Basement Remodel: Upgrade Below Grade

The Berk home remodel would have raised red flags for some contractors. Crane Builders saw flags waving but, to David Crane and his team, those flags looked decidedly green. Crane knew this would be no routine project. Jim and Amy Berk wanted to transform their 1,200 square-foot walkout basement — unfinished except for a small, never-used den — into a high-tech theater room and a luxurious entertainment space.

September 30, 2007
Products List
The Financials
Project Timeline
Company Snapshot

A row of load-bearing columns cut through the center of the original walkout basement, which was unfinished except for a dull den the Berks never used. Crane replaced the columns with an I-beam and in-wall posts, then built out the open space with a high-tech media room and a game/entertainment room. State-of-the-art audiovisual equipment hides behind a smooth sweep of custom touch-latch, African mahogany cabinetry in the media room. 
Photos courtesy of Crane Builders 

The Berk home remodel would have raised red flags for some contractors. Crane Builders saw flags waving but, to David Crane and his team, those flags looked decidedly green.

Crane knew this would be no routine project. Jim and Amy Berk wanted to transform their 1,200 square-foot walkout basement — unfinished except for a small, never-used den — into a high-tech theater room and a luxurious entertainment space. The remodel would mean relocating plumbing and HVAC equipment, removing obtrusive load-bearing columns and a central beam, and replacing those supports with a massive steel I-beam.

That alone would be tough enough, but the change in structural support had to be accomplished without disturbing the 5,000-square-foot, three-story house above the basement. And the Berks had a rule: No more than four consecutive hours of down time for any utility.

Crane saw the project as a major challenge, but one he was confident taking on.

Jim Berk himself represented a potential challenge, too. Both he and Amy were pleasant, trusting and supportive. But Jim is meticulous and an avid Internet researcher. Would he be unreasonably demanding? Crane didn't think so. In initial meetings to discuss the homeowners' plans, he saw that Berk expected top quality workmanship and wanted to incorporate the best new designs and products in his project. Again, what might have been a red flag for another contractor was a green flag for Crane. He shared Berk's standards and was amenable to trying worthy new methods. "I love people to say, 'Here's what I want you to do and here's how I want the final product to look,'" Crane says.

Crane's eagerness to please impressed the Berks. "It was obvious that he wanted us to be happy with what was done," says Amy. Crane's can-do attitude plus his work style — "He's open, not rigid; has pride in his work; and is very professional," says Amy — made it easy for the Berks to choose Crane over the three or four other contractors in contention for their project.


Basement Operation

Architect Mark Harrison of Adkisson/Harrison & Associates in Nashville designed an open, inviting basement space, hiring an engineer to devise a system to move the structural supports out of the way. Lead carpenter Randy Roberts figured out how to execute the plan. "The engineer said, 'I wouldn't dare give you a means and methods clause,'" says Roberts with a laugh.

"Randy came to me with his plan on how to extract the spine of this house and replace it," says Production Manager John Petrucelli, who was on site daily to monitor the sensitive operation. Installing rented support posts, Crane's subcontractors built temporary supporting walls on both sides of the columns that were to come out, and then removed the columns. They cut the slab, poured new large footings, embedded three four-inch columns inside walls, and removed the parallam beam. After cutting and blocking the I-joists to make space for the 42-foot steel beam, they lifted it into place on jacks. Finally they removed the temporary walls and posts. Throughout the three-week process and afterward, the upper floors never moved.

Some ducts had to be rerouted out of the path of the beam. To limit down time, the workers ran temporary ducts, coming back after the beam was in place to finalize the system. Water lines also had to be moved. The plumber installed new lines, disconnecting existing lines after the family's morning showers each day and reattaching them before four hours had passed. When all the new lines were in place, he quickly cut the old lines and activated the new system.

All the old air conditioning units and water heaters were splayed across a large area. The Berks replaced them with new, high-efficiency equipment Roberts consolidated in out-of-the-way corners, staging the process to avoid lengthy down time.

Having built sound studios for Nashville's music pros, Crane brought expertise to construction of the theater room. The remodeler placed soundboard above strategically layered half-inch and ¾-inch drywall for optimum soundproofing. Berk contributed good ideas himself, including maintenance access to the audiovisual equipment via rear cabinet doors.

The focal point of the entertainment room is a curved bar with granite top, African mahogany veneer and a stainless steel foot rail that has no visible supports. Built-in mahogany display cases match the bar. The waterproof slate floor is well suited for the room, which opens to the pool deck.

Nashville interior designer Landy Gardner recommended finish products and designed distinctive features, such as the cabinetry and details of the curved wet bar. Many of his creations, such as the seemingly unsupported stainless steel bar foot rail, were tricky to construct. Roberts took the challenge in stride. "He always said, 'Yes, we'll try to do it this way,'" recalls Amy. His solution here was to integrate custom-fabricated support brackets into the cabinetry.

