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[whitespace] Buried Measure

Local homeowners suffocated by building restrictions are expanding their living spaces by going underground

Los Gatos--Today's building restrictions are literally driving Bay Area homeowners into the ground. With planning commissions cracking down on monster homes, residents are building basements--not the little dark, dank storage cellars where scary things go bump in the night, but big sprawling basements where the things that go bump are likely to be billiard balls or the soundtrack from a horror movie.

"I'll bet 80 percent of houses I see on the drawing board now have basements," Paul Mehus, president of Mehus Construction in Los Gatos, says. Darlene Moore, Los Gatos senior building inspector, says there's a surge of plans, that include basements, coming through her department. Chuck Page says the first plans he looked at when he was appointed as a Saratoga planning commissioner in 1998, was a subdivision of 15 homes, all with basements. "The old-timers didn't used to see this," Page says.

Geoff Bradley, senior planner for the city of Campbell, says he's seeing three or four a year now, when he didn't see them coming through before. Gary Reyness, president of Reyness Co., a major U.S. real estate brokerage based in Sacramento, says some mass-produced homes in California are starting to include basements. He says a new community of homes just approved for Cupertino will offer basements as an option for some of the models.

Until now, basements in the United States have largely been a Midwestern or Eastern concept, and for good reason. Where it freezes in the winter, the land contracts and expands and will literally heave the foundation of a house up. Builders in those areas have to take the foundation well below the 4-foot frost line level to anchor it. Basements there are cheap to construct, so builders dig just a few feet deeper and create a full basement.

On the other hand, California has shied away from basements for good reasons--earthquakes, clay soil and a high water table. These problems require special building techniques and lots of money. And, historically, California has had plenty of land for its rambling homes.

The value of basements for Californians today has nothing to do with the weather. What's important about these subterranean rooms is that they are not counted as part of the square footage of a house.

Cities are restricting square footage by measuring floor-area ratio--the size of the house in relation to the lot. This ratio is used to determine the maximum limit in square footage. The planning commission, however, and the planning staff also take into consideration the mass and scale of the house in relation to the neighborhood. People, who pay millions for their land and want big houses, run smack up against city hall.

"You couldn't build Victorian houses today the way they used to in Los Gatos," Paul Mehus. He says, "The height restrictions won't allow for the characteristic pitched roofs." In fact, Mehus says, Villa Montalvo could not be built in Saratoga today. In some areas homeowners cannot add a second story to their homes, and in areas designated as historical, such as the Almond Grove district of Los Gatos, restrictions are even tighter. The lots are small, and the homes must keep their historical appearance. All of which means the owners have little wiggle room to build their small homes up or out.

Homeowners can hide large amounts of floor space, however, by putting square footage underground. Some Almond Grove homeowners are actually jacking their homes up, digging a basement and then plopping the house back down.

Saratoga Planning Commissioner Page says one resident asked, "Why are you forcing us to live underground." Page says that's not the intent of the building restrictions. "We just don't want monster houses next to cottages," he says. "We want whatever is above ground to be compatible with the surrounding neighborhood."

"We like basements," says Jim Lyons, chairman of the Los Gatos Planning Commission. "They help keep the mass and the scale of these huge houses in tune with the community. Burying square footage reduces how big the house looks on the outside." Lyons says the town's long-range goals are to maintain the historic character and the small town ambiance of Los Gatos. "Basements are a win-win."

There're a couple of other benefits to the homeowner who's had to put part of his home underground. Basement square footage is tax-free, and at four feet below ground level the temperature of the ground is a constant 55 degrees. This keeps the temperature of the house cooler in summer and warmer in winter--a pretty nice benefit during these days of power shortages.

Saratogan Bill Brown, a general contractor who specializes in concrete construction and builds many basements, says he thinks the kind of planning restrictions we are seeing today began in Palo Alto about four years ago. For a while, Brown says, you couldn't do anything to a Palo Alto house over 40 years old. That's when he first found himself burrowing under a house to put in a basement. Now he's getting calls everyday about basements. Palo Alto has eased up on some of its restrictions, but getting square footage approved is still difficult.

Paul Mehus remembers the first basement he built. A couple had moved to Los Gatos from the East 10 or 12 years ago and couldn't live without a basement. "We built a tiny basement," Mehus says.

