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How To Make Your Cold Dark Basement Better, Cozier – The Elements Of A GOOD Basement “Family/Media Room”

Basements are on my brain right now. I’ve designed a few in my life, but dark cold Oregon basements that need to function as a media and family room are DIFFERENT. You can’t just throw white paint on the walls and a cute loveseat and expect people to want to hang out. Often they feel like a cold dark storage room, and can even go creepy. So right now I’m thinking about ours in our rental and how we can lightly make it better/cozier for the winter while I’m ALSO finishing up the design of one of my best friends with Priscilla Frost (who helped on the first Portland project and took the lead on this one). After staring at mine with a ‘HOW CAN I HELP YOU?’ question in my brain and finishing up Robyn’s we’ve come up with a formula (and guess what? The ’70s were right!!!).

A Sectional Instead Of A Sofa

photo by sara ligorria-tramp | from: the ultimate family-friendly media room + wet bar

When it comes to coziness I prefer a sectional EVERYWHERE, but if you are thinking about your basement now and are about to buy a couch, I implore you to go the sectional route. They don’t just provide more seating, they don’t just make it easier to lounge, they create a delineated cozy space within their parameters. It’s like how rugs do that in other rooms – it says, ‘HERE. HERE IS WHERE WE HANG TOGETHER’. It also democratizes the sitting preference, with everyone getting ‘the good seat’ rather than some people getting the ‘accent chair’. I kinda want to put that on a sign and protest at sofa stores. Currently, we have a couch in our basement (leftover from LA) but boy do I wish it were a sectional, and yes I look on Craigslist every day. In the first Portland project, we used this one from Interior Define which I LOVE. I’m always a fan of this one from Article and we just got one from Interior Define which is U-shaped with a chaise for Robyn’s basement (it was a specific customization that worked great). Skip the accent chairs, just put in one huge cozy sectional and call it done. See? The ’70s had it RIGHT.

Caveat – If you have kids/adults that are gamers consider reducing the scale of your coffee table so that you can fit either gaming chairs (I hear that’s a thing) OR everyone standing up, swinging arms like crazy people. Hopefully, you can shove the gaming chairs out of your way for your movie nights, but definitely keep the coffee table movable or perch-able.

Wall To Wall Carpet Or BIG Rugs

design and styled by lea johnson | photo by sage e imagery | from: lea johnson’s basement reveal: workspace by day and family-friendly living room by night

In the name of extreme coziness, I, Emily Henderson, am pro-wall-to-wall (or massive area rugs) in basements, especially if they are in colder areas. The only reason we didn’t do it at the Portland project was because it opened up to the backyard with a big entertaining space and surely would have gotten very muddy, same with at our Glendale house and Los Feliz home (but the wood flooring certainly helped warm those up). But if yours is enclosed and doesn’t open directly to mud it’s OK to have wall-to-wall carpet, even with a rug on top to amp up the coziness. Ours in our rental is faux wood laminate, so I’ve covered most of it with carpets which helps a lot. For Robyn’s, we put down a simple wall-to-wall carpet and are layering this rug on top of it near the seating area. For my friend Nicole’s basement that Max designed and while they did concrete in the basement they put down a LOT of rugs. Just go big really with the rugs.

Cozy Up Your Walls – Paneling Or Paint

design by raili clasen | photo by christopher testani | from: real simple full home tour – the first showhouse i’ve done in years

Most basements likely have little natural light, low ceilings, and virtually no cute “architectural features”. So if you just put drywall and paint beige it will feel sad, cold, and yes, like a storage room. The ’70s knew this. They put up wood paneling and got decades of shame for it, but THEY WERE RIGHT. We just paneled Robyn’s basement with Ross Alan Reclaimed Black Walnut (yes, it’s extra beautiful), and omg it’s so stunning But if that’s not your budget, even pine, cedar or fur adds a lot. If wood isn’t your game (or if you have wood flooring) even paneling like V-groove or shiplap painted out will add a lot of texture and give it a ‘we actually cared’ feeling. And listen if you are remodeling know that finished drywall isn’t free either. Yes, paneling is more but if you have to finish your walls somehow don’t go the drywall route thinking that is so much cheaper – because it doesn’t have to be. Inexpensive paneling from the lumber store can be pretty affordable (just more labor).

