After my first year of college living in a small, eight-foot-wide dorm room, I rented a house with four other guys. The house came with an unfinished basement, which had enormous potential in becoming the fifth room to the house.
The basement became a two-year project that gave me some great hands-on experience with power tools and wood construction. More than anything, I had a lot of fun - not many people get an opportunity to literally build their own room from scratch. Here's the story of how it became what it is.
The basement, a 20 x 20 cement space with a brick pillar and furnace in the center, was transformed by me and my dad over the course of two days. With his guidance, we were able to transform the basement into a pretty comfortable room with carpeted floors, a closet, and some shelves to put my stuff. The walls were bedsheets stretched around a wooden frame, and the closet was a plastic garage storage unit. We did all of this with a couple hundred dollars and a rented minivan. There wasn't much lighting in the room, so I had to install my own - I ended up wiring together my Jarvis light control system. You can see the first version of the room in the video.
When the closet broke
One day, the shelves in the garage storage unit broke. Since I was storing clothes in the storage unit, I decided I needed something with smaller shelves and more storage room. In my first trip to Lowes, I searched for a replacement closet, and couldn't find anything that fit my specifications. So I bought some ClosetMaid shelving units for $15 - $30 each and some wood screws to put it all together. I also got some hardwood laminate planks of the same color.
The hardwood laminate boards were a great material and easy to work with. Within a day, I had constructed a new closet, complete with a metal rod for hanging shirts on.
The closet was the first piece of furniture I ever built, and it got me thinking about all the other things I could build in the basement. In a second trip to Lowes, I got some power tools and the materials to make wooden work tables. I don't have many pictures of the early workshop, but it looked something like the one below.
I spent most of my time in the workshop, building the room and countless other things. It is where I discovered Arduino, and it gave me the ability to pursue interesting projects like the touch screen table. Having tools and building materials provided a constant source of inspiration.
Framing the first wall
After assembling the workshop, I decided my next task would be to replace the fabric walls with a real wall. I did some research online on framing walls, and picked up some more laminate panels to attach to the outside of the frame (I had neither the knowledge nor willingness to work with drywall).
My original plan was to measure exactly where to put an L bracket, and then screw it perfectly into position on a table. Then, each panel could be screwed into place on the frame.
I realized after screwing in a couple panels that the wooden 2 x 4's can flex and contort, creating annoying imperfections and misalignments in the panels. I took out some L brackets and screwed them again while the panel was clamped tightly in its final position, which worked much better.
If I were to do it again, I would create a wooden facade that gets attached to the frame in one go. Creating a wall panel-by-panel is an overly complicated endeavor.
With about a hundred dollars of paneling, some black foam board, and Lunch Atop a Skyscraper by Charles Ebbets, the first wall was complete.
I installed lighting by drilling a hole in a panel and mounting a light fixture directly to it. I would then have to run electrical wire to the central power source for all the other lights.
Installing new lights was my favorite part of building the room, because I could hook them up to Jarvis and start voice controlling them right away.
Adding a mirror
I started another wall with extra building materials from the first wall, and added this mirror I found on craigslist to it.
Framing the next wall
I did a much better job of planning the next wall, so the entire construction process took only two weekends. On the first weekend, I framed the wall with the straightest beams I could find, and added some supports to evenly space them.
I then started mounting panels on the frame using what I had learned about L brackets and clamping panels into place. Since the floor of the room was uneven, I had to do some pretty interesting geometry to make everything fit.
I had extra 2 x 4's from framing the large wall that I used to frame the wall behind the fridge.
This is a picture of the wall as it neared completion.
The food storage
Most of my diet in college consisted of smoothies, salads, and sushi. To make it easier to prepare food in the basement, I added a kitchen area where I could store food and do basic preparations on a small table.
The original table had LED lighting strips underneath, which created a unique lighting effect and consumed very little power.
The bed backdrop
In the Jarvis video, you may have noticed a cartoon cityscape behind the bed. That cartoon cityscape is actually a shower curtain stretched around a wooden frame. In my next building experiment, I built an entire 8 foot section of wall behind the bed on the floor, then lifted it into position and attached it to the ceiling.
