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Code Compliance: Effective egress solutions are critical for meeting fire codes in basements.

By Thomas Renner, Contributing Writer 

Roughly 25 percent of adults ages 24 to 36 are still living at home with their parents, according to a 2018 report from Zillow. That’s nearly double when compared to 2005 when about 13.5 percent were doing it. Many of them are also living in basements that are not compliant with building codes for fire protection.

“Just because a basement is built out doesn’t mean it’s legal,” says Jason Weinstein, one of the nation’s few certified egress specialists and owner of Killingworth, Conn.-based Budget Dry which specializes in basement waterproofing, foundation repair, sealing and basement door installation.

People have died while being trapped inside a basement without an emergency exist. Therefore, whether it’s new construction or a remodeling project, it’s important for basements to meet egress codes. According to the International Building Code Section R310, “basements and every sleeping room shall have at least one operable emergency and rescue opening. Such opening shall open directly into a public street, public alley, yard or court.”

The code is very specific about dimensions, square footage and other code requirements. For example, the dimensions of a below grade window opening must meet a minimum height of 24 inches and a minimum width of 20 inches with an open area of 5.7 square feet. Its opening needs to be operational from the inside of the room without the use of keys or tools and window wells must have a minimum horizontal area of nine square feet and a horizontal projection and width of 36 inches.

Window wells with a vertical depth greater than 44 inches require a ladder, which must be at least 12 inches wide, at least three inches from the wall and spaced not more than 18 inches for the full height of the window well. Any covers over the well must be removable without any special tools. In addition, the open area of the window above the sill height cannot be higher than 44 inches above the floor.

Focus on Safety

Although code-compliant egress is critical for people living in basements, it’s also essential for emergency responders. “If an opening isn’t large enough for a firefighter or emergency responder to enter through, you’re also putting their lives in danger,” Weinstein says. “Proper egress isn’t just for your family’s safety. It also ensures our first responders get to go home to their families, too.”EggressCodes2

Basement fires are not unusual. They have been known to start due to a variety of reasons such as overwhelmed electrical outlets, faulty mechanical equipment and lint build-up in dryers. “An electrical fire can happen in a matter of minutes,” says Weinstein, who serves as a board member on the Basement Health Association, a national organization dedicated to educating the public about waterproofing, water diversion, structural repair and basement health. “And many occur in bedrooms and basements where furniture, appliances and flammable materials may be left unattended for extended periods of time.”

Aside from obtaining building permits and site plans, home builders and construction teams need to determine the proper place to dig. As an added precaution, Weinstein recommends using a trench box during the excavation process. “Sometimes people will be quoted a less expensive price on egress window installation,” Weinstein says. “Often it’s because they’re taking dangerous shortcuts like not having a trench box.” Workers should cut the basement wall and chip away by hand the area in which the window will be installed.

After removing the concrete, workers should put the well in place and install two types of waterproof layering membrane to ensure a strong seal and added protection for the window and home. After the window is installed, Weinstein recommends completing the project by backfilling with stone, which allows for proper drainage.

Egress Solutions

While usually not a complicated project, it is critical that experienced and professional contractors install egress solutions. “It doesn’t take someone with a lot of skill to install a window,” Weinstein says. “But it does take knowledge to understand how it will impact the home. If it’s not designed properly, in the basic homebuilding sense, you’re going to have problems. You could see the well start to bow or it could cause a basement to flood.”

Egress can also be created with the installation of a basement door. Weinstein prefers installing doors made of steel or polyethylene, or doors specifically designed for sloped sidewalls (manufactured by The BILCO Company in New Haven, Conn.). In addition, using stair stringers can save money while meeting egress code requirements.

“That avoids the cost of installing a 3 by 3 landing, handrails, uniform stair tread height and depth and code-compliant stair tread size,” Weinstein says. “A hidden interpretation of the International Residential Code for egress is that if the means of egress are under a hatchway door, they can be served by a ladder to allow compliant egress.” 

When an egress stairway is installed, especially in a retrofit, there are huge costs to the builder and to the customer, he adds.  “A hatchway door, either with a precast, poured, ICF or CMU foundation, saves time and overall costs,” he says. Window wells also add natural light and increase natural ventilation.

Ensuring their code compliance is also necessary when it comes time to sell the house. “When you purchase a home with a bedroom in the basement, you assume that it’s supposed to be there,” Weinstein says. “If you’re buying a home with a finished basement, and especially with a bedroom in the basement, you have to do your homework before the purchase to make sure it’s a permitted space.”

*Thomas Renner, who is based in Connecticut, writes frequently on construction, building and manufacturing for U.S. trade magazines. He can be reached attrenner@catalystmc.com.  

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