Alternatives to Basements, Basement Alternatives

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Alternatives to Basements, Basement Alternatives

I'm always perplexed by the ambivalence of many future homeowners towards foundations.  A home's foundation, or its substructure, is of course anything below the lowest wood-framed floor.  These can take many general types, ranging from absolutely nothing (not recommended) to 12' tall drive-in basement garages and pools (also not recommended).  Foundations can be solid, built on piers, or on loose gravel; and common materials include concrete, stone, brick, concrete block, wood, steel, and compacted soil.  But like all of us, chances are you have a picture of what a foundation is in your mind that is largely determined by where you've lived.

A house with too little foundation.  A house with too much.

In fact, foundations are one of the last building features almost fully derived from local, vernacular norms.  If you're in Florida, you probably think "concrete slab" when you think of a foundation.  If you're in California, you're probably thinking "thick concrete walls with lots of steel in them."  If you're in eastern Virginia, foundation probably means "concrete block crawl space" to you.  And, if you live within earshot of an ocean, you're thinking wood piers.

Much of this has to do with local environmental conditions.  If a storm could cause the tide to rise to your doorstep, you lift your house off the ground and let the water move under you, hence piers that don't block the water but simply get you away from it.  In much of California, earthquakes wreak havoc on foundations, which need to be extra strong (hence thick concrete walls) without being too brittle (hence the steel reinforcing rods inside those thick walls).  In the northern half of the US, ground freezes cause the earth to move, which can shift your house around if the foundation isn't sunk at least to the point just below where the ground stays warm enough not to freeze (which maxes out at about 56" for most areas, but is only 2-3' in eastern Virginia, hence building a crawl space (a shallow basement) that is only a few feet deep/high).  In Florida, the ground doesn't freeze, so a concrete slab (a pad of concrete 6-12" thick siting right atop the ground) is both inexpensive and sufficient.

Clockwise from top left:  House on piers, thick concrete foundation with reinforcing steel, crawlspace basement, and "slab on grade" foundation.

The underlying assumption above is pretty much the reality - for most homes, the foundation selected is the least expensive option allowable in the particular environment.  Other factors come into play, of course, such as local contractor knowledge, availability of materials (You won't see a granite foundation in California, but there are plenty in New Hampshire.), and to a lesser extent, aesthetics.  However, foundations perform many other functions than simply holding the house up, and within each environment there are still multiple options that are equally good at doing so.



A foundation is the home's aesthetic connection to the ground, and how that plays out architecturally was in fact one of the primary concerns for Frank Lloyd Wright.  A rough cut stone foundation (admittedly, VERY expensive) between a high mountain home and the rocky ground creates the sense that the home is growing out of the ground, that it belongs, that it is fitting in.  Similarly, a Cape Cod beach house on piers 6' above the beach says, I like the view, but I'm not part of the landscape.  There's nothing wrong with either of these approaches, they are simply aesthetic differences, and in the latter case, may be the only option.

House who's foundation connects it to the environment (Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright, left) and to separate itself from it (Villa Savoye, Le Corbusier, right).

Foundations are often also used for storage, in particular in northern climates where the foundation already needs to be 4+ feet deep.  In much of Connecticut, for example, the thinking is, "If you already need to dig a 4' hole, might as well go to 8' and create a full basement, which can be used to hide the boiler, water heater, washer, dryer, and teenage son."  In certain parts of California, it's not uncommon for the foundation/basement to serve as a whole other level for the home, completely finished and often with windows and doors.  Even crawl spaces can be used to store Rubbermade containers of winter clothes and obscolete baby toys.  Often, builders and homeowners opt to have their basement or crawlspace floor covered with a few inches of leveled concrete - sometimes called a "rat slab" for obvious but not necessarily true reasons - to make this storage or additional living space cleaner, less moist, and generally more "finished."



