Framing The Basement – Steel Studs

Here’s my recap for framing the basement. It’s probably a good thing I’m writing this a few weeks after the actual work, because it wasn’t as easy a chore as I would have thought.

In a previous life I rough framed houses, so framing is probably what I’m best at when it comes to home DIY projects. Had I chose to use wood framing I’m sure partitioning the basement would have been uneventful. Well because of my concerns with flooding down there, should the sump pump ever fail, I was leery to use pine 2×4’s that could become water-logged and moldy in a water event. There’d be the risk that I’d have to rip everything out and start over if that ever happened.

I could use all pressure treated lumber, which would be impervious to rot, but I was thinking of a more contemporary solution.

Steel Framing

I knew about steel framing, having seen it used at my corporate job. It seemed like that might be a good option: use galvanized steel framing. If it got wet it wouldn’t rot, mold or rust. So I did my homework.

From what I gathered steel framing would be less expensive and go up as quickly as lumber. You can’t use it for structural walls, but none of my basement walls are structural. They just have to hold up drywall. Steel framing is also resistant to fire, which is a good thing around mechanical systems. And steel is 100% recyclable, so it’s a good choice from an environmental standpoint.

I got a quote for having someone else install the walls, but I decided to try to save some money, as well as learn a new skill by doing it myself. Here is an article from The Family Handyman magazine that explains how to install the steel studs (click here). I’ll let you look and learn on your own. Instead of going through the steps again, I’ll hit on my thoughts and highlights regarding using steel framing (compared to wood framing).

Cost

From what I read steel was supposed to be cheaper but I’m not sure that’s the case. If anything it’s a wash. Studs were $4.17 for 10′ lengths. Pressure treated wood is more. Regular pine / fir is less. I looked at both Lowe’s and Home Depot and both stores had steel in stock for similar prices. I bought at Lowe’s because I get a discount there.

Fastener wise you have to buy screws, four per stud. That cost is likely the same as nails so that’s a wash. The same goes for the floor anchor bolts.

Advantage: it’s a draw

Material

Steel is great because it’s straight and light weight. I did the entire project single-handedly. I’m not sure I could have done wood alone. Also we haul materials on the roof rack of the RAV4. Lightweight steel means more studs per trip to Lowe’s. Wood is renewable. Steel is recyclable, fire resistant and doesn’t rust*.

Advantage: steel*

(*make sure you get galvanized steel. I bought mine at Lowe’s and I’m almost certain it’s not galvanized, other than one batch of studs. I asked the associates on two occasions and they said the product I was buying was galvanized but I’m pretty sure it’s not. What I got will likely rust over time potentially. I’ll keep an eye on it (I have access to nearly all the walls from  the back side via mechanical rooms).)

Installation

Wood is easy. Measure and cut. Steel studs are a pain in the ass to cut to length. Our ceilings are 9′ tall. Turns out the holes for electrical wires to go through the stud fall right at 9′ from the end of our 10′ studs. So I had to cut each stud two times.

Actual installation was nothing short of maddening. A drill holster is an absolute necessity since you have to screw each stud four times, twice each top and bottom into metal channels. You also have to clamp the stud to the track every time you go to fasten a screw. I nearly had the entire basement framed before I learned that you just gotta jam the drill on full blast and hope the screw bites.

The worst part is trying to fasten a screw where the track butts up against an obstacle such as the I-beam running down the center of the basement. I finally figured out you need to install the fastener from the inside of the stud, not the outside, first. Then do the subsequent other fastener on the other side of the stud, from the outside.

Steel stud install easily took 2-3 times longer than wood would have.

Advantage: wood

Utility

Steel studs can’t bear weight. So if you’re going to hand cabinets or shelves you likely have to frame those areas with wood. Doorways need to be trimmed in wood anyway because finish trim won’t attached to steel unless you use decorative small profile head screws. I plan on putting in a barn door for the storage room and I know I’ll have to block the heck out of that area to support a sliding door.

For electrical, my electrician is saying steel will cost more because of the boxes and whatnot that he’ll have to use. Also I’ll need to block in with wood mounting points for outlets and more.

Steel is great for partitions but not much else. By the way, all my soffits are made from wood, as well as the ceiling in the bathroom.

Advantage: wood

Final Verdict

So it’s no surprise that I can’t recommend steel framing for any project. I love the look, and steel is definitely easier if you’re working all by yourself, like I invariably am. I suppose the learning curve is there: I now know what to look for and I’ve made many of the mistakes. But regardless I probably should have just stuck with lumber, even if I used pressure treated sole plates and risked wet wall studs.

Check out my photos below for more info and details.

Shoot me any questions in the comments section.

 

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Basement Planning and Pricing

Before we jump into all the “fun” work I’ve been doing in the basement for the last six weeks, let’s do a post to go over our game plan.

