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The IRC requires habitable basements to have emergency egress points, but these need not be in the form of windows. However, some local codes may amend this to prohibit such dwellings. Living in windowless basements protects furniture and privacy, but can lead to health problems.
As the human population continues to boom, living spaces are harder to come by. With densely-populated cities running out of space to expand outward, upward expansion through skyscrapers has become popular, but downward expansion is possible as well.
Basement homes, which could be an innovation of the future, have pros and cons associated with their spatially efficient placement underground. Read on for an in-depth analysis of whether living in a windowless basement is a wonderful escape from society or if their conditions breed too many risks to even be worthy of a try.
Basement Dwellings Do Not Need Windows
As long as a basement dwelling has at least one emergency exit with its own rescue opening or the requirements met for egresses, windows are not needed.
Section R310 of the International Residential Code (IRC) explains that the basement must have an emergency exit, but two or more points of egress can be substituted for an emergency exit.
Egress Points Are Mandatory
A lack of windows and the fact that the basement resides underground make emergency exits a lot more complicated. While on the main floor, windows can be broken or opened, and doors can be simply exited through. This is not the case for a basement.
An egress point is a point of exit from a household, specifically a basement. The first kind of egresses you see when you look up basement egresses are often in the form of large windows that open out to landings on the outside. These aren’t the only kind of egress, though.
Others include ramps, doors, staircases, and fire escapes. All an egress point must do is provide an escape from that specific area of the house to the ground level.
Whatever the case, egress points are mandatory to abide by the IRC and local buildings codes as well as ensure personal safety in tragic events, such as fires or floods.
Emergency Egress Points
An egress point must open up to a yard, court, or public area, not just the first floor of the building.
An egress door must have a height above 78″ and a width greater than 32″. The door must have side hinges and swing open 90 degrees. The door must not require a key or any special way of unlocking or opening that complicates escape.
An egress door also must have a landing, which cannot be any less wide than the doors. And the dimension of the direction traveled cannot be less than 36″. They also cannot be more than 1.5″ below the threshold.
The requirements above just scratch the surface of egress point requirements. Stair specifications are much more complicated. These rules are incredibly important, though, since building codes are written for home safety and our safety.
The height and width requirements of the door are to ensure that the average person does not have any trouble exiting through this egress point due to the height or width of the exit.
Complications with the hinges such as the door not opening 90 degrees would also mean difficulty exiting.
A key, keypad, or other locking mechanisms can impede emergency evacuation if the key cannot be found or will not work or the code cannot be remembered (an occurrence that is extremely likely in an emergency situation).
A landing provides a safe exit through solid and flat ground without the impeding of plants or uneven ground.
All of these small rules being followed ensures that, in an emergency, your emergency exit is a very smooth one without complications, which saves time and can save your life.
Why You Shouldn’t Live in Windowless Basements
They Can Be Unsafe
Even with one or more emergency exits, a basement still has two elements to it that can cause damage to the resident as well as the property: water and fire.
Basements always suffer the most when there’s flooding. If the basement is unfinished and used for storage, the damage is confined to the storage items, but if the basement is the whole of the dwelling, then all household amenities would be in danger of extreme damage.
In the instance of a fire, the one or more exits you have to the ground floor are your only escape. Since your basement home has no windows, they cannot be opened or broken to exit. If the exits are blocked by fiery debris, the fire department may be your only hope of escape.
You Will Be Fighting Damp
Basements are a wonderful breeding ground for dampness. This is because water seeps up through the cement foundation from the soil beneath it and into the basement.
A danger in damp environments is the high possibility of mold and mildew growth. These growths can have negative health implications.
Molds can affect those with allergies, asthma, and skin conditions to make their symptoms more severe (asthma attacks, allergy symptoms, rashes, etc.).
Young children, those going through chemotherapy, as well as the elderly also have underdeveloped or weakened immune systems. This makes them more vulnerable to respiratory infections in these damp conditions.
These high levels of moisture also take away more heat from your body than conditions with dry air, making for much colder temperatures. This can weaken immune systems.
For more on how to fight this dampness as well as other pros and cons of basement living, visit my other article: Pros and Cons of Basement Bedrooms.
No Sunlight Means Little Natural Warmth
Although the well-known chill of a basement is great on hot summer days, the rest of the year, the chill can become quite unwanted.
