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History of Basements and Crawl Space Design

What’s the difference between a basement and a crawl space? What’s the purpose of basements? JES can help you learn the answers to these questions.

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Whether you have a crawl space, a cellar, or a sub-cellar, you have a type of basement. Basements exist in a variety of different homes, and they can seem like a bit of a mystery if you don’t know much about the history of the home structure.

Crawl Space and Basement Repair in Virginia, Maryland, and DC

There’s a significant history behind every type of basement, from a crawl space basement to more of a cellar. This history of house foundations will shed a little more light on why houses have basements, the differences between basement types, and more.

All About Basements and Crawl Spaces

Learn about the purpose, history, problems, and solutions for each of these areas.

What is the purpose of a basement? Although there’s not necessarily a universally agreed-upon definition for a basement, it typically describes a structure underneath a home that’s at least eight feet tall.

Basements themselves have a rich history, and there’s something to be said for learning your piece of that history, especially if you have one yourself. 

When Were Basements Invented?

There’s no definitive answer on the origins of the basement, and that’s because the basement structure naturally grew out of early cellars. Because it’s underground, a basement tends to be naturally cooler than the above-ground structure. Underground cellars would store vegetables and other items that needed to be kept at lower temperatures.

When industrialization took hold in the United States in the 1950s, it became much easier to dig underground structures, making the basement a much more approachable concept. Many people started creating homes with basements, especially in areas that didn’t tend to have earthquakes or hurricanes and in areas prone to tornadoes.

Why Were Basements Invented? 

Originally, root cellars almost exclusively stored items that needed to be kept cooler before the invention of the refrigerator. However, the modern basement tends to have a more expansive purpose. The move toward a larger, more furnished basement probably speaks to its usage as an additional living and storage space.

People have many different intentions with their basements, which means most basements are constructed with a general purpose in mind. The initial construction may have been an upgrade to a root cellar. The concrete walls and floor can add to the insulation that already exists underground, making the basement a great place to store products or live.

Why Have a Basement At All?

Similar to how basements were invented for a wide variety of purposes, people use basements in many different ways as well. A basement is a useful place to live, work or store items, even today. Some people choose to have a fully furnished basement that functions as a bedroom, while some leave it mostly unfurnished and choose to look at it as more of an additional storage space.

Although basements do create potential problems with flooding, cracking and basement moisture, their extreme usefulness makes them a common home feature even today. Plus, they can be helpful for people who live in tornado-ridden areas, because a basement is much less likely than an above-ground home to experience damage due to a tornado.

Depending on who you ask, the term “basement” may or may not include crawl spaces. A basement crawl space definitely differs from a basement cellar, and most people will use the term “basement” to refer only to the large type of basement.

What is the purpose of a crawl space foundation? The various tidbits you may learn about crawl spaces may actually be very surprising.

When Did Crawl Spaces Become Popular?

Crawl spaces are typically used instead of basements when a basement would be too expensive to create or impractical for the area. Because crawl spaces still require the construction team to dig into the ground, however, they started to become popular just after the basement started to become popular — around the time of industrialization.

It’s common for homes to contain crawl spaces even if they don’t contain basements. Although basements can require a substantial amount of maintenance, crawl spaces provide some of the same benefits of a basement while requiring much less maintenance. That’s one of the reasons for their enduring popularity.

How Were Crawl Spaces Originally Built?

As the name would imply, a typical crawl space only allows for enough space to crawl in, rather than a basement’s space to stand up in. Most stand around three feet to five feet tall. It’s also unfinished, meaning that wiring and plumbing can sometimes be completely out in the open.

One of the things many crawl spaces originally offered was open-air vents. That’s because the prevailing wisdom at the time was that the crawl space needed to “breathe” to avoid moisture. However, now most experts agree that the crawl space vents actually invite more moisture into the area. Many people are sealing the air vents in their crawl basement to stop the moisture buildup.

Why Do So Many Homes Have Crawl Spaces?

A crawl space is a good way to allow for building inspections and direct access to parts of the home that you may need to fix or upgrade. With a basement, you may need to drill directly into concrete to access important parts of the plumbing or wiring to fix it. However, with a crawl space, it’s much easier to gain access to these systems.

Most commonly, crawl spaces exist in homes that have a fairly temperate climate for homeowners that don’t need additional storage space. Although a basement can be very useful, it can also require additional maintenance and upkeep, which can be extremely difficult for some homeowners. A crawl space allows you to split the difference.

