For transplants from the Midwest and East, it is downright puzzling why California homes generally do not have basements, a staple in other parts of the country. While houses built here in the early part of the 20th century often included so-called California basements, tiny rooms tucked below grade to house the boiler, water heater, ductwork and electrical panel, the basement as living area was virtually unknown.
Part of that is due to the fast-paced nature of development after World War II. Santa Monica architect Dan Jansenson, who has written an online basement-building primer, cites post-WWII tract-building methods designed to put up houses as quickly as possible. “It’s easier to build without a basement if you were doing assembly-line construction.”
In addition, fear of earthquakes was often cited as a reason for the dearth of basements in the Golden State. But that, architects and contractors say, is something of a myth. In fact, says Jonathan Weinstein of basement-retrofitting specialist Weinstein Construction Corp., “Now we know the opposite is true. Building a basement to code upgrades your home to the safest level of protection for earthquakes, because you have a much stronger foundation for the whole house. A basement will have poured concrete walls and strong foundations set very deep.”
Moreover, today’s technology and new construction techniques have overcome many other issues, such as waterproofing, drainage, ventilation and even protection against naturally occurring radon. Contractor Kim Komick of KKC Fine Homes was able to set a coastal basement 2 feet below sea level, pouring a special foundation and pumping out water “to keep the house from floating away.”
There may be an even simpler reason for the absence of basements: custom. “For some reason, it was not done in the beginning,” says architect Douglas Teiger of Abramson Teiger Architects. “And it stayed that way.”