Now if you have walls without paneling and that feels like a lot of work, you just paint them a cozier color or add wallpaper. Just do SOMETHING to your walls so it doesn’t feel like a storage room. White paneling is fine, but white drywall in a basement is not. I kinda want to paint ours a rose or blue or green (any warm color) just stay away from anything too cold like gray especially if you live in colder climates. (No one paints anything gray in Portland which I think is funny but totally get it).

Think About Your Ceiling

Basements usually have low ceilings, which can make it feel claustrophobic and contribute to the ‘storage room’ vibes. Now you have a couple options: 1. Expose it like Max did in this basement:

design by max humphrey | photo by christopher dibble

Or you could do what we did in the Portland project and panel it (admittedly this was an expensive paneling job, so…. ). Now if either of those are out of your budget then consider painting it the same colors as the walls – I kinda wish we had painted Robyn’s ceilings the same color as the wood so your eye wasn’t stopped at the ceiling line and continued upward (strangely making the ceilings feel higher, not lower).

Create Zones – Multiple Reasons To Hang

design by max humphrey | photo by christopher dibble

Basements are usually bigger open areas and if empty they feel more depressing than other rooms that have more going on. So this is a great opportunity to bring in more to do. This could be a game table, a puzzle area, a bar, an air hockey/ping pong table.

A Focus On The TV

The bed is to the bedroom like the TV is to the basement and you should design the space for the singular purpose – watching the TV. OF course, one thing I’m not thinking about is gaming as our kids aren’t there yet, so you’ll have to factor that in. But if you are buying now go as big as you can, hang it where it makes the most sense (even if it’s against any upstairs design rules), and orient the room around the TV. It’s OK. It can be the center of attention because it will be, so make the room as functional as possible – i.e. as comfortable to watch TV.

Really Good Ambient Lighting

I think it’s crucial to have warm lights. While cans are great for playing board games, etc, and often it’s all you can have in your ceiling since it’s generally lower. But having sconces or lamps is crucial for it not feeling like a storage room. Remember this post from last year and my general feelings about warm lights and the darker months (and I guess rooms!)

So what are your thoughts? Anything else you loved about your ’70s basements? Let’s chat. xx

Opening Image Credits: Design by Raili Clasen | Photo by Christopher Testani | From: Real Simple Full Home Tour – The First Showhouse I’ve Done In Years

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CB
1 month ago

Great tips, our basement has reclaimed barn wood paneling wainscoting and I wish it went clear to the ceiling! We did our entire basement bathroom in white gloss paneling, even the ceiling, and it practically glows, highly recommend. We used FLOR carpet tiles and they’ve made all the difference in improving the coziness factor… Next up a good paint color and a sectional!

alexa
1 month ago

Remember, there is always a risk of a basement flooding. They also tend to retain moisture and humidity, moreso than above ground floors. For that reason, I wouldn’t be in favor or either wall to wall carpet or expensive area rugs. Also, I think this may be the first time a design blog has ever suggested orienting furniture around a TV.

Mistymountain
1 month ago
Reply to  alexa

Yeah, unless you’re in a very dry/ warm state the biggest issue in first order of business in basements is mildew control, moisture control, pest control and and air circulation. Def nylon or polypropylene rugs !

Atiya
1 month ago
Reply to  alexa

Agreed! We used LVP + FLOR rugs in case of leaks/flooding. I would steer away from wall to wall carpet in wet climates.

Katie
1 month ago
Reply to  alexa

Agreed. Our basement floods every spring as the snow melts. I would never do wall-to-wall carpet in the basement.

Amber
1 month ago
Reply to  alexa

Agree. I was really surprised to see the carpet rec. Not only can it be ruined easily, but the way it holds moisture can smell less than pleasant.

Lucy
1 month ago
Reply to  alexa

Yeah, unless you’re in a dry climate wall to wall carpet in the basement just seems like it will get musty if not ruined by moisture. Also even if your basement has never flooded in the past, the climate is changing and unprecedented extreme weather events are the new reality.

Sandberg
1 month ago
Reply to  alexa

Carpet tiles are the answer. It gets wet, rip and replace as needed. There are decent ones out there that aren’t as expensive as Flor.

