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I am perhaps finishing my basement, someday

Feb 23, 2011 • creativity, general, web-design

My wife wants to finish our basement so badly that she registered for a local eight-week course on how to finish your basement. As the first class approached, she realized how difficult it would be for me to nurse the baby while she learned about framing, plumbing, electricity, and so forth. So I agreed to go instead.

I had been putting off finishing my basement for a long time -- two years now -- because it's costly and I never seem to have the time. Additionally, I'm not a handyman so I really have no idea what I'm doing.

After attending the first class, I was so excited to throw myself headlong into the project, I immediately bought a framing gun and compressor. The store clerk explained how to put on the couplings. I also bought more than $300 worth of framing lumber and neatly stacked it into my basement.

The instructor explained that I could google or youtube any topic and find abundant instruction online. He was right. We live in an era of complete do-it-yourselfism. If you search youtube for videos on how to frame your basement, you could watch them endlessly.

The week after the first basement class, I spent a good amount of time clearing out all the junk from my basement. You need a clean working space to build. I also drew  the blueprints of what I plan to build. Other than once replacing a radiator in my car, this is the largest project I've ever tackled.

My basement diagram
The basement diagram I drew as I prepared to finish my basement.

Monday I took President's day off and planned to do the framing, but I realized I don't understand the process well enough. Does the vapor barrier go on the inside or outside of the insulation? Should I use polystyrene foam? What about those hairline cracks in my walls that have water stains around them? Is that something to worry about, even though I dug out the window wells and pretty much fixed the water penetration problem? Do I need to do a moisture test with a piece of plastic covering those cracks for a couple of days? What are the actual city codes for vapor barriers? Should I remove the existing insulation, which only covers half the wall? Why would it only cover half the wall? Newer homes have the insulation covering the entire wall, so have the city codes changed, and am I now responsible for the new codes? Does the vapor barrier have to be continuous, or can I tape an addition to the existing half wall?

One problem with do-it-yourselfism is that there are so many youtube videos online, they present conflicting methods and advice. Read enough of it and it can become paralyzing. Although sometimes I follow an impulsive behavior and try to learn from doing even as I screw up, I realize that unless I do this right, I could end up redoing everything, or getting mold, or not passing code. I could spend weeks learning this stuff. For a one-time job, it hardly seems worth it.

I am being very cautious, but sometimes my behavior gets neurotic. For  example, when I initially ordered the framing lumber, at least a third of it had little mildewy spots. I googled mildew/mold on framing lumber, and I ended up taking it all back to the lumber yard and hand-picking every piece of wood. The lumber yard man said, You're not building a piano with this stuff. I took my time picking through the lumber yard piles.

I would much rather bury my nose in WordPress projects or something computer-related, but honestly, there's a lot I don't know about WordPress too. Try building a theme from scratch or a plugin -- there's quite a bit to it. You can quickly run up against the same intimidating wall of how-to.

My mother-in-law feels strongly that I should finish the basement myself, in part because she's very handy at this stuff herself (she once cut her own skylights on a whim). But the question of whether to finish a basement oneself or to hire out feeds into a larger issue of buy versus build, specialist versus generalist, one role versus multiple roles?

Do-it-yourself is everywhere, because information is everywhere. But everything is also more specialized and technical. It does make sense many times to do it yourself by studying it out through the scattered information you find online, but although the information is available, the tasks are also often more technical, more specialized, more expert, and more involved. For example, you can find information on how to change your headlamp bulb on a 2003 Nissan Altima. The only problem is that you have to take off your entire front bumper to do it.

I tend to lean towards the "do one thing really well" philosophy, since it's usually more rewarding to be an expert than to be someone who is always struggling to understand. But sometimes you have to develop multiple skills because you can't get anyone else to do it for you. For example, I spent about two days drawing the following illustrations to liven up a page of text in a help file.

My foray into Illustrator
My foray into Illustrator

I bet a graphic designer could have done all this in one afternoon. But alas, I do not have a graphic designer sitting next to me with a billing code and spare time. And similarly, I do not have $25k to finish my basement.


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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.