Ask the Architect

Complications in the basement

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Q. While doing plans for a kitchen/family room addition, we learned that our basement also needed a permit. Even though the basement bedroom was finished before we bought, we were told it wasn’t permitted, which we find hard to understand. Our agent and lawyer told us our title report said that everything was approved. Also, the ceiling is only 6 feet 5 inches, and we were told that might be a problem, too. Can you explain what we should do and why this happened? We just want to move past this and get our addition.

A. What we have here is a failure to communicate. Building safety problems persist, and unless the various people involved in the sale learn to recognize laws (also known as building codes) and tell you, the buyer, about them, the surprises will continue. In the building sales industry, it would seem that since these rules have been around for several decades, more people would know about them. If they did know, then maybe they assumed that in a “buyer beware” state like ours, it was up to you.

This problem happens daily. The rules regarding basements have basically remained the same, with adjustments to wording in the codes to make things a little easier to comply with. For example, there used to be a requirement that each habitable room had to have a large window, no more than 44 inches from the floor, for escape. That changed recently to one required exit from the main room, typically a recreation room. The catch is that other habitable rooms have to be open to the main room, with no closing door separations.

While some municipalities allow bedrooms in basements, many don’t, so it’s best to ask the local building official. I find it’s best to communicate directly, since some codes are hard to understand. For example, some local government codes don’t address bedrooms in basements in the building code, only in the general municipal code. Instead of having a list of do’s and don’ts available, the information about sleeping quarters in a basement or other common violations is buried where you may never find it and might, therefore, think it doesn’t exist. That’s why you should just ask.

The biggest problem you described is the ceiling height, which isn’t going to be simple to solve. The reason for required ceiling heights is that the main cause of death in most fires is smoke inhalation, as smoke rises to the ceiling, builds up and lowers toward the floor. It’s the reason why fire safety programs encourage you to get down on the floor to continue breathing as you escape. The higher the ceiling, the more time you have to get out. Since the minimum ceiling height must be 6 feet 8 inches, you’ll need an architect and apply for a separate state code variance, or lower the basement floor. A state official will inspect your home to check safety requirements before granting permit approval. Good luck!

© 2019 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to yourhousedr@aol.com, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.