Reply to  alexa

i definitely agree about the wall-to-wall carpeting. almost a decade ago, we went through that same thing and having to cut out and drag soaking wet carpeting up stairs was a nightmare i will never be repeating. i can get down with the rugs though. those would be easier to haul up. but i sure do love a nice quality wall-to-wall carpet in a basement. it is sooooo nice.

Susan
1 month ago

A secondary heat source wasn’t mentioned but here in the Midwest it’s essential. Some basement spaces are finished later and not as well connected to the rest of the house heating system

Donna
1 month ago

For years, we tried to make our basement family room cozy and inviting. We tried paint colors, carpeting (would not recommend) lighting, etc. Finally we installed a vented gas fireplace to address the need for additional heat in the winter, and provide moisture control and coziness. TV is above the fireplace, but is often off as we tend to gather around the flame to read, flop on the sofa with our dog, or just have quiet adult conversation in the evening. Best investment we made in the house. It gave us another truly usable room.

Mistymountain
1 month ago
Reply to  Donna

Yeah I’m in a summer house converted to a winter house in MA with little insulation and the master and first floor entry room entry are moist and chilly, which is desirable for exactly 4 days in August to keep cool, and otherwise makes the rooms unappealing. I am def thinking of adding wood stoves or mobile fireplaces or both. Flames make all the difference !

Rachel
1 month ago
Reply to  Donna

We put in-floor heating into our newly renovated basement and it makes a huge difference. No dampness or cold. (Our furnace is forced air and the vents used to be in the basement ceiling, so all the heat would just rise to the main floor).

Kristi
1 month ago

..Little boys with brains still wiring/developing and gaming. ugh. Keep them calmer/active/embodied in the real world as long as you can rather than hyper in an imaginary one.

Kj
1 month ago
Reply to  Kristi

Kristi, I totally agree with this! 

  • “A respected Swiss scientist, Conrad Gessner, might have been the first to raise the alarm about the effects of information overload. In a landmark book, he described how the modern world overwhelmed people with data and that this overabundance was both “confusing and harmful” to the mind. The media now echo his concerns with reports on the unprecedented risks of living in an “always on” digital environment. It’s worth noting that Gessner, for his part, never once used e-mail and was completely ignorant about computers. That’s not because he was a technophobe but because he died in 1565. His warnings referred to the seemingly unmanageable flood of information unleashed by the printing press.” From https://slate.com/technology/2010/02/a-history-of-media-technology-scares-from-the-printing-press-to-facebook.html 

But then I laugh nervously when I read an article like the one linked above on Slate, and I try to remind myself that everything will be OK in the end…. Hopefully…. Dear God, please let the kids be OK. Is anyone else as conflicted in their feelings as I am?

Julie
1 month ago
Reply to  Kristi

The negative effects video games can have on children affects both girls and boys, it mostly depends on the type of game played and the amount of time spend playing. Video games can also be healthy, enjoyable and educational, like most things, you need to make sure it is age appropriate and to make sure it is done in moderation. Basically, video games are bad for kids the same way the internet is bad, or tv is bad, or, even, if we believe Conrad Gessner, the printing press is bad.
https://childmind.org/article/healthy-limits-on-video-games/
https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Children-and-Video-Games-Playing-with-Violence-091.aspx
https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/violent-video-games-and-young-people.

Ann
1 month ago

all of the basements I have been in as a child were pretty much out of the 60s and 70s or they were damp uninviting places with washing machines and chest freezers. I think renovating an attic space instead of a basement would make more sense depending on location. I would really like an update on the farmhouse project or even the Henderson rental house.

Roberta Davis
1 month ago
Reply to  Ann

That sounds like my childhood basement- washer, dryer, chest freezer!

Elizabeth
1 month ago

I agree with the moveable coffee table! We have a gorgeous round one I found on marketplace, old tiger oak with original wooden wheels, and it still moves so easily! With a house full of teenagers and their visiting friends it is easily moved for gaming or for the puppy to run around. Did a lot of the other tips mentioned here, too-spot on. Agree with others about heaters as we live in MI. No wet bar or anything, but the kids still love having a mini fridge down there for their drinks.

Laura P.
1 month ago
Reply to  Elizabeth

That coffee table sounds so beautiful! What a good find.

