Ask the Architect

When the subject is windows, there’s ‘lots to know’

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Q. We’re planning a renovation with a second-floor dormer to square out so we can get two more bedrooms. We plan to remove walls on the first floor and make a big open family room, since our living room rarely gets used and is too small for company. There’s a problem with the windows because our house is brick, and we’re being told that the windows all have to change sizes, meaning brick has to be taken out, which is going to cost us a lot more. We were hoping to just side the top floor and leave the brick alone. What are the rules about this? Aren’t we grandfathered in?

A.Windows are one of the subjects that frequently come up when changes to a house are made, mainly because of the multiple purposes openings serve. Safety is a primary focus of the building code officials, who want to increase your chances of escape or rescue. Window openings were resized in the 2003 code, and unless you’re doing less than 50 percent change to your home, you are required to bring the existing openings up to meet the new code.

    All habitable spaces — rooms where you can fall asleep, entertain or just hang out — need to be upgraded from the old code of 4 square feet of open area to 5.7 square feet. The only rooms excluded are kitchens, laundry/utility rooms, bathrooms and storage spaces, but remember, the basement with a bathroom and/or a fireplace isn’t a storage room in the eyes of the plans examiner. You may call it storage, but if it looks like a recreation room, it will be interpreted as habitable space, even if it’s only occasionally used. First-floor rooms, where the floor is less than 6 feet above the adjacent ground level, only need to be 5 square feet.

    Windows on any floor except the first floor, including the basement or second floor, must have 5.7 square feet of opening for escape, and be a minimum of 20 inches wide, with the height of the opening no less than 24 inches. That isn’t the minimum size of the window, it’s the minimum size of the clear opening with the window in the full open position. Even though there’s an appendix in the code that shows the exception, or “grandfathering,” of existing windows that can remain the smaller size, it doesn’t apply if the building official interprets that more than 50 percent of the dwelling is changing, mainly because the home is now classified as a new home, and new homes must meet the new code.

    Unless your new family room is closed off, however, with a doorway smaller than two-thirds of the wall to the next adjoining space, you don’t have a problem. In an open plan, the front and back doors can be used for exit purposes, so there’s no need to alter windows or window sizes. Lots to know. 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.