Ask the Architect

Pipes in the ceiling


Q. Our basement was renovated last year, and then we found out it didn’t have a permit. Our contractor first told us we didn’t need one for inside work and then said he got one, but we never saw it. Then someone told our village and we got a summons, and the inspector measured our ceiling from the floor and said it was too low, probably because of the pipes in the ceiling. Our electrical wires were possibly done wrong, also, since he told us they wouldn’t pass inspection the way they were done. Can this be fixed, and how long do you think it takes? A judge says we have only 30 days to fix everything and come back to the court.

A. Shame on you for not asking where the permit is and not calling your building department to ask if you needed a permit before starting. Your issues all involve safety, in the eyes of a building department. Having a permit before you start is required, because it gives some degree of assurance that you’ll have a reasonably safe home. The ceiling height minimum requirement of 6 feet 8 inches for existing homes and 7 feet for new homes is because you need time to escape while smoke is rising during a fire. The higher the ceiling, the more time you have to crawl out before the smoke cloud moves downward to the floor.

I’m always amazed at how gullible people are in trusting someone who’s going to do the construction when they tell you they can do things without permits. Permits are required for nearly anything you can do to a home, except that some municipalities don’t require them for cosmetic things like siding, new flooring, direct kitchen replacement (as long as the plumbing fixtures stay in the same place) and painting. Some other jurisdictions have been known to give out appearance tickets for floor sanding or sidewalk or light fixture replacement. That’s why it’s always best to ask before you do something.

As for your ceiling height, it could possibly have been higher. Installers often take the easiest route to finish and get paid, leaving you with their bad judgment. Where pipes could be run in soffits at the edge of a room or through drilled holes or chases in floor joists, it takes too much time, planning and communication, so they avoid it to get the job done more quickly. Then the ceiling installer, desiring to make a more uniform ceiling, builds down with wood blocking, called furring strips, so the ceiling covers all the piping evenly. Those compounded poor decisions end up violating the building codes, and that’s where you are now. You need to ask for more time, hire an architect and obtain a permit. The ceiling has to be stripped, and the pipes and wiring need to be relocated in ways that give you maximum height with no simpler shortcuts.

© 2018 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.