Even the most successful renovation projects transforming dark, dingy basements into livable spaces tend to feel a little dim and claustrophobic. But when your home is located in a densely developed environment where above-ground additions aren’t possible, sometimes you simply have to make do. Some homeowners might take a step as radical as lifting their entire home to create a brighter, more spacious daylight basement underneath – but how often do you hear of people digging out the earth around their basements instead?

Before and after shots of the Northern Italian home whose basement was recently converted into a sunken courtyard by Last Studio.

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That’s what Italian architect Stefano Larotonda of Last Studio decided to do for a home in Rovagnate, northern Italy. The existing structure was a typical two-story Italian country home set into the base of a slope, but the clients wanted a new entrance, additional green space, and a brighter, more usable basement. The only way to grant their wishes was to literally carve out the basement, creating a new sunken courtyard around it.

Circular entrance leads to the sunken courtyard just outside the home's formerly unused basement area.

Sunken courtyard area just outside the home's formerly unused basement area.

That means a new kind of space in the basement and subsequent creation of an outdoor space that is configured as an open-air room,” says Larotonda. “This new environment allows for the lighting of the underground area, which becomes a large hall described by a series of wooden inner partitions that define different spatial configurations.”

New walls around Last Studio's underground patio made from cast-in-place reinforced concrete.

Working in collaboration with Andrea Tregnago, Larotonda essentially created a giant trench around the home to expose the basement walls. This new outdoor space is a full story below the grade of the yard around it, its edges defined by new walls made of cast-in-place reinforced concrete. Vertical wooden staves were used as the formwork, imprinting the concrete with their patterns and knots for a more organic appearance. The exposed basement walls were then replaced with the same materials, punctured by circular windows and an oversized sliding glass door.

Large sliding glass door separates the inside of the former basement area from the sunken courtyard outside.

A large round cutout in the garden wall now acts as the home’s new entrance, beckoning visitors into the light-filled courtyard where Larotonda has installed stepping stones, volcanic rock, and grasses designed to offer proper drainage when it rains. From the driveway looking in, you see an interesting arrangement of diagonal walls sloping toward the lawn above. From the lawn, these walls stick up several feet above grade, looking almost like the prow of a ship.

Revamped interior spaces featured in Last Studio's

Inside, the newly renovated basement is suddenly flooded with daylight. The concrete floors were darkened and polished for a slate-like effect, and the interior walls are made of three layers of solid fir stained with green impregnating paints for a sheer, washed look. Together, these colors are meant to evoke the tones of the surrounding mountain landscape. The circular motif is also drawn inside, repeated with cutouts in the wood walls and the shape of the bathroom mirror.

New interiors of Last Studio's

It may not have been the most obvious solution, but excavating the basement level was a clever way to give the clients exactly what they wanted, create a new outdoor space that’s truly private, and make the most of the existing structure instead of wastefully tearing it down and starting anew.