Handling Low-Flying Utilities

When plans call for a finished basement in new construction, ceiling height and utilities can be planned accordingly. Remodelers are rarely so lucky. "Typically," says Eldren-kamp, "people do not plumb houses with an eye to renovating their basements." Water lines, air ducts, bathroom and kitchen drains, and supply and return lines for a hot-water heating system all could be located below ceiling joists, where they are smack in the way of a renovation. Contractors have only a few choices: Move them, box them in or leave them as they are.

Wiring and plumbing often can be relocated. But the process is expensive, and it is sometimes next to impossible to move bulky utilities like drain lines and heating ducts. As a result, builders may hide plumbing, heating and wiring runs in a ceiling, wall or closet. Heim tries to make a finished ceiling look balanced in situations where he is forced to box in utilities. For example, if he has to hide a plumbing run on one side, he may build up other areas to create a coffered ceiling. The result is a pleasing detail whose real purpose is not obvious.

And sometimes offending pipes are simply left exposed and painted. "For the most part," Eldrenkamp says, "people have different expectations for the basement." One thing to remember: When tucking water and drain lines out of sight, don't block access to water shutoffs and drain clean-outs.

Because plumbing and wiring can be hard to disguise, many builders turn to drop ceilings. Common to commercial building as well as to residential construction, these ceilings consist of a metal framework suspended several inches below ceiling joists that supports drop-in panels available in a variety of textures and colors. Acoustic panels that deaden sound are widely used, especially if the basement is used as a home theater or a getaway for teenagers. Relatively low cost and ease of installation make this ceiling an easy choice, but some builders think they are an esthetic turnoff. "The quickest way to make a basement look like a basement," says Heim, "is to put a drop ceiling in." He is much more likely to recommend a plaster or a drywall ceiling, just like the rest of the house.

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