The New Lower Level

Please don’t call it a basement. The new lower level has gotten an upgrade. “What used to be a space of lower ceilings, mainly mechanical space, storage and perhaps a small area for recreation has now evolved into spaces that equal or exceed the amenities and finishes of the main living spaces on the first and second floors,” says Marc Spector, an architect and a principal of the Woodbury-based Spector Group, a design build firm.

With ceiling height for basements in new homes a minimum of 10 feet, lower levels are being designed for sophisticated home theaters, full gyms plus spas with steam, sauna, whirlpools and plunge pools, “teen rooms” for older kids who want to hang out with friends, dance and listen to music, all within a secure environment.

Spector is working on several new lower levels of various sizes, amenities and uses. Some have large wine cellars, others include laundry suites with several machines and slop sinks. For those who aren’t content with a treadmill, elliptical machine and some weights, Spector is building “subterranean, high school regulation size basketball courts, observation decks and racquet ball courts.”

He is also fielding requests for lower levels being used as museum-like “automobile salons” for those with collections of 20 or 30 vehicles parked below grade. “All it takes is a desire and money,” Spector says.


While Jim Smiros, a partner with his wife, Laura, in Smiros & Smiros Architects in Glen Cove, tries to bring natural light into the lower level, whether with an atrium through the center, a deep window well or walkout, he increasingly designs the downstairs with uses that “don’t suffer from being underground,” such as wine cellars and media rooms.

“By finding ways to bring light in and direct access to the outside, you remove that issue of subterranean habitation,” he says. One walkout space that he designed for instance, includes a family room with a bar area, kitchen and bathrooms that tie into a loggia area that then opens to an outdoor pool. The loggia serves as a cabana.

At a large North Shore home, Smiros created a “leisure complex” below ground with an indoor pool, sports court, saltwater therapeutic vitality spa, massage room and wine cellar. “The residence is above,” he says. At a Southampton home, he included a bowling alley with a pair of lanes, along with an indoor pool, large hot tub and bar area.

Billiards and ping-pong are perennial lower level favorites. And more homeowners are requesting wine cellars with more than an uncorking table—opting for wine cellars spacious enough to dine in. At one Sea Cliff home, Smiros designed a smoking room next door.


Cory Rooney, a songwriter and music producer for Jennifer Lopez and her ex, Marc Anthony, considers the lower level of his Old Brookville mansion, “our home away from home,” covering the whole family’s needs. There’s a salon with a barbershop chair for him and a manicure-pedicure chair for his wife, Danielle. Other amenities include a gym, a plush movie theater with 13 red leather seats and video game setups, a billiards table, poker table, large built-in bar and a full kitchen. “I get to play with my toys,” Rooney says, also including his cars and sports memorabilia collection and band setup.

After dinner in the formal dining room upstairs for the holidays, Rooney and family head to the lower level to play cards, watch movies, listen to music, shoot pool and, on six flat screen televisions, “watch all the different games.”

Walls are being sheetrocked and pipes hidden in ceilings, adding more livable space for more than fun and games. To this end, Judy Studin, an interior designer based in Kings Point, says that as grown children return home, many clients are carving their lower levels into additional—and more private—apartment-like bedrooms and bathrooms.

Katharine Posillico McGowan, a Huntington-based decorator, says “lower levels have become a place for the family to gather and enjoy recreational time all year long [with] anything the client can envision.” For one Roslyn client, that included a golf simulator with an 18×10-foot screen where you can play a round on any golf course in the country, hit the ball towards the screen and land in a sand trap. At her brother’s home in Cold Spring Harbor, McGowan incorporated a stage with a dress-up area and a craft area for the children to put on shows and do karaoke, a round yoga room and a movie theater with large sectional sofas on tiers so the kids can watch close together. Besides the utilities area, “you have the full footprint of the house you can finish off,” McGowan says, adding, “It really is truly bonus space.”

Call it the new lower level. It’s certainly not a basement anymore.