kimchi & kraut

Passive House + Net Zero Energy + Permaculture Yard

Stone Basement Window Wells


The Design Goal

We always wanted a basement for our new house. The idea of building a new house on slab without one was foreign to us. Both my wife and I grew up in homes that had very active basement areas, with fond family and friend-related memories.

For both of us, basements were places to go for various games (board games, ping pong, pool, etc.), watching TV with family, a place for bulky exercise equipment, or just respite from hot summer sun.

And to improve the basement’s ‘livability’ we wanted it to have a 9′ ceiling height (we felt it made a big difference in our last house over a 7′ or even 8′ ceiling), with large windows facing south.

We also thought that window wells that were more open and expansive could help draw in the sun, hopefully making the space feel less like a dungeon and more like normal living space.

After exploring the options, including this line of products:

Spycor window wells

We decided to go with real retaining wall cement blocks.

The Execution

In researching the Versa Lok product , I came across a series of interesting videos by Dirt Monkey on YouTube about retaining walls:

We like the long-term structural stability of the Versa Lok product, and it helps us achieve the Urban Rustic look we’re going for.

We received several estimates, but decided to go with Poul’s Landscaping & Nursery since they had previous experience building these stone basement window wells. We paid a slight premium to do so, but part of that premium reflected their recommendation to use a concrete footing that would be tied into the foundation with rebar. Without it, they had seen too much movement on previous projects, creating future headaches and costly repairs.

Candido and Felipe excavating hole for wdw well
Candido and Felipe begin excavating the hole for the first window well.
carving outline of window well
They carve an outline for the dimensions of the window well.
shaping the hole for the window well
Felipe and Candido continue to dig out and shape the hole.
holed carved and shaped - ready for stone
Hole prepped for footings.
Candido putting down crushed stone for footing
Candido spreads out the crushed stone before setting up the form for the concrete footing.
Felipe and Candido prepping for 1st footing
Candido and Felipe set up the form for the concrete footing. I got lucky with the timing of this shot — note the flying hammer and speed square.
prep for footing: crushed stone-form-rebar
Corner of the form for the footing with rebar.
close up of rebar going into Roxul for wdw well footings
Close-up of the rebar going into the 5″ of Roxul and the foundation.

After the guys set the rebar in the foundation through the Roxul, I stuffed the holes as much as possible with pulled apart Roxul Comfortboard 80 before they did the pour for the footings.

first wdw well prepped for first row from basement wdw
View through basement window buck before they started building up the first window well.
first blocks for first row
First row being set on the footing.

For color, we wanted a basic concrete gray, which we thought would complement our overall Urban-Rustic design look, in particular the eventual charred cedar siding.

Since firing our builder (there were two of them) in February, the job site has been quiet as I work alone, but then all of a sudden…

ComEd shows up with a new pole for our electric service, just as pallets of Versa Lok retaining wall block are delivered to site. The job site went from relative silence to hyperactivity — stressful, but also extremely exciting to see after such an extended delay.

Candido leveling 1st row on footing
Candido leveling the first row.
Felipe and Candido starting first wdw well
Candido and Felipe trying to protect themselves from forecasted rain.
washed gravel to backfill around window wells
Piles of washed gravel for back fill behind the walls of the window wells.
wdw well tools of the trade from above
Tools of the trade.

The first wall begins to rise:

slowly rising wall w: landscape fabric and washed gravel backfill
Washed gravel installed behind the growing wall.
Candido applying adhesive to block
Candido applying adhesive before setting the next block.
Felipe and Candido double checking their work
Felipe and Candido double checking their work.
geotextile fabric
Geotextile fabric being installed for soil stabilization, and to improve the overall integrity of the wall.
Felipe prepping for capstones
Felipe covering up the fabric in preparation for the last couple of rows of block.
capstones going on
Capstones being installed on the first wall.
capstones complete #2
First window well complete before backfill.
Spring sun peeking into basement window
Spring sun sneaking into the basement window.
basement window letting in light
Light pouring in one of the two basement windows.
Candido building up the 2nd wdw well
Candido building up the second wall.
finished window well (west)
Completed second window well.

View of the first completed window well from inside the house at the kitchen doorway:

On the next to last day, Felipe and Candido could’ve rushed to finish up and leave, instead they came back for a few hours the following day to complete their work while also doing a really nice job of cleaning up — which we noticed and really appreciated. They even took the time to put back scrap plywood sheets that ran from the driveway to the front step so I didn’t have to.

Felipe has been working for Poul’s for 40 years (the company has been around for 50 years). Putting that into some kind of perspective, that means Felipe’s been doing this kind of work since the Jimmy Carter administration — that’s astounding.

Candido and Felipe make a great team: they seemed to really enjoy working together, they’re both diligent and conscientious, and it was fun to watch them do their thing — a mixture of back-breaking labor and skill.

Candido and Felipe finishing up
Candido and Felipe — thank you for doing such a nice job!
Basement window wells three years later.
The view from one of our basement windows.

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