Now, Mehus is building basements as big as whole houses. Mehus says he recently built a 3,000-square-foot basement in Los Altos, because the city only allowed the residents to build a one-story home. Bill Brown says he just tore down a $2.5 million house because the owners wanted more square footage, and they could only get it by adding a basement. Bob Flury, president of Flury Design Group in Los Gatos, says he's working on designs for basements in Monte Sereno and Saratoga that measure around 3,000 square feet.

Basements in the small historical homes are usually to create additional sleeping space, Los Gatos building inspector Darlene Moore says. But, Moore says, basements in new homes include such things as home theaters, wine cellars, exercise rooms and game rooms. "I even saw a virtual golf course," she says.

All of this means basements are feeding another kind of industry: home entertainment.

Steve Ehrsam, president of Audio Arts business in Saratoga, says his business is booming. He's been installing home theaters and media centers in Bay Area basements. He's even installed a virtual shooting range in a basement. Ehrsam says home theaters have been going into the basements of high-end homes in the East for a long time, but they've just caught on in the Bay Area in the last couple of years. He says it may be because of the growth in basements and the proliferation of so much money. He also says it may be that the technology for home theaters has improved dramatically.

Home theater was not something Diane and Ken Thompson had considered before they began renovating their Los Gatos Victorian home. Their architect suggested putting one in their basement. Ken liked the idea. Diane thought it was extravagant. Then she thought, "My husband's retired, he's worked hard all his life, so why not." Their home was built 100-plus years ago with a basement that now needs extending and redoing. It will eventually house a home theater that will be decorated to resemble a 1930s movie house, which brings back memories for Diane. "My father did special effects in the early movie business," she says.

Even though they are essentially holes in the ground, basements require careful planning. For example, if the basement is going to be heated and used for living space it needs two exits to the outside, and must provide enough light and ventilation. Open shafts, called light wells, built alongside a basement are the usual way of bringing light in through windows in the basement wall.

Designers sometimes find creative ways to accomplish these practical goals.

Los Gatos architect Peter Duxbury, whose firm is in Los Altos, says there's a basement in Los Altos that butts up to a swimming pool. The daylight pours down through the swimming pool and then through a glass wall that separates the pool from the basement.

Most cities require the basement to follow the footprint, or outline, of the house. Duxbury says he once built a 6,000-square-foot house with a 7,000-square-foot basement in Los Altos. After that, Los Altos changed the code.

Basements must meet California's strict building codes, and that's not cheap. Builder Mark De Mattei, president of De Mattei construction, says a basement that is used as living space costs about $175 to $220 per square foot. Gary Schloh says, on average, to costs just under $200 per square foot. That works out to about $600,000 for a 3,000-square-foot basement.

Much of the expense of creating a basement is in the costs relating to heavy-duty construction. With California's seismic regulations, basements need a lot of reinforcement. Bill Brown says, "We put a whole lot of reinforced steel (rebar) in the walls, floor and ceiling of a basement. I actually did one basement that had 100 tons of rebar," Brown says.

Brown says there are two ways to put the concrete in a basement: shooting shotcrete through a hose against the wall, similar to the way gunite is applied in constructing a swimming pool. The other method is the traditional way--building forms for the perimeter walls and filling them with concrete.

Getting approval for a basement is not always a slam dunk. "You have to carry a dictionary," Gary Schloh says, "because Los Gatos and Saratoga have different definitions, and you have to get it just right." Hillsides present problems, too.

There was a time when Saratogans could build a half-basement in the hillside and then put sliding door leading out to a patio, but the planning commission has said no more half-basements. They will be counted as square footage. Los Gatos Planning Commissioner Jim Lyons talks about another hillside problem--how much land has to be removed from a hillside. "There's the stability of the environment, the erosion and the run-off," Lyons says. "Too much dirt removed from the area, and we send the project back to the designer."

Chuck Page of Saratoga says that the geotechnical engineers tell him that basements and all it takes to construct them can actually add stability to a hillside.

Whatever the factors, burying large sections of housing underground is a growing phenomenon. Paul Mehus says basements have come about through a slow evolution, but now are matter-of-fact at design meetings. "They result in pleasant living spaces," Mehus says.
Sandy Sims

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Web extra to the April 19-25, 2001 issue of Metro.

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