Digging Out

Excavation of the Basement

Let’s face it, as charming as our Capitol Hill Homes are, sometimes we just need more room. But after nesting into our favorite street and discovering the cool markets to get our favorite snacks, beer, and wines from, who wants to move? Or maybe we are thinking long-term financial security and figure that a rental unit could be an easy way to stay in the neighborhood we love and put money in the bank.

Making additions to a row house can be tricky, especially if it sits in the historic district. Even with the new changes in zoning and occupancy rules, most Capitol Hill homes don’t qualify for adding additions in the back or going up. The “pop up” phase has proven not to be the golden answer.

DC law mandates that an addition cannot take up more then 70 percent of the lot. If a home footprint is more, the homeowner must go before the Board of Zoning Adjustment and ask for a variance or special exemption. In the historic district there must be a ruling also by the Historic Preservation Board. The number of Capitol Hill homes that are determined non-conforming far exceeds those that get a green light for an addition.

Happily there is a way to add extra footage that more and more homeowners are turning to. Hill residents are digging down, turning crawlspaces into rental apartment units or making super cool dens, playrooms, entertainment suites, or prime storage space.

Sometimes excavating the basement must be done for structural reasons, but more times than not, it is an economic decision.

Deciding to Dig

“Deciding to expand your house by digging down is a complicated and costly decision,” says Brian Brown, a partner with Roderick Williams in R.W. Enterprize, one of several firms that specialize in the art of underpinning and basement excavations. The firm typically will work on 10 or more such projects a year. Each can predictably take two months or more to complete the basics, or maybe as long as six months given the size and circumstances. 

Taking on such a project is a massive financial commitment. Williams estimates that pricing starts at about $100,000 for a small row house. According to Brown, “It is not surprising for the project to cost $300,000. It is why many people decide to do the project in phases.” Homeowners commonly start with digging out the basement and putting in new underpinnings, and then sometime later building out the space.

The good news is that an added rental unit and extra space can add great value to the home. Lending institutions look favorably upon loan requests for such work, especially if the addition guarantees a legal rentable unit as the end result. Brown and Williams spend time with potential clients, educating them on the work involved as well as the economic benefits. For many Hill homeowners it really is a great economic deal.

Before a project begins there is of course a lot of homework to get permitting from the city.

Party Walls and Permits

Another basement excavation expert, Manuel Hernandez, has been working for over 30 years on Capitol Hill and is the go-to guy for many of the construction firms like Sestak Remodeling and Ramos Construction. It is a job that requires patience and a good understanding of masonry. “You want to make sure that you work slowly and follow the engineer’s drawings,” Hernandez says, “otherwise there can be settling problems down the way.” His company, Construction Builders Solution, employees an “army” of trained masonry workers.

The city now requires that soil samples be taken as part of the permitting process. Fortunately the soil on Capitol Hill is some of the best in the city, with a good mixture of clay, sand, and silt. The city is very strict about having underpinning work done under the direction of a structural engineer and an experienced contactor because of the risk of possible wall collapses and the endangerment of adjoining properties. 

The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) requires that adjoining property owners be notified of the plans, and it will facilitate discussions between the property owners to ensure that structural work will not damage the connected homes. “Usually we find neighbors have lots of questions,” says Williams, “but once they see the plans and feel comfortable with the contractors we find little opposition to the project.” Typically there are more complaints about the trucks hauling the extra dirt away, or where the storage container is parked, than with the permit.

A Dirty Job

For most excavation projects the foundation is dug down a few feet, so that when the project is finished the basement meets the DC occupancy code of seven-foot ceilings measured from the finished floor. This requires buckets and buckets of dirt to be jackhammered, shoveled, and carried out of the house. There is much dust and dirt in the early stages of the project, and for a lot of the Hill homes that dirt is hand carried from the house to the street.

“And what a lot of people don’t think about is how weather can affect the timetable of the job,” says Williams. The dirt has to be hauled away to an environmentally approved dumpsite, usually in Maryland. If it is raining, the dumpsites close down. So a rainy period, like this spring, can put a project behind. And, says Hernandez, people also don’t realize that construction companies have to pay for each load of dirt that is dumped. It is a very expensive part of the job.

Another important consideration is making sure that once the project is ready to pour the foundation, the utilities, like water and sewers, are properly installed. Sometimes it requires additional lines to accommodate the new occupancy and usage. “It is really important to get it right,” says Hernandez, “otherwise the homeowner is going to have to tear all the work up when they get ready to do phase two.” So, while all the work doesn’t have to happen all at once, key decisions need to be part of the equation.

Once phase one, the dirty phase, is complete, the work of putting in drywall and finishing is similar to other house construction.

“This is not a job to take lightly or go into blind,” says Brown. “But the economic benefits, as well as the benefits of getting to stay in the neighborhood of your choosing, make it a real possibility for homeowners.” 

Keil Construction working on a Capitol Hill Home
Roderick Williams in R.W. Enterprize
Manuel Hernandez of Constructi on Builders Soluti on

Rindy O’Brien is a writer and photographer on Capitol Hill. She can be reached at rindyobrien@gmail.com.