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Underground Cinema: 8 Things to Consider When Planning Your Basement Home Theater

May 3, 2013 | Comments

Converting a dingy basement into a recreation or entertainment space has been a popular American pursuit since the housing boom in the 1950s, and it continues to this day with home theaters and media rooms placing high on the list of desirable options. What better way to use an under-utilized space?

Here are eight things to consider before tackling the job.

1. Electronics and Water Don't Mix

Most basements are damp, musty places that are prone to water seepage. Moisture can usually be controlled with a dehumidifier, but if your basement has more serious water issues, now is the time to consider what can be done to keep it dry. French drains, sump pumps, and various forms of waterproofing can be effective at controlling seepage but will add to the overall cost of your project.

2. Building Permits

If you're creating a finished space where one does not currently exist, check with town hall to see if you need any permits. Contractors will often take care of the required paperwork, which might include permits for the construction and electrical work. Inspections may also be required to make sure all work complies with building and safety codes.

3. Size Matters

You want a good-sized space - ideally, 25 x 25 feet or larger - so there's plenty of room for seating, a big screen, and maybe even a bar area. Keep in mind that the theater walls will be built away from the basement walls, which will eat into the available space.

4. Ductwork

Are there any heating/cooling ducts running through the space where you plan to build your subterranean entertainment paradise? If so, is it feasible to move them, or can they be boxed out? Condensation is also a consideration, according to Matt Bolger, project manager for Electronics Design Group (EDG), an award-winning home technology firm in Piscataway, NJ. The last thing you want is water dripping on electronics gear, not to mention the new carpeting and furniture.

5. HVAC Noise

Heating and cooling systems can be noisy things. Is it feasible to build the theater on the opposite side of the basement? Failing that, soundproofing steps can be taken. To combat noise in general, EDG typically uses heavy-duty R-19 insulation and sound-damped QuietRock wallboard instead of standard drywall.

6. Soundproofing

If preventing sound from disturbing family members in rooms above the theater is a priority, you'll need to budget for soundproofing. Professionals use a variety of techniques to reduce sound transmission, the most effective of which can get quite involved. It all depends on how far you want to take things.

Floor vents are a major source of sound leakage, Bolger points out, noting that you may have to move them into the walls to keep it quiet upstairs while Die Hard rocks the basement. If absolute quiet is the goal, plan on hiring a soundproofing specialist.

"We're not a soundproofing company, but we do have quite a few solutions to prevent sound from leaking through the ceiling," Bolger says. "You can lay this rubber material called Acoustipad on every floor joist on the bottom of the floor. Between that, R19 insulation and QuietRock, you might hear a little vibration and bass, but not to the point where it's disturbing."

7. Lighting

Lighting is a key consideration since most basements have small windows if any at all. "We like to have recessed high-hats in the front, middle and back of the room with wall sconces to create a nice movie-time feeling," he says. "We also create automated lighting scenes where pressing a Movie Time button triggers a sequence of events, from turning on the projector and Blu-ray player to dimming the lights."

Path lighting is another consideration if seating is arranged in rows.

8. The Gear

Screen size is a great place to start when considering A/V equipment. Do you want a movie-theater-like screen that consumes an entire wall or are you willing to settle for something smaller? Either way, video projection is the way to go, Bolger insists, noting that virtually all of the basement theaters EDG installs have a projector and screen.

Next up is sound. What will it take to ensure a thrilling surround-sound experience? "We use carefully placed in-wall speakers that are insulated so no sound escapes," Bolger explains, noting that upwards of 10 speakers, including a subwoofer or two, is typical.

Finally, don't forget to consider where you're going to put all those A/V components. "We like to put an equipment rack in a nearby closet or storage area. You want to keep your theater nice and clean."

To learn more about building a basement theater, consult a CEDIA professional. Click here for a list of CEDIA-member home technology professionals in your area.