Basement concept rises to the top

Workers prepare the sump pump for the Cannon Street house’s basement. Buy this photo

Those driving along Cannon Street in recent weeks have probably glanced to their left and wondered, What’s that all about?

The massive excavation going on underneath 68 Cannon St. looks striking because it’s so different.

The ongoing rehabilitation of this mid-19th-century home is adding on something rarely seen in downtown Charleston or other Lowcountry towns: a full-size, fully habitable basement.

“You don’t see many of those in Charleston, do you?” asks Brian Bass, whose Columbia-based B&W Foundations and Waterproofing is doing the installation.

The basement came about partly because the owners sought a larger expansion on the property, but were turned down by the city’s Board of Architectural Review, says City Architect-Preservation Officer Dennis Dowd.

“They came back with the concept of building below,” he says. “The elevation is good enough for them to do that, which is unusual.”

In fact, it’s a stroke of luck —the flood line ends just a few feet from their property, says George Seago, who is renovating the house with his wife, Amy. They plan to live there, run his business from there and have some rental units there, too.

Architect Paul Setti says the property’s elevation is about 13 feet above sea level. That’s not the highest on the peninsula, but it was high enough to rise above Hurricane Hugo’s storm surge. The historic home sits about five feet higher than that —and will remain at that elevation.

Technically, the new basement will not be considered a “full basement,” Setti says, because about 6 feet of it will be below grade, while the rest will be above grade.

There are a few other reasons the owners felt a basement made sense: The old brick pier foundation was crumbling and needed to be rebuilt anyway, and adding more space under the house minimized the addition — and maximized the lot area available for parking.

“While it’s unique typically in Charleston, it’s not unique to that block or that street,” Setti adds.

Seago says he talked to his neighbors who lived in those basement spaces before deciding to take the plunge.

Of course, one of the rainiest summers on record has proved a challenging time to build a basement. Bass says workers hit water once they dug down about 6 feet, but a series of drains and pumps got rid of it — and got rid of all the recent rainfalls.

“We had some cave-ins,” Seago says. “I’m glad it rained so much because we completely changed our design on the drainage. We made it much more robust than we would have otherwise.

The basement has been very visible during its construction, as the house above sits on a timber cribbing.

“No question, right now we’re the Cannonborough tourist attraction,” Seago says. “I’m sitting next door right now, and there are people taking photos of it.”

But the attraction will fade as the work wraps up.

Its concrete walls will be covered by a brick veneer, and there will be windows in the volumes between where the original foundation piers once stood.

“The application of windows is very typical in a situation in Charleston where you have a basement level,” Setti says. “The design is meant to blend in. Hopefully, it will look like it should be there, like it’s always been there.”

In that sense, the new basement is akin to new rooftop living areas that have sprouted up in the city in recent years, a novel kind of space that maximizes the use of downtown’s increasingly expensive real estate but minimizes the impact on the city’s historic feel.

Bass hopes people notice the ongoing work at 68 Cannon and ask themselves if they want a basement of their own.

“We get a lot of interest from people,” he says, adding, “We stand behind it. We waterproof it and all. We guarantee it will not leak.”

Basements aren’t unprecedented here. Some homes built on high ground in the 1700s had one. Today, however, these are mostly used to store wine or other things, not for working or sleeping.

I had a basement in my first home north of Hampton Park. I also had a sump pump and a few anxious moments when it didn’t work.

Across the country, basements are more common: The U.S. Census Bureau says of the 483,000 single-family homes built last year, 142,000, or about 30 percent, had a full or partial basement.

Of course, there was much talk about the desirability of basements in tornado-prone zones in the wake of this year’s deadly Oklahoma twisters, but the Lowcountry’s main weather threat is a storm surge as much as high winds.

And if they’re strong enough, then everything leaks.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.

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