreams, Norm asks them simple questions. He wants to know who’s living in the house and how they’re going to use the basement. It must be about them, about their lifestyle both now and in the future. A wish list is a good thing, but it must match them − who they are and therefore whether their wish list applies to them. A great deal of money will be going into this basement – an average project is in the range of $65,000 – so it’s a serious matter, a serious investment.

For instance, one item on your wish list might be more natural light. While this is important to one person’s lifestyle, it might not be to another’s. It depends on when you actually use the basement. If you’re going to use it during the day, natural light is a big consideration. However, if you’re going to use it, as many do, after dinner and as a home theatre, you won’t need or even want natural light. You might choose to get rid of some windows.

Norm urges anyone interested in a first-class basement – one that will be in beautiful shape for many years to come, and one that adds to the value of your house – to use a professional firm. Just Basements is an accredited member of the RenoMark™ program, which is dedicated to professional work of the highest order.

“We all see the renovation nightmares,” he says. “We read about them all the time. These involve big investments, big amounts of money. It doesn’t make sense not to hire a professional. It’s smart to seek out people who are willing to take the time and effort of becoming members of associations like the Greater Ottawa Home Builders Association and RenoMark.

“Traditionally, people have hired the lowest bidder, the people who say they can do the job the cheapest. But the lowest bidder isn’t necessarily very good at all. You get what you pay for.”

It’s not surprising that Just Basements doesn’t get many repeat customers. If they do, it’s customers who have moved elsewhere and want to do another basement renovation. But once it’s done, it’s done so well that it doesn’t need improvement or repair for decades. Many of Norm’s new clients are by word-of-mouth. They’re the friends and guests of people whose basements he has completed. They see the quality of the work and think of him when they decide to take on a similar project.

Norm adds his customers are “a good fit”. They’re committed to excellent work and the cost that goes with that.

Just Basements is booked about three months in advance. Norm is the designer, salesman, and main contact, and his crews are his employees. In addition to the booking time, he knows it takes at least three months just to formulate the design and products you want. Don’t, he advises, hire someone just because they say they can begin work next week and do a good job. They can’t.

“We design more basements than anyone else in Ottawa,” he says. “That’s the beauty of being an expert in the field. You know the products and you’re always finding ways to do things better.”