Elizabeth
1 month ago
Reply to  Laura P.

Thank you! Def one of my better finds!

Tammy
1 month ago

We used good quality plywood to panel the walls, floor, and ceiling of our windowless basement TV room, and it turned out even better than we’d hoped. We painted the TV wall matte black, and it gives a great home cinema feel.

We followed the other guidelines you mentioned, too — leather sectional (the Sven Charme from Article), big cozy wool rug, and bulkhead lights on the walls (safe from swinging hands caused by motion-sensor games). The coffee table is very sturdy and doubles as a bench for extra seating in a pinch. We also added some huge floor pillows for even more seating.

Our goal was to make a TV/gaming room that would stand up to years of use by our teenagers and their friends. So far so good!

1 month ago

We mounted vertical plywood panels (a la Scandi minimalist eco house style) on half of our basement walls, and painted the other half a super warm dark gray (almost black). It feels a million times cozier than the cool gray walls + gray speckled carpet that was put in here before and feels more true to the 1957 ranch it is!

Kate
1 month ago
Reply to  Hannah Gokie

Hannah, are two of the walls plywood and two are dark gray, or each wall has a lower half that’s plywood and the top is painted dark? Trying to picture it, as our 1961 ranch basement needs some help and this sounds like a great solution!

Atiya
1 month ago

This post is so useful!! Thank you! I am on a mission with our walk-out basement and am on board with the sectional + tv ideas. Current struggle is getting all the warm ambient lighting worked out. It’s a process. I wanted to add that when renovating our basement, we had sound insulation added to the ceiling above the drywall. The images in this post of the basement with an open ceiling look super cool, but I can imagine all the heavy footsteps and loud tv shows traveling through those floorboards.

Roberta Davis
1 month ago

I have always hated basements! Grew up in the midwest and lived in the midwest for my first 42 years. Then came to Pacific Northwest and was happy to not have a basement, but now we bought a house that has a nice finished basement and I still hate it. It’s pretty much empty, because we have a family room with tv on the first floor. Basements, in my experience, are dark, cold, damp, and buggy. I like a lot of your ideas, though. This summer, when we had our grandkids here, the two older boys slept on aerobeds in the big basement room and while one of them was comfortable, the other was freezing (even with wall-to-wall carpet)! If I do anything to my basement, I will put radiant heating in the floor and then LVT or a short carpet over it and add an area rug. But since we don’t need it for watching tv or movies, I may make it a game room with a table for puzzles and games, and maybe air hockey or fusball for the grandkids. And space to do workouts. It needs lighting very badly with only one window in a window well.… Read more »

Rusty
1 month ago

In Australia, we generally don’t have basements. I love them thpugh, coz they add so much more space to the floorplan and are a huge boon for teenagers.

Emily … “even pine, cedar or fur…” Bahahaha!!!🤣🤣 Now FUR walls would certainly be a 70s throwback!!! (And I thought I was the queen of typos)!

Delwyn
1 month ago
Reply to  Rusty

I wanted to see the fur walls too – such a textural element!

Em
1 month ago

We put a ton of lamps in our basement, and use outlet switches to control them. So now with the press of a button nearly all the lamps come on at once. Much nicer/warmer than ceiling lights.

Melissa
1 month ago

My parents house was built in the 1930s and the basement has undergone several mediocre upgrades since they bought the house in 1969. About 5 years ago they decided it really needed to get serious attention because it was the main tv location, and teen grandkid hangout for family events. We incorporated a lot of the tips here, like a sectional, arranged everything toward the tv function, wall to wall carpet (they live in the Midwest but had the basement waterproofed, have two sump pumps and always run a dehumidifier). However, the lighting situation was just awful, two boob lights, a table lamp, and zero natural light. It took a lot of convincing from me and my sister, but we finally got them to install crown molding with a slight gap at the ceiling to allow for dimmable LED strip lights. The lights really made the basement inviting. It’s their favorite improvement about the whole space. My parents thought it would be tacky looking, but it just glows, adds warmth, and is great for tv viewing. Their contractor got high quality LED strips which he hardwired to dimmer switches. Spring for the good LEDs because that makes a difference.

Jennifer
1 month ago
Reply to  Melissa

This is a great suggestion – I am probably going to use it in ours as we improve our basement – thanks!