The lack of sunlight makes for a lack of warmth. If you add moisture and the fact that heat rises, the basement is not well-suited for warm temperatures.
Living in a freezing basement would mean adding layers to your outfit when hanging out in your room, no matter the season. It would also mean that in order to sleep, you have to at least have a comforter on your bed, if not many more blankets and thick socks as well.
For someone who runs warm, living in a basement without windows can balance out their body temperature. If someone runs cold, though, their health could be affected.
Your Health Can Be Affected
Living in a basement can affect your health in negative ways through lack of sunlight, the damp, and the cold.
A well-known advantage of healthy sunlight exposure is the acquiring of plenty of vitamin D. Vitamin D shortages can mean weakened immune systems, feeling tired often, and risk of depression. I used to suffer from low vitamin D and it was miserable; just two hours after waking up, I would be man-down in need of a nap. This is certainly not a “mickey mouse” deficiency.
The damp brings about mold and mildew, as said above, and can further weaken immune systems, cause respiratory problems, and worsen skin conditions such as eczema.
The cold can be dangerous to those who struggle with thermoregulation, especially young children and the elderly. As living in a basement that is significantly cooler than the outside environment is similar to an air-conditioned home, you are at risk of the same adverse health effects associated with going in and out of air conditioning.
Adequate Ventilation Is Difficult to Achieve
The complications of connecting the basement to the outside are not only a safety concern but a ventilation concern.
On above-ground floors, ventilation is carried out through openings to the outside. In fact, according to Section R303.1 of the IRC, “The openable area to the outdoors shall not be less than 4% of the floor area being ventilated.”
It is difficult to open a basement up to the outdoors, especially a windowless one. If you are looking for some good ventilation tips for windowless basements, have a read through my 9 practical tips for ventilating such basements.
Windowless Basements Are Not Without Benefits
No Sun-Bleached Furniture
Although lack of sun does have its downsides, it does mean that dyed cloth, wood, and leather on furniture won’t be adversely affected by sunlight. A common trend in old furniture is faded color, which can happen for many reasons, but a large cause is usually sun-bleaching.
Living in a home that, for the most part, never comes in contact with sunlight will preserve pigmentation in your furniture. This will preserve their longevity and keep them in a nearly newly bought state for much longer.
Nosy Neighbors Are Thwarted
A windowless basement home has absolutely no chance of being viewed from the outside. This can have many positive effects on your life.
When changing clothes, you no longer have to worry about closing curtains or blinds to avoid embarrassment.
At night, it is very easy to view neighbors when their lights are on and their windows are unblocked by blinds or curtains. A resident of a windowless basement home would no longer have to worry about a neighbor’s eyes being drawn to lit rooms at night.
You Will Never Have to Wash or Replace Windows
When you really think about it, windows can be high maintenance. The slightest bit of grime on them is completely obvious and embarrassing when company is over, and glass is certainly not the strongest material in a house.
Windows have to be washed inside and out as well, and not having them in your basement home definitely saves some effort and time.
A broken window can occur from accidents such as a misguided ball throw, or from terrifying events such as home invasions. Whether the window has the smallest crack or is completely destroyed, it must be replaced, which isn’t cheap. Cottage panes make glass replacement a little less costly, but they are a nightmare to clean!
Windows Undermine Insulation and Temperature Control
For as long as I can remember, my childhood home’s windows’ insulation was aided by stuffing towels into the openings at the bottom. No seal is perfect, and this is especially true for windows.
An imperfect seal means that the house experiences leakage of unwanted water, heat, and cold through the window. It also means that heat and cold from the house would leech out.
This escape of wanted heat and cold as well as the leakage of unwanted heat and cold inward would make balancing a comfortable temperature in the household more difficult and more costly.
As for the accumulation of water from condensation on the windows (especially during the winter), the water can pool on the window sill or drip down the walls. The wood of the window sill can be warped and ruined and the paint of the sill or the walls diminished in quality as well.
It is up to you to weigh up the pros and cons of living in a basement without windows, but if you follow through with this kind of living space, make sure to check your local codes since they may differ from the IRC codes that were referenced in this article. In other words, some states might forbid you from living in a windowless basement.
Also, make sure to get an occupancy certificate before you move in. Just because the basement isn’t newly built doesn’t mean that it is legally fit for living in, and an occupancy certificate specifies that the basement is being occupied rather than used for storage or other purposes.
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