What Should I Know About Egress and Basement Windows?

Learn about code requirements for egress windows and get window treatment ideas for these sometimes tough-to-fit openings.



What is an Egress Window?

The International Building Code (IRC) requires basements and sleeping rooms below the fourth story of a home to have at least one “emergency escape and rescue opening.” This might be a skylight, patio door or window, but it must be big enough for you to escape through and for emergency workers to enter through.

To meet IRC standards, egress openings must have:

·         A minimum net clear opening of 5.7 feet (the actual free space that exists when the window is open, or the size people can crawl through)

·         Opening width of at least 20 inches

·         Opening height of at least 24 inches

·         Bottom of the clear opening must be within 44 inches of the floor

·         The opening must be operational from the inside, not blocked with bars or grilles, nor requiring keys or tools to open

How Does an Egress Window Differ From a Basement Window?

Not all basement windows are egress windows. For instance, if you have an unfinished basement, it may have ventilation windows. These probably wouldn’t meet the code for egress windows.

However, if your basement has habitable, finished rooms, building codes require it to have egress windows, or other means of egress (patio door, etc.). And every basement bedroom, whether existing or added, is required by code to have an egress window.

Basement egress openings have stricter standards than egress areas in the rest of the house. They must:

·         Be able to be fully opened

·         Have 9 sq. ft. of open area

·         Have a minimum height and width of 36 inches

·         Contain a permanently attached ladder or steps if the window is more than 44 inches off the floor

·         The ladder must be at least 12 inches wide, and no less than three inches from the window well, nor can the open window obstruct it or encroach on the required open window dimensions by more than six inches.

·         If it’s under a porch or deck, there must be at least 36 inches between the top of the window and the bottom of the structure joists.

While these requirements satisfy IRC, each state and city code varies on the size of window required, so before you build, work with your contractor to make sure the windows meet standards.

And though this sounds like a nearly impossible-to-meet list of requirements, especially if you’re remodeling a basement, ask a family who’s used egress windows to escape a basement fire, and they’ll tell you they were very glad they had them.

Basement Window Treatments

Basement windows can be a challenge to decorate, because they’re usually small and located high on the wall. Remember that the code requires you to be able to exit without using tools or removing grilles, so when planning window treatments, make sure they can be opened easily in case of emergency exit.

When dressing basement windows, keep the treatments unified, airy and light. This will maximize the light coming into the space and won’t add heavy, dark decor to a room that’s already on the dark side.

Here are some options to consider:

·         Fully functional shutters painted a light color (this works best if they’re the same color as the trim)

·         Decorative window film

·         Stained glass

·         Light draperies

·         Valances

Whether you’re building new construction or remodeling, make sure you know the rules of egress windows. The extra time and expense will ensure your house meets code and that your family is safe in times of emergency.

Egress Window 01:00

A basement egress window lets in light and provides a safe emergency exit.

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