However, a common misconception exists that basement foundations (which are frequently limited to poured concrete walls with a poured concrete floor) are a cheap way to add storage and living space to a home.  I've heard many builders call this "free space," but this is far from true.  Of course, if you only need to go 48" into the gound to get below the above-mentioned "crawl space," then the additional concrete (used to make an 8' wall instead) isn't free.  While it is true that the majority of excavation (digging) costs for foundations are in mobilization (getting the equipment there and ready), the price to the homeowner is still linked to depth.  Further, there are certain things that can cause two of the exact same foundations in the same state (or even neighborhood), built by the same contractor, to be wildly different in cost.  Hidden in the ground can be "ledge" (huge masses of rock under the earth's surface), large boulders, and even archaeological remains (ok, less likely) - all of which are statistically more likely to be found the more you dig and all of which will dramatically increase the foundation cost (by multiples in some cases).  
Even if an 8' basement ends up only double the price of the absolute minimum foundation required in your area, that additional, say $10,000, has only bought a damp, dark concrete space.  Perhaps that's fine, because the space is just for storage, but in that case, the added convenience of being able to stand fully up in your storage space (as oppose to a 4' crawl space) may not be worth $10k (or $15k, after mortgage interest).  In terms of using the foundation for living space, this will require finishes, electrical, (maybe plumbing), and (really ideally) windows.  Your're far from $10k now, and it still feels like a basement.

There's another way in which basements aren't "free space."  Concrete is very nearly the worst building material from an environmental standpoint.  Extraction of silica (used as the binder in concrete) is heavy mining, cooking that silica and everything else into concrete requires enormous amounts of energy, and transporting heavy concrete that constantly needs to be "rolled" to keep from solidifying consumes gallons and gallons of diesel fuel.  Concrete walls are produced by pouring liquid concrete into, usually, wooden "formwork" (basically, a whole other wood-framed wall), where the latter is often thrown out after as little as a single use.  Insulating concrete (when above ground) is more expensive than insulating wood-framed walls, and concrete releases water moisture for up to 10 years after it's poured, creating the risk for mold and mildew, leading to various health problems and potentially decaying the wood in the rest of your home.  And, at the end of the day, you're left with a permanent thing deep in the ground that is extremely difficult to remove and cannot economically be recycled.

Cement Quarry (where concrete materials are extracted, left) and Concrete Production (right).


So, what are the alternatives?  First, we need to dispel the myth that basements are free space.   Instead, let's consider it cheap space - inexpensive but very low quality.  If that's good enough, then perhaps a crawl space (with or without "rat slab") makes the most sense.  But, if you are thinking "extra bedroom," "workspace," "workout room," etc., perhaps keeping these things above ground makes more sense.  Depending on the design, maybe making the house a couple hundred square feet bigger isn't that much more expensive.  That an additional $20,000 for an extra room will feel like a much smarter investment than the extra $10,000 for a taller basement.

What if you don't want to or can't add the $20k cost right now?  Well, unlike the basement, you can always postpone this decision until you really need to do it (or have the extra money).  Wait a few years, then add that room off the back of your house.  You could even build it yourself (ok, I'm a bit biased here, but a small addition is quite easy to do yourself, unlike a foundation).  If you are thinking that you'll "finish out" your 8' basement in a few years, why not save your money, go with the more minimal basement, and put that money (perhaps taking advantage of a favorable refinancing) into an addition where you don't need to comprimise natural light, air quality, and convenience.  (The added amenity and square footage might increase the value of your home immediately - how's that ROI!)



Another option, which is increasingly becoming common throughout the US, is to build the addition as a separate little building on your property - an "Accessory Dwelling Unit" (ADU).  This work is even easier to do yourself, it can be less expensive than first cutting a hole in your existing home, and the design can be whatever you want.  Maybe your office would ideally not be a stucco Spanish style ranch.  Perhaps you want your Yoga studio to be a bit more airy than your New England colonial?  Not going to use it in the winter?  ...skip the heat and insulation.  Using it to practice drumming?  ...leave out the windows?  Unlike an addition, and certainly unlike a basement, you have very few constraints to what you can build as an Accessory Dwelling Unit.  Build it well, of course, but you're in control, so make it yours.  (You may not even need a building permit!)

Clockwise from upper left:  Morrison's Garden Building (Atlanta, GA), "Shoffice" backyard office by Platform 5 Architects (London, UK), Tool House (Boston, MA), "Pod" guest room by ArchiPod

So, what do you put it on?  Well, you have so many options for ADU foundations!  Concrete walls are still allowed, of course, but piers (concrete, wood, or steel) will probably be easier.  Unless your ADU is your billiards room, you could just build it on a slab, even in cold climates.  Heck, nothing says you can't just stick the thing on the ground (many people do, but you should look up how to keep ground moisture and critters from invading).  Or, one option I really like, is putting it on an 8" bed of gravel.  Either way, you'll end up with a beautiful space that isn't going anywhere, will be level enough (the smaller the footprint, the less it can get out of level), and will be a much greater value for the money - and environmental impact - spent.