During the six-month basement remodel, Roberts was on-site every morning to coordinate the subcontractors and touch base with Jim. Roberts and Petrucelli met with the Berks weekly to discuss job progress and solicit homeowner decisions. The amount of information to cover in these meetings was unusually large, says Petrucelli, because of Berk's meticulousness. "We'd have a list of 25 or 30 items to go over each week. But he asked informed questions, and we were happy to get the answers for him."

Moving Upstairs

Pleased with how the basement was taking shape, the Berks decided to spiff up the rest of the house and asked Crane to stay on to do the work.

Crane removed a stem wall and island that separated cooking and eating areas, creating an open kitchen with new cabinets, lighting, and appliances. The long, granite-top island doubles as food prep surface and eating bar.

To create a more open, contemporary kitchen, Crane removed a structural stem wall and island, installing structural steel braces and building a large new central island. The radius end of the island's granite top is cantilevered, supported by hidden angle brackets Roberts designed. Crane installed Brazilian cherry pre-finished flooring here and in most of the main floor, finishing the kitchen with new cabinets and lighting.

Flared stairs with custom wrought iron and Brazilian cherry rails add panache to the entry hall. Crane installed sleek cabinetry, a marble fireplace surround, a flat-screen television and a remote-control blackout shade in the master bedroom. The contractor remodeled the powder room and pantry; retiled the master bath floor; and updated much of the interior with fresh paint and new lighting. Crane's subcontractors installed insulated glass windows and doors across the rear of the house, replacing sun-damaged units that were losing their seal. Where they removed rotted frames, they had to replace areas of brick, and that called for tinting the new grout to match the old.

"I can't tell you how pleased we are" with the remodeled house, Amy says. "It's totally transformed. We love every room of the house." David Crane thinks it came out well too. He's sorry about just one thing: "Unfortunately, there's nothing else there for us to do."


Products List

Cooktop, wall hood: Wolf

Fisher & Paykel

HVAC: Trane

Lighting: Titan

Ovens, warming drawer, trash compactor: GE

Paint: Benjamin Moore

Plumbing fixtures:

Refrigerator, freezer drawers: Sub-Zero

Security system: Security Pro

Whole house water filter: Aqua-Pure

Windows: Pella

The Financials

Like a lot of Nashville contractors, Crane Builders uses cost-plus contracts. "It's the most honest way to deal with clients that we've come up with," says David Crane. "The homeowners pay for what they get, nothing more and nothing less. We get paid for what we do, nothing more and nothing less."

How it works: The firm starts out with a specific budget, broken down by categories, Crane said. The budget includes allowances for anything that hasn't been selected before work begins. Each itemized bill for clients ties back to that budget. Crane's contracts authorize him to bill twice a month, but he almost always bills monthly. "I generate the bill around the 10th to the 15th of the month, after the bills from my larger subs are in, and ask the clients to pay within seven days," he says. "We can charge interest after seven days and stop work after the seventh day," but Crane has never had to do either.

To gain a firm commitment from clients and to help cover initial expenses, Crane takes a $10,000 deposit up front. The Berks, like other Crane clients, received a $2,000 credit with each of the first three invoices, and the final $4,000 credit with the final invoice. Crane delayed the Berks' last invoice somewhat to make sure he had received bills from all vendors and subcontractors. The last bill came to $35,942. To ease collection, "We attempt to make the final bill as small as it can be," Crane says.

Project Timeline

Basement: 2003 Stage of Project
Payment: June 18
June 19 Start demolition
July 1 Replace beam
Payment: July 21
July 30 Begin framing
Payment: August 15
August 21 Rough-in inspections
September 2 Begin drywall
September 17 Begin cabinet installation
Payment: September 19
October 14 Begin interior trim and painting
Payment: October 23
Payment: November 21
December 8 Install countertops
December 17 Final inspections
Payment: December 19

Upstairs: 2004 Stage of Project
Payment: January 23
March 12 Start demolition
Payment: March 14
April 1 Begin framing
April 19 Install stair rails
April 28 Rough-in inspections
Payment: April 28
May 17 Begin drywall
May 29 Begin cabinet installation
June 24 Begin painting
July 26 Install countertops
August 27 Final job site cleanup
September 6 Final inspections
Payment: September 8

Company Snapshot

Crane Builders
Owner: David and Cilla Crane
Location: Nashville, Tenn.
2006 volume: $2.48 million
Projected 2007 volume: $3.8 million
Web site:
Project challenge:
Replacing a row of steel columns in the basement with a long, steel I-beam and three columns buried in walls, causing no more than four consecutive hours of utility down time.

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