One of the first questions that many people ask when considering buying an older house with a basement is why is it even there? The answer to thatquestion is most houses built in colder climates have basements and Canada is no exception. The purpose of the foundation is to provide a secure base, which will ensure that the foundation of the house doesn’t shift.
However in continental climates with severe winters and hot summers thing can get a bit tricky. In winter the ground freezes but there will be times when it also thaws, and then freezes one more. This processis known as the freeze-thaw-refreeze cycle and happens quite often during the winter in colder climates such as in Toronto.
Therefore the houses built in locations such as Toronto must have the foundations sunk below the frost level. In Toronto this means that they must be sunk down at least 4′ (1.1m). This is because the ground doesn’t freeze below about 1 meter. Sinking the foundations below this level is necessary to prevent the foundations moving during the freeze-thaw-refreeze cycle. Doing this will ensure that the foundation stays rigid and do not cause the upper structure of the house such as the walls to crack or shift. Moreover, if they did not sink the foundations deep enough then there would be a real chance of the house shifting and expensive repairs being necessary to the upper structure of the house.
However because the builders need to sink the foundations at least 4’ to get below the frost level it makes sense to dig out the ground between the foundation walls to create extra space, which could be used for storage. Indeed in the old days before central heating prevented houses from freezing during long winter nights having a storage facility beneath the frost level was a requirement to stop vegetable freezing and being wasted.
That of course is not necessary today as central heating keeps our homes at optimal temperatures and conditions. But the need for deep sunk foundations remained and builders soon saw an advantage to making larger and deeper basements that homeowners could also utilize for additional storage or living space. Therefore over time the basements became more than just a cold storage area, and as they became deeper, people were able to fully utilize the space. But there was also another benefit as in the summer time when the temperature raised and it was really hot outside, the basement temperature would be considerably lower. Hence if you went to the additional work of making a finished basement you now had a cooler refuge from the summer heat without running the air conditioner.
The problem was though and still is that basement space below ground does not count towards the houses square footage. This meant that it was not economical for the builders to finish the basement space as only above ground footage counts. Therefore most basements were plain, damp and musty areas with high humidity. But they offered a huge potential if they were to be finished like the rest of the house in creating very affordable additional living space.