Steel 'Helical Pile' foundation posts being installed (left) and garden shed on gravel bed (right).

I'll go into detail about each of these alternative foundation options, and others, in an upcoming post.  But, as a sneak peak, they aren't just for Accessory Dwelling Units.  In fact, once you give up the myth that foundations are free living space, you open the door to many alternative foundations types, reducing the impact on your bank account and the environment, while expanding opportunities for architectural expression.

Thanks for reading.

Dennis Michaud

(Co-Founder, Homebuilt)

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A Brave New Future for Home Automation


A Brave New Future for Home Automation

Being at the Maker Faire this weekend has reminded me of "the next big thing" that you don’t seem to hear about any more:  “home automation”.

Home Automation has been around as a concept for decades, of course, but it seems to have hit the intersection between reality and its "coolness factor" apex around 2009. I'm honestly not sure why, but my guess is that there are a few distinct reasons you don’t hear as much about “Smart Homes” lately:

1.  Most of what seemed new and cool has now either been integrated into many high-end homes and/or is just too expensive or superfluous to find itself on the shortlist of constrained budgets. Such things include hidden, interconnected speaker systems, "mood" based lighting control, and security systems (including cameras) that are either more expensive than the items they'd protect (or than the insurance premium to protect those things) or just too creepy for most people. 

2.  Most required quite a bit of in-wall wiring, rendering it impractical for renovation applications but not yet a sufficiently desired feature (in most markets) to be used by tight-fisted spec builders (who build homes on speculation that they will sell to a yet unknown buyer).

3.  Almost all of these systems tied you to a particular service provider, either technologically (through proprietary hardware and integrated software) or legally, through service agreements and the like. This almost always meant that a particular company comes in (for a fee), does the installation (for a fee), configures the system (for a fee), connects you to their server which runs it all (for a... we'll you get it), and must to be hired to reconfigure the system when your needs change. 

4. The notion of needs configuration is another bottleneck to the widespread adaptation of home automation systems - you have to decide what you want the system to do, and you kind of need to stick with that for a while  (unless your reconfiguration budget, and tolerance for 4 hour tech support visit windows, is inexhaustible).


However, I think it's time to get excited again about home automation.  Many of these costs, limitations, and annoyances will soon be going away as a few technological paradigm shifts push themselves into the mainstream.

Whereas many of the older systems had their own "components": lights, speakers, cameras, keypads, or touchscreens, a new breed to technology focuses on linking with existing,"off the shelf" components. Essentially, most of what the "brains" of Home Automation systems really did was turn things on and off.  And,of course, this is basically just a switch, which, added to the price of an off the shelf component (speaker, light, etc.) is much cheaper than purchasing a proprietary component with integrated switch.


But, if it's just a switch that's doing the work of actually controlling the component  (the "last mile," as you could call it), then the communication to the switch can be extremely simple ("switch on" or "switch off"), which makes it extremely easy to communicate over wifi, Bluetooth, RFID, light signals, etc.  No more additional wires through walls.

And now, there are so many "devices" that can emit a "on/off" signal, like smartphones, tablets, “Mesh” tags, Arduino boards, Raspberry Pi microCPUs, and even the kids’ toy "Little Bits".  That is only a list of popular consumer devices. Hardware sending a binary (“on” or “off”) signal is among the least expensive and generic.


Most of these devices are either all "programmable" using the same computer language or will play nicely via translation tools with any language, so one can write simple apps enabling a user to control them or integrate multiple devices, changing which switches each device communicates to (and therefore what components they control) easily and on the fly. Your cellphone can control your light, then your radio, then both when it's time to go to sleep. 

While there was a period around 2010-11 when a handful of companies made "apps" for home automation, many of these apps were specific to certain proprietary systems and still only affected certain components in the kinds of ways they are programmed to affect them. You weren't switching lights and speakers, you were selecting options for preset configurations. 

