Basement Rooms Turning ‘Dead’ Space Into Common Space

Architecture and design have changed a lot over the years. Considerations for ‘what-goes-where,’ are very different now than say, back in the Roaring Twenties, when so much of New York’s housing stock – and hence a large proportion of today’s co-op and condominium buildings – were originally built. ‘Prewar’ is an adjective that draws many buyers to buildings built in that golden age. It denotes larger rooms, classic finishes, and a more genteel feeling to a space. It also means basement spaces that, with the possible exception of a large laundry room, were never conceived with usable amenities in mind.

Back in the first half of the last century  – when both developers and consumers had different agendas than they do today, and less-advanced technology required more physical space  – giant boilers, elevator machinery, and other mechanical systems were kept in basements. Whole rooms were built for oil storage tanks and other heavy equipment. Today, many of these systems have been replaced by streamlined components and computerized controls that require far less space than their predecessors. Many buildings currently find themselves with additional space that can be converted into room for modern-day amenities.

What’s Possible?

Sarah Marsh, Principal at MAAI Marsh Architects in New York City, explains that potential uses fall into two general categories: those that involve use by residents on a regular basis (such as a gym or library), and therefore have ventilation and egress requirements; and those that don’t, such as a bike storage room.

“Bicycle storage rooms, especially high-density storage,” she says, “aren’t glamorous, but residents want them. That’s also true of gyms.” The difference between the two is that a gym will require HVAC and at least two means of egress in accordance with New York City building codes. Bicycle rooms can get by with one entrance/exit, and less-stringent air circulation standards. 

“Any room with human occupancy – meaning not used purely for storage – needs natural ventilation,” says Howard Zimmerman, an architect based in New York, “That means either a legal window or mechanical ventilation. Mechanical ventilation is simply air-conditioning. If there’s no window in the room at all, the air conditioning must have an exterior compressor located in either a rear or side yard.

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