Ask the Architect

Fixing things up downstairs


Q. Our basement is unfinished, and we plan to put in walls and a finished ceiling. We know we need an escape window, but what are your suggestions on other things, like the kind of ceiling? I’m thinking about just sheetrock, but what kind of access do you recommend for the pipes and wires I’ll need to get to?

A. There are many items to include in your thought process for finishing your basement. Mistakes are made, first, by ever assuming that the people doing the work know the laws.

The biggest problem I see is that the ceiling is just a little too low, that someone dropped the entire ceiling level just because of one pipe. The minimum ceiling height in the current code is 6 feet 8 inches clearance, with 6 feet 4 inches under the center beams, air ducts or soffits anywhere in the basement. Always leave access for shutoff valves, wiring connections, cleanouts and other controls.

If you need to move pipes that were installed without any care for your future use of the basement, move them. Piping should go around the perimeter of the basement, no matter what excuse you hear. Because of poor planning and even worse execution, pipes are the No. 1 problem, because someone thoughtlessly put them in a place that was good for them and not for you.

The ceiling finish can be sheetrock in the larger areas with perimeter “hung” track ceilings outfitted with removable ceiling tiles. Again, even those lowered perimeter and under-beam soffits need to be no less than 6 feet 4 inches above the floor. Tall firefighters need to avoid hitting their heads when they’re running though your smoke-filled basement to rescue you or your loved ones.

Although you know you need an escape well window or exterior door entry, placement of the well in some side or front yards can cause a code violation if it’s closer than allowed to a property line. Verify your setback requirements for your zone, and even confirm that with an official at your local building department.

Many jurisdictions require a permit with plans and inspections, so don’t forget these important requirements. There are so many people who are frustrated that their contractor didn’t tell them that they needed a permit, and even worse, that they now have a violation that requires reconstruction to pass inspections. Don’t be one of those people.

Other important issues include what to do with enclosing your heating equipment, putting laundry sinks and washing machines too close to the main electrical service panel, using the wrong kind of wall studs for perimeter walls, not insulating correctly and forgetting to put handrails on the access stairs, inside and out. Heating equipment, to the code, must follow the manufacturer’s specifications. Installers rarely leave a manual. Sometimes the internet helps. There must be 5/8-inch type X gypsum board on the ceiling extending at least 1 foot in each direction around the boiler. Best of luck!

© 2022 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.