Houses can be dangerous places. They’re usually built of wood and other flammable materials, they’re full of electrical wires, and the people that live in them sometimes forget to turn off the stove.
Which mean every now and then, they catch fire.
If you’re home when that happens, you might be able to get out quickly…assuming you’re awake, or assuming your smoke detectors wake you up in time, or assuming the smoke doesn’t trap you in your bedroom.
But what if everything doesn’t go just right and you wake up to find the fire’s right outside the door of your second-floor bedroom? What if you’re overcome by smoke before you can escape? How are you going to get out?
That’s what egress windows are for. They’re big windows, with the sill low enough to easily climb out of, and building codes require them for every bedroom on every floor. So if you wake up to a fire, you won’t find yourself unable to reach or unable to fit through the window.
That won’t help if you’re unconscious, though. Fortunately, the size of the opening in an egress window is based on the area needed for a firefighter, with an air bottle strapped to his back, to climb in and drag you out.
Let’s hope you don’t ever need to escape from the bedroom of a burning house – but if you do, let’s hope the bedroom has an egress window.
Problem is, not all houses do. The egress window requirements in building codes (see text below) didn’t exist before the 1970s. Since a very large percentage of the houses in the U.S. were built before then, it’s fair to say that many don’t have egress windows.
That’s often fixed when a home is remodeled, fortunately. But sometimes that causes a dramatic change in the look of the house, so you need to carefully consider the impact. The house in the sketches below is one we’re working on upgrading, including adding egress windows, right above the garage door. Big change!
The requirements for first-floor bedroom and second-floor bedroom egress windows are slightly different (first floor windows can be a little smaller), but what about bedrooms in the basement?
Finishing off part of a basement to create a bedroom is a very common remodeling project. It’s cheap space and it’s not much more than a handyman project. But if you don’t have an egress window in the bedroom, it’s illegal – you won’t get a building permit.
Putting in that basement egress window can be a big expense; you’ll need a window the same size as a first-floor egress window, a large window well outside of it (size also controlled by code) and if it’s a deep window well, you’ll need an egress ladder connecting the bottom of the window well to the ground above.
It’s more expensive than the studs, drywall, and carpet in the bedroom, so you should think carefully before you take on making a basement bedroom.
I’ve heard people say they’re going to call the future bedroom an “office” in order to get a permit, without having the expense of the egress window system. That’s a crime (literally) and a potentially life-threatening decision. Don’t do it.
Look at it this way – if you lie about the bedroom, and someone gets hurt in that room in a fire, what do you think your insurance company is going to say?
Building codes can be onerous and complicated, but they save lives. If you’re building or remodeling, make sure you protect the people you love with proper safety measures, including bedroom egress windows.
Need expert Residential Architectural advice for your new home or remodeling project? Contact Richard Taylor, AIA at RTA Studio Architects to arrange a meeting or an online consultation.