Home & Design

Delight in the Details

A dated 1950s basement in McLean receives a dramatic facelift

Delight in the Details

Peggy Fisher transformed her client’s lackluster basement into a cheerful
spot for gathering with family and friends. The new stair boasts Arts and
Crafts detail. The re-styled fireplace is set off by maple and cherry trim.
Hardwood floors replaced the wall-to-wall carpeting.

“What happens if we eliminate the formal rooms, design our everyday living spaces for both formal and informal purposes, and use the dollars we save to really personalize the spaces we live in every day?” —Sarah Susanka, FAIA, author and lecturer, “The Not So Big House” series

John and Nancy Trainer are enthusiastic proponents of the “not-so-big” philosophy. Before embarking upon the total basement renovation of their 1959 rambler, the couple did copious research to nail down what they wanted their home to become. “Many of today’s McMansions are missing a sense of proportion and grace,” says Nancy Trainer. “I read Sarah Susanka’s ‘Not So Big’ series, surfed her Web site and thought ‘Bingo, this speaks to me.’” Susanka’s Web site also led them to Peggy Fisher, design director of Fisher Group, LLC.

About the not-so-big concept, Fisher says, “The idea is not bigger, but better; to spend your money on the details and usable spaces within your home. Everybody wants to maximize the space they have. How is the house going to ‘live’? We wanted to help rethink the use of the space to make it work best for their lifestyle.”

Standing in John and Nancy Trainer’s vibrant new lower-level space, it’s difficult to imagine that these walls, with their brilliant colors tempered by crisp, white Craftsman details, once housed a gloomy, dated “cave” that the couple affectionately referred to as their “Silence of the Lambs” basement. “We knew there was nothing in the basement we wanted to save. We were looking for a master plan for the entire house that could occur over time. The basement would set the tone for what we wanted to see happen throughout the rest of the house,” says Nancy Trainer.

Fisher drew multiple permutations of the floor plan, consulting with the couple about how they would utilize the space. “We talked a lot about pathways, about how we move throughout the space,” says Nancy Trainer. “That was eye-opening to me.” The couple worked well with Fisher, and voiced strong opinions on what they liked and didn’t like.

When the Trainers brought in books and photos of elements they would like to see incorporated into the space, it became clear they were enamored with the Arts and Crafts style. “It was such an open-ended project at the beginning,” remarks Fisher. “Craftsman and Arts and Crafts styles can take so many directions because it was such a fertile time in design history. We did numerous drawings and kept coming back to a specific look.”

To evoke Craftsman style, Fisher incorporated tapered, architectural columns, crafted a new stair railing with carved newel posts and ran crisp white wainscoting throughout the lower level. “Since the wainscoting works as a running background, we could use whatever colors we wanted above that because they wouldn’t fill an entire wall. It also lends good architectural continuity throughout.”

The clients honed in on clear, strong colors. “Nancy was so excited by the color choices,” Fisher recalls. “The colors also help to define each space without having to close the rooms off from one another. The use of color is more like a mat around a picture.”

Fisher’s plan did not move the core rooms. Instead, the designer adjusted sizes, orientations and how the spaces would be utilized. “We were mindful of how to move things around that would maximize the budget,” she remarks. In keeping with “not-so-big” hallmarks, all of the rooms now serve multiple purposes and every nook and cranny is utilized in unique and interesting ways. “I drew the stairway from multiple directions because there are three niches [under it].” One former closet is now a focal point with a small table. One became a reading niche complete with comfy chair and lamp. On the playroom side of the staircase, a niche now highlights the family’s cherished edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, a gift to John Trainer’s grandmother, who was a vice president of Grollier Publishers.

One goal was to bring as much light as possible into the lower-level space. The solution was to excavate unused outdoor space below an addition the home’s previous owners completed 18 years ago. Where once there were simply piers, a bed of pea gravel and a dark haven for spiders, there now exists an airy playroom/gym and a bright new bathroom with a window seat. “Even though it’s in a bathroom, I like to curl up there, look out the window or read a book,” says Nancy Trainer.

Fisher figured out how to make use of every spot in the project, down to quarters of inches. She re-imagined the game/family room’s once massive wall-to-wall brick hearth, shortening it and cutting in a spot for wood storage. “It’s no longer dead space; now the chunky hearth makes sense, and the wood lends a new textural interest,” she explains.

Fisher updated the fireplace with a slate and mosaic tile surround and then warmed the space with maple paneling on the back wall. Maple built-ins for the television and bookcases in the game area complement the new look.   Fisher also incorporated numerous lighting solutions into the plan. “I think lighting design is one of Peggy’s strengths,” remarks Nancy Trainer. “She made sure we absolutely had enough light without it being obvious. I love the pendants over the game table. They look silver when off, and emit a purple glow when lit.”

Fisher literally warmed the formerly cold basement by first insulating the space, then installing radiant heating panels into the ceiling. “Heat rises anyway,” says Fisher, “so instead of trying to keep a cold space warm, we opted for heating the people within that space.”
For the floor, Fisher selected red oak. “Wood is a warmer material and with the radiant heat panels it really works,” she adds.

The new office/guest room features banks of large windows and a vibrant color palette. “I looked at Nancy’s existing artwork and was inspired by the blue,” says Fisher. “They wanted the office to be comfortably used as a guestroom. The sofa pulls out into a bed and there is room to use the office and have a friend stay over.”

After taking on this project, the Trainers feel they are on the way to getting the home of their dreams. “It’s inviting, comfortable, and filled with details that many newer homes just don’t have,” says Nancy. Fisher agrees, adding, “This is not just a construction project. This is a place where people live, a space that can grow. You want it to say ‘welcome,’ and I think it does.”

Writer John D. Adams is based in Alexandria, Virginia. Lydia Cutter is an Arlington, Virginia-based photographer.


White wainscoting in all the rooms balances the clients’ preferred
color palette.

Stained glass filters natural light into the game room while concealing
a window well under an exterior deck.

The expanded guestroom includes room for a home office with view
of the garden. The pullout sofa accommodates guests.

The guest room/office opens to a bright new bathroom with a built-in
window seat.

The new playroom/gym with plenty of built in storage cabinets was
created by excavating and enclosing space under a previous addition.

Fisher designed the laundry/mudroom to be a clearing area for basement

A heavy-duty slate floor in the mudroom and adjacent hall entryway stands
up to wear and tear.

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