It's become a classic: the open and spacious finished basement with a big-screen TV, a built-in bar and pool table.

This sturdy, all-American formula unites Minnesota homeowners across the economic spectrum, from the middlest of middle class to the highest of high end. There are even specialized companies that can churn out these spaces with factory-like precision.

But a few Minnesota homeowners are taking a different approach with lower levels, seeing possibilities beyond the traditional triad of TV/bar/pool table.

The Yocum family in Lake Elmo, for example, didn't want a tooth-rattling home theater. Instead, they were looking for a kid-friendly art studio for Oliver, 8, and Nora, 5.

"Both [husband] Jon and I are painters, and we wanted a free and happy place where our kids could explore art, and we could, too," says mom Kirsten Yocum.

They brought in architect Ben Awes, principal of CityDeskStudio in Minneapolis, who created a space with long stainless-steel counters, plenty of storage for paint and craft supplies and a double commercial-grade stainless sink with a rinse sprayer that looks as if it were pulled straight from a grade-school cafeteria.

The renovation, which they started in 2007, includes matte charcoal gray floor tiles in the "art studio," which transition into plush modular carpet tiles in four shades of bisque. Buffered on one side by a large, magnetic wall with a first-class magnetic marble run, this open space allows Oliver, Nora and their playmates to build cardboard obstacle courses and forts, and use massive piles of pillows as magic lilypads.

Like the Yocums, Mary and Mark Mackmiller wanted some breathing room in their Eden Prairie home and turned to their lower level to deliver. Instead of a play place, they transformed their basement into a series of specialized rooms: two offices, a full guest suite with a spa bath, a sewing room, a storage facility and an impromptu kitchen. They also managed to fit in a "lounge" with a moody cigar-bar vibe.

As remodelers themselves (their home-based firm is called Mackmiller Design + Build) the couple often encounter clients who request the classic Minnesota basement.

"All the time, people tell us they want this big, open lower level, where they can play pool while they watch TV," says Mark. "But then what can you do down there? Watch TV and play pool. That's it."

The Mackmillers took the opposite tack, putting up walls and detailing the spaces, with plastered wall finishes in two shades of terra cotta, natural sea sponge-patterned ceilings in dark gold and countertops of gold-veined Brazilian granite.

Instead of keeping undefined open space, the Mackmillers dedicated every square inch of their lower level to a specific job, even adding 2-inch-deep shelves along one closet wall for small office supplies and a hidden storage room stacked wall to wall with neatly labeled Christmas decorations.

Along the hallway to Mark's home office, they added granite counters, a double sink with a disposal and a convection oven/microwave that can cook a pizza as well as a pan of brownies.

"Why people love the bar and pool table thing, I don't know. They take up your whole room," says Mary. "We don't believe in wasted space."

Alyssa Ford is a Minneapolis freelance writer.