Budget is the biggest driver for the project. We have zero money frankly, but as I said in the last post: we feel strongly that we need the space to be useful, otherwise what’s the point. Before the project the basement was full, no exaggeration, of “stuff”. Furniture, half filled boxes, years worth of stuff that had just been moved from house to house. For example, in our old house we had a library filled with books. There’s nothing like that in the new house, so there are just box after box of books. My wife collects board games and we’ve never once had a place to store and display her very extensive collection. I have every car magazine from 1986 to the early 2000’s. Yes, those can be recycled but I’d like to go through them first. Point is we have more crap than most of you combined.

The basement has to stop being a big catch-all.

Okay, back to design and our plans. Here are the main project areas. I’ll go over them in detail in subsequent posts.

Exterior Walls

When we built the house, you may recall we used Superior Walls for our foundation. The basement walls are prefabricated out of cement and steel, and stand nine feet tall (9′). The walls feature metal stud facings so we can apply drywall directly to the face of them. No need to fir out the walls which saves a lot of time and money. I just need to frame in a few of the corners with drywall nailers. Note, we would also have to frame in for any shelf or cabinet supports ahead of time. Superior walls cannot support a vertical load so don’t go screwing in cabinets into the studs. More info, and to see nailer diagrams, click here.

Insulation

The foundation walls are insulated to R12.5 from that factory with blue rigid insulation. When we installed them I speculated that we would insulate them with another R-20 worth of insulation, which I think is the maximum if we fill the rest of each cavity with sprayed insulation. Well to keep costs down we did two things 1) only insulated the top 4′ of the exterior walls and 2) went to a depth of 1.5″ (R-10). Why? The top half of the wall has the most exposure to outside temperature changes. Once you get beyond 4-5 feet the earth’s temperature is pretty stagnate, something like a constant 50 degrees or something (I’ll let you look it up). By the way, cost to insulate the top 4′ with 1.5″ of 2 lb. spray insulation (R-10): $2,164. Three inches (R-20) would have been $4,040.

Floors

The floors in the basement are cement (over 4″ of rigid foam insulation by the way). Our basement is prone to flooding if the sump pump ever fails, so that drives many of the design decisions we’ve made in regards to our basement project. Long term our plan would be to cover the entire 950 sq. ft. of living space with ceramic or porcelain tile. Short term though we’ll leave it cement. I’ll rent a floor cleaner from Home Depot and clean the cement myself. Not sure if I’ll seal it at this point. I’ll decide when the time comes. We could stain the floor like we did in my studio. That is always an option, in lieu of putting tile down. For now though regular concrete will suffice everywhere, though the bathroom will likely get tile right out of the gate. Cost should just be a few hundred dollars for cleaning and any tile.

Ceiling

There is some debate whether to put in a drywall ceiling or suspended ceiling. Drywall is cleaner and more finished. Suspended ceilings give you access to HVAC, water and electrical. If you think about it, the other floors of the house are covered in drywall with no utility access. So I think drywall is a fine choice. The problem with our ceiling is there are a lot of pipes, ducts and other obstacles that I don’t want to, or can’t, soffit around. We’ll be putting a drop ceiling in all the living areas except the bathroom. Armstrong has a wide selection of ceiling tiles and a lot of inspiration shots on their website. I got a quote for installing a generic Armstrong system: $3,500. I’ll do it myself. Hopefully the material cost will be closer to $1,000-$2,000. We may hold off and do this next year if we can’t afford it.

The yellow areas will likely be drop ceiling.

The yellow areas will likely be drop ceiling.

Interior Wall Framing

Because of the potential for water flooding should the sump pump fail, I was hesitant to use wood framing. If the basement flooded there’s potential for mold to grow in water-logged studs and walls. Regardless always put down pressure treated sole plates, but I didn’t feel like using treated studs. I was curious about metal framing so that’s what I went with. I still used wood for soffits, blocking and ceiling areas. Look for my thoughts on metal framing in a future post. Cost wise we got an estimate for $1,791 to have someone else do the framing. I did it myself, learned a new skill and spent about $750 on materials to partition the basement. By the way, this includes material for desperately needed storage shelves in the storage room.

Electrical

I don’t do electrical so we’ll have to hire a pro. We’re doing the bare minimum. With the drop ceiling and good access from the storage room we can add-on later. For now it’s all switches, outlets, and ceiling cans. I’d like to swing for 4″ cans but may just default to 6″ to save money. Would like to populate them all with LED bulbs though. Cost estimate for electrical parts and labor is at $4,000. Yikes!

Walls

We’ll drywall everything. I may put 12″ of cement board at the bottom of every wall because of the aforementioned water damage potential. Or not. Estimate we got was $3,757. Doing it myself will hopefully save some money. But I don’t have the patience or craftsmanship (or desire) to mud it all so I may have to source that.

$4K electric, $2K insulation, $1K framing, $3K drywall = $10K, then do the ceiling next year or down the road maybe. We’ll see. I just hand over receipts and the wife keeps track and cuts checks.

Stay tuned for future posts on each step of the way. As of this writing I’m wrapping up framing and the insulation is done.

-Chris