Homes with livable basements need to have a method of escape should something happen that makes exiting through the main floor of the home unsafe. Being able to quickly escape through a basement window protected by a window well that has adequate space may mean the difference between life and death. Window wells need to have enough room for any resident of the home to easily climb up and out. They also need to be able to accommodate a firefighter wearing full protective gear.
The International Code Council or “ICC,”, a nonprofit organization that got its start in 1994, put together a set of guidelines known as the International Residential Codes, or “IRC.” The United States and several other countries have adopted these codes as minimum requirements for new construction. Also, older homes need to be in compliance with the codes in order to be sold. Some states and local municipalities have additional requirements. Homeowners considering improvements to their basements are wise to ensure that all code requirements are met, especially with regard to providing adequate means of exiting basement rooms.
Basements with sleeping rooms that cannot be accessed directly from outside the home by other means need to have an egress window in each room, along with properly sized window wells. To meet federal and international codes, each window must provide an opening at least 20 inches in width and 24 inches in height. Beyond that, however, the opening must yield a clear opening of at least 5.7 square feet. This means that a window opening that is only 20 inches wide must be at least 42 inches high. A window opening 24 inches high must be at least 34 inches wide. Windowsill height can be no more than 44 inches from the room’s floor.
Window wells for egress windows serve to keep dirt and debris from caving in around the windows. Because they are exposed to the elements all year, they need to be made of materials that do not easily rot, decay or deteriorate due to exposure to the sun’s rays. The location of egress windows determines whether there will be potential problems with the window wells due to rain, snow or floodwater. Planning is crucial.
For a window well to ensure a safe means of egress, it needs to be usable no matter the weather and no matter who uses it. Any window well grate, screen, lid, or cover must be light enough that it can be opened or removed easily from inside the window well. For safety, a protective railing of perhaps 36 inches in height may be placed around the window well to help prevent animals or humans from accidentally falling into the well.
An egress window well must provide horizontal open space that fully encompasses the width of the window’s opening. This open space must be at least 36 inches wide and measure 36 inches projected straight out from the window. Horizontal open space must total at least 9 square feet.
If the window well is more than 44 inches high, it must have built-in steps or a permanently affixed ladder. The inside width of all window well ladder rungs must be a minimum of 12 inches, and the rungs must give at least 3 inches of toe space between them and the wall of the window well. The space from the center of one rung to the center of the next must be no more than 18 inches. Built-in steps can project 6 inches into the well space.