Comparing a basement with a crawl space can be difficult. After all, while they have some similarities, they also have many substantial differences. Added to that is the uncertainty regarding the actual definition of a basement, and the difficulty in drawing the line between a partial basement and a crawl space.

There are a few ways to tell apart a basement and crawl space. These are the most common differences between the two.


Most commonly, this is the biggest difference between a basement and a crawl space. After all, the purpose of basements traditionally was to have an additional place for storage. A crawl space basically doesn’t have the expansive ability for that storage.

Some people turn their basements into actual bedrooms or living rooms, a concept that increases the livability even further. This just isn’t an option with a crawl space.

Although there are no specific definitions regarding “livability” when it comes to crawl spaces and basements, most people would consider a full-sized room a basement, rather than a crawl space.

Intended Use 

What do you use the space under your home for? If you have a crawl space, the answer is probably that you use it only for repairs and inspections. If you have a basement, the answer is probably that you use it for storage or living.

This reflects the initial intended uses of basements and crawl spaces. Originally, basements were simply an extension of root cellars. Crawl spaces, on the other hand, were an option for homes that just didn’t have the space for a basement.

Regardless of whether your space technically qualifies as a “basement” or a “crawl space,” you should take this concept into account when trying to determine how to handle problems. If you’re using it as a living space, you’re going to need to make it more livable than you would if you’re using it only for repair access.

Finishing and Upkeep 

Even an “unfinished” basement tends to have more finishing than a crawl space. You may even have a dirt floor crawl space, which may not have anything separating the crawl space area from the soil underneath your home.

This concept also shines through in the differences between how you handle upkeep in the area. A basement is often a place that you’ll clean regularly, even if you don’t go down there very often. However, it’s rare to clean your crawl space unless something significant has happened to cause damage.

Professionals will also maintain these areas differently. A JES expert will be able to make a distinction regarding the space under your home, then proceed accordingly depending on whether crawl space or basement upkeep will work best.

Both crawl spaces and basements present very distinct potential for problems. Depending on which one you have, you might run into different issues. However, regardless of whether you have a crawl space or a basement, it’s incredibly important that you maintain the upkeep of your space.

These are just a few of the problems you may end up facing with a crawl space or a basement. A JES expert will be able to help you through these problems for crawl spaces and basements.

Moisture Issues

One of the most prominent problems that under-home areas run into is moisture problems. Although this is particularly prominent with dirt crawl spaces, which tend to leech moisture up from the soil, it can happen with any type of basement.

The best way to avoid these moisture issues is to cut off the moisture at the source. For dirt crawl spaces, that may mean crawl space encapsulation. For basements, that may mean a better draining system than the one you’re relying on now.

If your crawl space or basement currently struggles with a high level of humidity, it’s important to get that taken care of as soon as possible. Contact a JES expert for more information regarding how to return your crawl space or basement to a non-humid state.

Construction Problems 

The area under your home needs to be just as stable as the rest of your home. A crawl space or basement needs to have a very sturdy foundation because it’s an important structure that often has a lot to do with the stability of the home above it.

You can run into construction problems with floor joists, concrete pouring and a variety of other important components of a crawl space or basement. It’s important that you maintain your home’s stability, even if that means redoing some of the construction.

Especially if you didn’t have a strong hand in your home’s construction, you may not even be aware of any potential construction issues under your home. A foundation inspection from JES can help you discover any problems that may need fixing now or in the future.

Storage Safety 

If you’re going to store things under your home, it’s important that those things stay safe. Crawl spaces typically aren’t meant for storing things. That’s usually what you would use a basement for. However, if your crawl space is particularly large, you may store some things in that area that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to put in a crawl space.

This means you need to make sure anything you store under your home stays safe. The most important part of that is maintaining a dry, cool area under your home. That’s what regular upkeep can do for your crawl space or basement.

A JES expert can help you understand a little bit more about the safety of items you’re storing under your home. If you shouldn’t be storing items under there, an expert will also let you know how to remove them and store them elsewhere.

Make Sure You’re Covered With a JES Expert Inspection

Basements and crawl spaces are very similar in some ways and very different in others. At the end of the day, as with many other elements of your home, it’s most important that you tailor your actions to your individual circumstances.

The best way to get the right support for your needs is to book a free inspection from JES today. That way, you’ll be covered for your personal needs.

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