PIY (Program It Yourself)

However, a paradigm shift in what it means to program and how this is done will change all of that. "visual" programming languages (VPLs -, pioneered in systems like Scratch, take the drag-and-drop and button clicks of computer Graphical User Interfaces  (GUIs), and extend those to much more open-ended functions, like "drop this button on this switch so when I click that button flip the switch".  We are starting to see even children programming their own toys using the digital (on screen) equivalent of those word match games where you draw a line from one word in one column to another in the other column.  One column has input devices, the other has each switch (or the component to which the switch is connected - more on this connection below).  Just replace the toy component with a light or stereo and you have a Smart Home system that used to cost thousands of dollars but can now be programmed and maintained by children. Want that Bluetooth button to switch this light as well as that light, just drag another on-screen line going from the button to the light.


And another technological paradigm, the Internet of Things (IoT), is removing the space between the controller and controlled columns. For very little additional cost, components (lights, stereos, fans, appliances, thermostats, and anything else that is electrically powered) can be enabled to send or receive a signal.  Dumb switches, even the digital ones, that once only received inputs to turn on or off can now themselves send signals to other component-devices ("Smart Components"), removing the need to pick up a remote or pull out your cell phone whenever you want to turn on your coffee machine.  Maybe just 3 quick taps on the bedside lamp and your coffee machine is sent a signal to turn on. (Finally, we can bring back those awesome touch lamps!)

Whereas the use of separate switches to turn on and off components requires the switches to be plugged in between the components’ power sources and the components  (such as via a wifi-enabled switch box with a male and female 110 plug on each side), IoT switches are integrated into the circuitry of the component/device itself, meaning that it can do a lot more than just turn the component on and off. Imagine your Blu-ray player's clock being set when you set your microwave's clock, or your coffee machine making your coffee a little stronger if you turned off your TV especially late the night before. (Note that, unlike with earlier manifestations of Home Automation, these device-components are independent and do not need to be purchased from the same vendor.  They are just able to speak the same language.  Not a nuclear family of products, just cordial roommates.)


Finally, how your IoT components get signals and how they can be "programmed" is just in the earliest stages. Of course, IoT has the word Internet in it, so that's there, so they can not only talk to you, they can respond to invitations in your email and even (ok, getting creepy again) set your friend’s alarm once she's accepted to meet you for an early breakfast. Your frig could show a red light (via technology like the Walabot ( if you don't have in it a certain ingredient for a recipe you are reading online, and your IoT thermostat can turn up to get you in the mood for summer when it gets a signal from your IoT blender that you are making protein shakes.  Ok, all of these examples are meant to sound frivolous, and they are, because we don't actually know what is possible or what is desirable yet.  However, there are some applications that already seem able to be both easily integrated and which could have a meaningful impact on our homes.

Critical in my opinion is also the ability for Smart Components to also be "sensitive" components, meaning they have sensors relating to information that might be valuable to receive for their function. A lamp should sense light.  A washer should sense when it has enough weight in it to start a load. And a thermostat can sense that the humidity is relatively high, so it doesn't need to add as much heat to the room (because 60deg feels more like 70 when it's humid).


Moreover, these can be sensitive to less artificial input from home inhabitants (as opposed to buttons or silly voice commands). There’s no reason the room thermostat can’t know you are there, change the temperature accordingly, and tag out the other rooms’ thermostats.  Instead of constantly running, an air purifier can “hear” sneezes and so sense the presence of someone affected by allergies, thus kicking into high gear.  Bed sheets, perhaps with embedded sensitive films similar to the UniMorph project at the MIT Media Lab (, could sense changes in biometrics, tailoring the nocturnal heat to the inhabitant’s sentient comfort-level, downshifting when “typical” ambient temperatures are unnecessary.  

Indeed, if there is a future for “Home Automation” or “Smart Homes,” the manifestation will be neither “automated” nor “smart”, at least not in the typical sense.  It won’t be a centralized HAL 9000 ( robobrain, but rather a loose network of sensitive and gregarious everyday objects, listening, feeling, and seeing what we need at any given moment, then passing that infromation along. 

Perhaps not less creepy, but certainly more interesting.

Thanks for reading...

- Dennis

Dennis Michaud | President | Homebuilt: Precise Kits for Personal Buildings


Composting Toilets Explained


Composting Toilets Explained

Composting toilets are one of the handful of miracle technologies that make small, environmentally-friendly, and/or off-grid housing possible and inexpensive.  They are also one of the least understood features of many Tiny and off-grid homes.  In this post, I go into detail on what they are, how they work, and why they don't stink.