Perhaps you’re thinking of making a bedroom for your eldest in the basement? Or maybe a cosy home cinema area? Great ideas. You’ll no doubt want to decorate the space and make it as comfortable as possible. But have you thought about safety? In an emergency, would you and your family have a way out? And would first responders have a way in?

An opening to the outside

Unless a sprinkler system has been installed or there is a door leading to the outside, every room must have at least one outside window, or “egress window.” It must be:

  • openable from the inside without using keys, tools or special knowledge;
  • large enough; and
  • easily accessible.

Why? To enable a rapid escape or rescue if it is impossible to use the normal exits in your home.

Windows as safety exits

But what size windows do you need, exactly? How high off the floor should they be? What are the rules for ensuring the safety of your family members and compliance with building codes? Here are some useful guidelines:

Window dimensions National Building Code of Canada (NBCC) requirements
  • Minimum area of 0.35 m² (3.77 sq ft).
  • No dimension (horizontal or vertical) can be less than 380 mm (15 in.).
Some municipalities in Quebec have stricter requirements. It’s best to check.
Installation height  
  • Ideally, the sill (bottom) of the window should be 1.5 m or less above the floor.
  • If this is not possible, install a piece of furniture below the window to make it easier to reach. The furniture should be:
    • fairly low in height; and
    • fixed to the wall or built-in.
Below grade  
  • Window opening onto a window well: the NBCC requires clearance of at least 760 mm (30 in.) in front of the window.
  • If the window opens outward (e.g., awning window), it must not reduce the amount of that clearance.
Some municipalities may require more clearance. Find out what your local bylaws say.
Type of window Sliding windows with sashes that are easy to remove from the inside are best.
Security devices Any security device (e.g., bars or grilles to keep intruders out) must be easily openable from the inside, by any member of the household, at all times.

If such devices are anchored to the building or locked with a key, they can prevent an emergency escape.

Tip: if you have a sliding or double-hung window, insert a pin or piece of wood in the window track to block the sash and deter intruders.

Actions that save lives

Besides design and construction considerations, there are some simple actions that can make a difference in an emergency:

  • Regularly clear snow from around basement egress windows.
  • Explain to younger and older members of the household alike how to get to the window, open it, and climb out in an emergency. Repeat this safety drill periodically.

Other means of ensuring safety in the basement

No one is immune to the threat of fire or other problems that can endanger lives or health. To ensure the safety of your family members when they are in the basement, remember the following:

  • Install a smoke detector. There must be one on every floor of your home. Choose a model that is connected to the home’s electrical system, but that has a backup battery that will take over in case of a power outage.
  • Keep an ABC-rated portable fire extinguisher certified by Underwriters Laboratories (ULC in Canada; UL in the U.S.) in the basement. In case of fire, you will be able to use it to clear an escape path through the flames. Every basement equipped with a fuel-burning appliance or that has an adjoining garage should have an extinguisher.

Advice if you have a garage

In your basement as well as anywhere else in the home, think safety first: plan escape routes and the necessary facilities to evacuate the premises if need be. When designing rooms in the basement, think prevention and vigilance: two must-have conditions to ensure that your loved ones, as well as you, can rest easy.

Our thanks to architect Louis Desrochers of the firm Arc & Types Consultants Enr., a member of CAA-Quebec’s Network of Approved Residential Suppliers, for his contribution to this instalment of Tips & Tricks.