Amanda
1 month ago

Just starting our basement reno – last room on the list!!! Love the ideas
Probably will paint mine white though…..one tiny window and needs to brighten up down there 😛

Amber
1 month ago
Reply to  Amanda

Realize you didn’t ask for advice, but Emily has posted before (and I agree) that painting a dark space white will generally look grey. I’d do a bright color instead.

DeniseGK
1 month ago
Reply to  Amanda

I don’t have a basement, but I do have a dark home – small windows, and mostly north-facing exposures. Painting walls white makes everything grey, dingy, depressing. A crisp color that isn’t more saturated than you can stand is a much better idea. I’ve also read what Maria Killam has to say about this kind of situation, she sort of specializes in it. She says the same thing and never recommends any kind of white for a dark room.

Kate
1 month ago

For those of you who have done an exposed ceiling in the basement, do you notice increased noise between floors and lack of warmth? Would love to expose our basement ceilings but are worried about how much noise would travel and how cold the floors would be in the winter!

Susan
1 month ago
Reply to  Kate

Noisy and cold for sure. It only works on the coast. My laundry room is in the basement below the kitchen with exposed beams. You can hear a piece of dry pasta hit the floor above when you are down there, and kitchen floor is cold in winter. Guess it depends where you live and whether noise bothers you

Aru
1 month ago

Would love to hear some recommendations for colors to use in basement. We bought a new house with a finished basement and made the mistake of painting the walls white. They were bluish-gray before. Either colors dont work and I would love to experiment a bit with color that will make the space feel less ‘cold’.

Liz
1 month ago
Reply to  Aru

We painted our basement, which gets basically no natural light (3 glass-brick window-well windows) a shade of purple called live jazz by behr. It looks great, in my opinion. It’s calming and colorful at the same time.

Sara
1 month ago
Reply to  Aru

Hi there! We are currently renovating our small-ish Michigan basement, and while I have a mostly white home upstairs, I’ve navigated toward warmer earth tones in the basement. While “beige” can seem boring – per the post- I chose colors that are deep, mushroomy colors, warm taupes, etc. It’s looking really nice and cozy so far. I did research on Scandinavian earth tones for inspiration, if that helps!

Susan
1 month ago
Reply to  Aru

We did a deep earthy olive green. It looked horrid in our upstairs living room buy cozy in the basement family room

Sandberg
1 month ago

Excellent post!

Sara
1 month ago

Hi! Would echo that it’s helpful to add intention to the space. We are mid-renovation, so I was happy to see this post for inspiration. So far, we have added lots of wall sconces, warm paint colors, and wallpapered one of the walls. We are also incorporating some built-in areas to add a custom look to some of the spaces. Agreed with some of the other commenters that carpet feels risky in wet areas (I’m in SE Michigan). We went with really nice luxury vinyl tile (LVT) that looks like a Scandinavian inspired hardwood- knowing we can pull some up and replace patches if we ever have a water issue. I plan on big area rugs to keep the space cozy. Also recommend good dimmer switches for any recessed lighting to compliment the lighting tips the post shared.

Lisa
1 month ago

I’m not a huge fan of basements, but my new house is only 1200sqft above-ground with the full finished basement adding much-needed space. We didn’t want to completely rip down the house and rebuild for other reasons, so we’re making the basement more liveable instead — properly up to code bedrooms with egress windows for both safety and light, re-done HVAC system to address the “why is the basement always so cold” problem. I had to fight my husband to paint the rooms some color other than white/pastels, and after reading this I’m glad that my instinct was right!

Vivienne
1 month ago

Speaking of Max Humphrey, I hope you bring him back. He had a rough intro & deserves another shot. Not all of us are quick to find fault. He does gorgeous, interesting work & I’m interested in seeing more!

