Saturday, July 31, 2010

Basements, Cellars, and Scary Places, Oh My

All the houses I have lived in have had basements. Typical Pacific Northwest basements—dank, with low ceilings, prone to seepage and flooding, sometimes only halfway dug, and usually home to a sump pump in the corner sitting in a perpetual pool of smelly water. For these reasons and others, we decided to forego a basement in the new house, opting instead for an attic with view potential. But things have a way of turning out differently than planned...
The topography of the site is such that for just another 12”-18” of excavation, we were able to carve out a basement of sorts under the living room. Not a whole basement, mind you, just a space 16’ x 28’ under the living room. And the contractor assured us that it wouldn’t really cost that much more since he would pour only a “rat slab” instead of a full-blown, reinforced and nicely finished floor. A rat slab apparently being a floor of concrete just thick enough to prevent rats from coming up through the soil. Yes, isn’t this a pretty thought? (I’ve also heard of similar makeshift basement floors called peanut-brittle slabs because they are poured right onto soil that has only barely been cleared of stones. It seems to me this term of art is much preferable, but I digress…)

This idea appealed to MTH simply because 1)it seemed like a good deal, 2)it offered the possibility of a shop area for him, and 3)it would be a great place to house all the mechanical equipment for the house such as the boiler and electric panel. Incredibly, we had forgotten to actually plan for this essential equipment in the early phases of design and were still trying to shoehorn it in somewhere when this idea presented itself. So the decision was made, and the space was henceforth dubbed “The Mechanical Room” by all.

The actual construction of this Mechanical Room has included a few more glitches than expected, but is generally going well. I haven’t given it too much thought since it won’t be accessible from inside the house and it doesn’t seem to possess any design potential. This is a space I was planning to ignore and graciously give to MTH for his sole use and enjoyment. BUT! In the process of thinking about the pantry and linen closet (both of which I’ll write about later), I suddenly remembered another of those utilitarian spaces from the past: the cellar. Sometimes known as a root cellar and built underground with earthen walls, and sometimes simply built into a basement.

The idea of a root cellar has so many more possibilities than THE MECHANICAL ROOM, don’t you think??! I’m suddenly thinking of lovely baskets of potatoes, squash, and fragrant apples wrapped in straw and tucked away for the winter, and me treading down to the cellar to gather up supplies to nourish my family. Rain falls gently outside as we sit inside snug and warm eating soup made from homegrown vegetables… Ahhhh.

Sorry, I got lost in fantasy for a moment there! Anyway, back to the idea of a root cellar. The only real experience I have ever had with one is the cellar in the apartment house where my Danish grandmother (mormor) lived. Each occupant in the 8-unit building had their own lockable storage area in the basement or “kelleran” as it was called. This is where Mormor stored her gardening furniture and supplies out of season, her less used household items, and most importantly, the crates of beer and soft drinks for family parties.

A few days before a big party, I would accompany her down to the kelleran to take stock of supplies. She would count how many bottles she had and determine whether to buy more or not. The day of the party—just before family members arrived—we would go down and bring up the first round of bottles. (Danish luncheon and dinner parties last for hours. There would be several rounds of drinks.)
As we descended down the stairs, the air became cooler and cooler so that I, in my summer clothes, was now shivering as we climbed over tools and boxes to get to the drinks. We each carried up as many bottles as we could and set them on the table. There were several kinds of beer (Mormor knew who would want which kind) and several kinds of “sodavand” (soft drinks) for the kids. My favorite was Squash; an orange-flavored pop like Fanta but not as sweet. There was also citronvand (lemon pop), applesinvand (another kind of orange pop), and Jolly Cola. All of them in individually-sized glass bottles scratched around the edges from numerous recyclings. I remember the table looking so festive with a bottle neatly set at each placesetting. So many different shaped bottles and colorful labels--Tuborg, Carslberg Elephant, Faxe Fadol--and all of them  Danish.

So you can see that my cellar experience is all wrapped up in memories of being with my grandmother and being allowed to drink as much pop as I wanted—what’s not to love about it? But beyond nostalgia, apparently root cellars are experiencing a renaissance as one more way to "live green" and save energy--well, electrical energy anyway. Growing, harvesting, and storing all that food sounds like it requires a lot of human energy! Am I up to it? Is my thumb sufficiently green?

I don’t know if I’ll end up creating our own little cellar in the Mechanical Room or not, or even if Miss K is still of an age (or innocence) to be captivated by its contents as I was, but it is fun to consider the possibility. With a root cellar on the horizon, can canning be far behind?!

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