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Egress and your home remodeling project

Posted by Jeffrey Anderson ~ February 4, 2013

What exactly is egress? Should it be a concern when planning your home improvement project?

When discussing residential or commercial construction, egress is defined as a means to exit or escape a room or confined space. The exit signs prominently displayed in movie theaters, restaurants, or just about any building where people assemble are there to meet egress-related building codes. They serve as a guide in the event the building needs to be quickly evacuated. While avenues of exit are very critical in structures where crowds gather, they're just as important in your home -- after all, it's where your family lives.

Home remodeling: Where egress may be an issue

Home improvement jobs that just involve cosmetic changes such as painting or floor coverings rarely affect egress. However, here are two projects where you might want to consult your local building codes:

1. Window replacements

You might think that if your old windows meet exit requirements, putting new units in the same openings should pass code as well. While this is true in many cases, there are times when there could be a problem. If the existing opening size is just over the code minimum, the way a new window is constructed might cause it to fail.

International Residential Code specifies that all bedroom windows need to have a clear opening that is at least 20 inches wide, 24 inches tall, and a total unobstructed area of at least 5.7 square feet. If the bedroom is on a ground floor, an opening of at least 5.0 square feet will suffice. The frame of your new window could encroach into the space needed to meet code specifications. When replacing bedroom windows, always check to ensure the new units meet the minimum requirements for escaping the rooms.

2. Basement finishing

If you're thinking of adding a bedroom when finishing your basement, providing a means of egress in the event of a fire is a necessity. According to the IRC Code, all basement bedrooms must have a window or door that allows an occupant to exit directly to the exterior of the home. The means of exit must meet the same minimum requirements of bedroom windows on upper floors.

Creating a bedroom in a fully in-ground basement can be a challenge, but may be possible by utilizing a bulkhead exit from the sleeping area. If you have a partially buried foundation, adding a sleeping area when basement finishing is often a little easier. Locating the bedrooms against an exposed foundation wall often provides enough space for an egress window or door to be installed.

Many contractors and homeowners get around the basement bedroom egress requirement by calling the lower level room a den or study. However, most building inspectors have wised up to this method of skirting the code -- if the room has a closet, they're probably going to classify it as a bedroom. Egress requirements should be a priority when planning these types of home improvement projects.

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