Popular Science Monthly/Volume 32/November 1887/The Unhealthfulness of Basements

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THE UNHEALTHFULNESS OF BASEMENTS.[1]

By W. O. STILLMAN, M.D.

IN many American cities basement-houses are quite the rule; and rooms, partly or almost completely below the street-level, are in common use as work and dining rooms, and occasionally for living and sleeping purposes.

A rather casual examination of the standard works, on hygiene, of Parkes, Buck, Wilson, and others, fails to reveal any condemnation of basements, though the dangers arising from damp cellars and foundations are freely discussed. A not unnatural conclusion might be that these eminent sanitarians lived in an air of such hygienic innocence and purity that the possibility of the enormity of basement-living had not occurred to them to be reprehended.

The value of ground-space in modern cities has caused architects to plan for the occupancy of perpendicular space below as well as above the surface of the earth. In very few dwellings are the inhabitants protected from earth-damp, whether a basement or cellar intervenes. Every physician recognizes the dangers arising from damp and cold, not to specify from noxious exhalations, and unhealthy subterranean air-currents. Rheumatism, consumption, malaria, neuralgia, etc., are constantly produced by such conditions. Humanitarians and philanthropists have painted the pitiable horrors of poor wretches living in cellars and dungeons. Are not many of the modern basements practically just as objectionable and injurious as the former?

Modern basements are, first, usually damp. In a clay soil, water is frequently found standing beneath the floor. There is commonly little air-space, the floor being usually laid almost upon the ground. The ground beneath the floor is almost always moist, as far as I have observed in this locality, and this is due to the following facts: 1. It being lower than the street it receives some surface drainage; 2. It often dips far enough down to encounter subsoil saturation, or subterranean streams; 3. Because it is usually improperly drained, if drained at all; and, 4. It is often subject to the leakage of broken or defective drains, cess-pools, etc.

The modern basement is, secondly, in danger of such air contamination as would naturally occur from unimpeded communication, through porous soil, with defective drains, sewer-leaks, and the general subsoil filthiness of a city.

To guard against the undesirable conditions mentioned several things are necessary, and should doubtless be considered in building all basement-houses. First, area-ways, or air-spaces, should be constructed around the outside walls to guard against lateral dampness, and carry off the surface-drainage, which has a tendency to sink down by the outside walls to the foundations. Second, air-spaces should be allowed under basement-floors, and these should be ventilated. Third, damp-proof courses should be laid in all foundation-walls, to prevent the upward spread of moisture throughout the house. An ordinary brick will hold nearly a pint of water. A house not thus protected will always remain damp and unhealthy. Fourth, the entire surface of the ground under a basement-floor should be covered with a layer of concrete, at least six inches thick, and this in turn covered and hermetically sealed, from wall to wall, with a coating of coal-tar or Portland cement. This keeps out vermin as well as damp, and effectually shuts out dangers from leaking sewers or drains. Fifth, the foundations of a house, in a moist soil especially, should be drained. Sixth, the main soil or drainage pipes, which are frequently laid beneath city houses, should not be constructed of tile, brick, etc. With numerous joints, leaks and settlings are apt to occur. Heavy cast-iron pipes are best, as demonstrated by most recent experience.

The above precautions, if not defective, guard a basement against dampness, and also against foul air, coal-gas, effluvia from privy-wells and cess-pools, sewer-gas, and the various exhalations of a not infrequently filth-sodden soil, and it should not be forgotten that an unhealthy basement usually means an unhealthy house. Polluted air is sucked all over the house by the rise of heated air from the basement.

If we must have basements to live in, such safeguards should be enforced. But, for one, I wish to record my protest against our modern living-cellar, A well-ventilated basement is almost an impossibility from its low level, and it is so difficult to get our ideal conditions perfectly executed, that practically they are seldom met with. I have seen a great many cases of sickness which seemed to me due to basement-living, and many cases of tuberculosis which seemed to have been there developed. The last is particularly noticeable among servant-girls of foreign birth. In the experience of physicians in some sections, it is rare to find a servant-girl living and working in a low basement who has good health, though previous to coming to this country, and being subjected to such conditions, good health is stated to be the general rule. Many people have attacks of sickness, following a time of exposure in a basement, with great regularity.

Would it not be better for house-builders and architects to plan for dwellings built more above-ground? More of a lot has to be sacrificed, but perhaps enough may be saved in healthfulness and stair-climbing to compensate for the loss. City yards are of slight value at best. A good cellar is gained by such a change, and up-stairs dining-rooms and kitchens are not only luxuries, but, it may be argued,, almost necessities.


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  1. From a paper read before the Albany County Medical Society, March 23, 1887.