There are lights attached to the bed section to illuminate the backdrop and make it feel like a more natural element of the room.
Covering the stairway
I wanted to add one more wall to reduce the amount of sound that came down the stairs from the rest of the house. I started by building the frame and attaching panels of a different color.
I was much more intelligent about my use of brackets and postioning, and fabricated the entire wall with great precision.
I used a fragment of the complete wall to position the anchors to mount it to the ceiling and other wall.
Once the wall was in place, I assembled the rest of the fragments and moved my desk in front of it. I later got monitor mounting arms that I attached to the wall to make a more sturdy computing setup.
I created a ceiling using two 4 x 8 laminated panels, which I initially purchased for their remarkably low price of ten dollars. I figured they could be used for something.
Since this project involved single-handedly lifting an 8 foot by 8 foot square to the ceiling, I had to first hang one side of the square to the ceiling with hooks. Once one edge was hung, I lifted the other end and used screws to secure it to the ceiling.
I looked up at the giant white square I had just attached to the ceiling, and it really didn't look great.
So I decided I would add some LED light pointing inwards, to add some permanent background lighting to the room. I was mainly looking to add LEDs since the GU10 bulbs I used in all the other lighting fixtures could burn you if you touched them after they had been on for more than an hour.
The final result was stunning and added a very unique light to the room.
Adding more lighting
Even with the addition of LED light, there wasn't much lighting in the room, so I converted a six foot wall panel into a lighting fixture. First, I drilled holes for a light bulb socket.
Then, I mounted the light bulb sockets and set up the wiring. These panels would be hung from the ceiling with a thick latex band, and wired into the light control system.
Building a bookshelf
I built this bookshelf in an hour. By this point, I was planning out a construction project from start to finish, getting exactly the amount of building material that I needed, and completing the entire project from my plan in one go. While it seems like a pretty ordinary bookshelf, the level of planning and stepwise execution put into it was close to Ikea furniture status.
The final wall
The final wall was built around the bookshelf, and was framed with pre-drilled holes to make it easier to attach the panels to the wall with only a foot of space behind them.
I attached two new light fixtures to the wall, and hung a wooden panel light over the ceiling space.
This was the last unfinished wall of the room, and it felt so good closing it up.
This is a picture of the finished corner of the room, which I used as storage for school-related things.
This electric projector screen came down from behind the screen, and was completely hidden when retracted. I used an Arduino to virtually press the remote for the projector screen, so I could use a voice command to turn on the projector and bring down the screen.
Touch screen switch
This was my first attempt at making a physical interface for controlling the lights in my room. Until this point, I would either have to speak a voice command or open my computer to change specific lights. I wanted to make something that anyone could use to control the lights, and something as natural as a light switch. I go more in detail about this project here. TThis panel would become part of the final wall, near the entrance to the room.
Refining the closet
The poster got damaged, and I didn't feel like mounting a new one. Instead, I converted the space once taken up by the poster to food storage shelves and cabinets.
The food storage area, which I later expanded to include two additional shelves in the unused space at the bottom.
The kitchen got a microwave and storage for an electric skillet. I also got a plastic sheet to protect the table top from damage.
The closet, with clothes arranged in chromatic order.
I added this towel rack, and built a hidden door to the workshop. The door itself blended perfectly with the wall, and was easily the most tricky and intricate part of the entire room (the picture below shows the door when open).
I built the door using the same framing/paneling technique as the walls, and drilled precise holes for the hinges so the door would gently swing shut when not being held open. Finally, I had a way to keep dust from the workshop out of my room.
Using what I learned from the workshop door, I built another door outside the room, and added a fingerprint lock to it. The room was finally complete.
But of course, no high-tech room is complete without a robot that can bring you things.
Leaving the basement
I never showed people pictures of the basement or wrote about it on my previous blog. I didn't want the attention. It was far more enjoyable to have a comfortable space that only my close friends knew about where I could work freely on my ideas. I left the basement in March 2013 to move back to California to pursue the opportunity of a lifetime, and the skills I picked up from this project were invaluable in creating an above-ground version of my basement through the first techlab facility.