Anonymous
1 month ago
Reply to  Vivienne

Some people are brilliant designers yet have an off-putting personality. For them, I’d rather admire their work from afar than read their content. I’d prefer to read about designers who are kind and respectful. With tact and humility. Bravado is overrated.

monica
1 month ago

When we moved to our current house I wanted to make the basement a great place for me and my kids (then ages 5 and 8) to hang out and watch movie and play Wii (it was 2011 when Wii was THE thing). We have. great space down there with a nice sectional etc etc BUT as things turned out I myself never spend much time down there there. We watchd moves together in the upstairs living room instead of down stairs. The boys use the space a ton for xbox , gaming, friends and TV, but I still never go there to watch TV or hang out. I think it is becasue it is too far from the kitchen/center of the house. If I am watching something I guess I feel I need to be upstairs. Not sure why, but just wanted to mention so that those planning can take a step back and realize that they themselves may not use the space and that ift only needs to be functional for kids instead of elaborately decorated.

Courtney
1 month ago

Love our basement! It’s big- tv room, small office area, bathroom, storage room
And laundry room. We did put in wall to wall carpeting because it’s too
Cold down there without it (Wisconsin). Big sectional couch, big tv, lots of lamps for lighting and a portable heater for those cold Wisconsin nights!

Sarah
1 month ago

I love this. I feel like basements are the black sheep of the design family. They are so functional but rarely a show piece. And in the 90s they were definitely overlooked for design or intention!

agggghhhh. this is making me want to work on our basement. we just moved to our current home this summer. it was so beautifully finished. but alas, due to water having been getting into the basement due to grading issues, there was mold. so, the wall-to-wall carpet and parts of the beautiful wood panelling was cut out and removed. looking sad now. sooooo, this is giving me some inspo to get cracking on getting it cozy again.

totally going to get some good ambient lighting down there. and rugs.

JJ
1 month ago

We’re redoing our basement – and while I feel like a total dork about this, we’re going full steam ahead with a lot of molding and a monochrome blue look. There really isn’t too much natural light… I hope it becomes a cozy place for the family to hang out.

1 month ago
Reply to  JJ

Wall to wall carpet is really a good idea, definitely it gives a wonderful look, but maintain it is really a tough task. Instead of that using a tile sticker and verified give good look and also easy to maintain.

1 month ago

When CoVid hit, we had to rush and turn an unused basement room into our schoolroom/office for our family of 4 (two parents frequently working from home + two teens). We followed advice from one of your previous posts about basements and I can’t thank you enough!! Some of your tips we used were 1) putting some greenery in the window to create pleasing shadow play on the walls and add depth, 2) incorporating items that read as glossy or shiny (in addition to mirrors), and 3) paying attention to lighting the room well. I’m typing from this room right now, and it has gotten TONS of use in the last year+ — and it is a shockingly warm and cheerful space (despite being fully underground with just one decent window well). A few other details I’d add to this discussion, that I feel have made a big impact for us, is to 1) do a Level 5 drywall finish (if you’re going that route like we did — thankfully my hubby is awesome at it) and use a satin paint so the smooth and ever so slightly sheened surface bounces light around, 2) use high contrast colors/elements (blacks and… Read more »

Emma Hanson
1 month ago

Do we think the exposed painted ceiling if the subfloor above is OSB and not charming wood planks? Would love to replicate this look in our basement.

Kj
1 month ago
Reply to  Emma Hanson

This article about the project states it was a 1950s house so it is probably wood floorboards. https://www.thisoldhouse.com/basements/22153658/before-and-after-basement-loft-like-lower-level

Amy
1 month ago

I used the Portland project’s basement, especially the wet bar area, as my inspiration when we finished our walkout basement in 2020. It turned out great, on a budget, and I love all of it!! The only thing is, I don’t see us spending time down there to watch TV (we use the main living room upstairs for that), so I am not sure about spending the $ to furnish it if it won’t get used. Right now we use the bar area as a handy place to store cold drinks for when we are using the firepit right outside the walkout sliding glass door, but I have quite a bit of space that is suited as a living room and it is not being used as anything right now.

Lauren
1 month ago

After two basement floods this summer alone in our city (Detroit/Grosse Pointes) I’ll NEVER finish a basement again. Global warming is showing me to think up or out for more family space. But I love seeing how people use them. I’m from Florida and basements have always seemed so weird to me when I lived in LA and now the Midwest. Below ground? That’s where the water is!!

Laura P.
1 month ago

Is there a tutorial or behind the scenes on the Portland Project panel ceiling? It’s exactly what I’d like to do in my PNW basement…ideally to give a little more ceiling height. I’d love to know the details! Thank you.

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