The Scariest Renovation Day: Installing a Basement Egress Window and Well

Wellcraft Egress Window

Since I spilled the beans on facebook, here’s a more detailed update on installing a basement egress window.  This involved excavating a giant hole, cutting into the FOUNDATION OF OUR HOUSE, installing a gigantic well that sat on the side of my house looking like a very fancy dog condo or mini spaceship, and tying into the foundation drain system (did you even know that was a thing? I didn’t!)  To say that I was nervous was a HUGE understatement.  

We initially weren’t going to put in the egress window or permit the basement, it is pretty common to do cosmetic renovations without it here; but I learned that the basement should technically be permitted as it was changing the usage of the space and we were adding a toilet…and at heart I seem to be a rule follower, I did spend 6 years in NYC with a fear of getting in trouble with our building and/or co-op board for an unapproved renovation (don’t worry, we got it approved and made sure it was 100% legit before we sold our place).  An egress window would only be required if we were using it as a designated sleeping area; but as Adrian and I talked and we learned more perspectives interviewing contractors, we thought about what it would mean if our kids were playing in the basement or someone was staying with us and camping out down there and there was a fire. The only way out was a single wooden staircase…we quickly decided the several thousand dollars for an egress window was worth it….plus, see above re my rule-following ways.

We definitely were not going to DIY this, although it is possible, namely b/c I was lacking the three main elements needed to cut through a concrete block foundation—bravado, tools, and/or brute strength.  Many contractors do not have experience installing egress windows and the contractor we ultimately chose for our basement renovation had never installed one.  That made me nervous, so I went into overdrive making sure this was done right, on budget, and safely. After going through this, honestly I would consider DIYing in the future, but it is not for the faint of heart.

I was more than a little scared of failing code inspection (again, rules:-) so I familiarized myself with our local and state building codes and best practices.  For easy reference in NY:

All emergency escape and rescue openings shall have a minimum net clear opening of 5.7 square feet, EXCEPT that grade floor openings shall have a minimum net clear opening of 5 square feet. The minimum net clear opening height shall be 24 inches. The minimum net clear opening width shall be 20 inches.  The sill heigh must be not more than 44 inches from the floor.  https://www.dos.ny.gov/dcea/pdf/TBRCegressgarage07.pdf

FYI, this means if you have a sliding window, it needs to be 48 inches wide as the net clear opening width is only as wide as ONE SIDE of the window (same thing with single or double hung windows, they would need to be at least 48 inches high to get a net clear of 24 inches).  Tip-If you are limited on space, look at casement windows.  Egress windows seem to be quite a bit more expensive than regular windows.  Many are marketed with thicker glass too, but that doesn’t seem necessary for operation and is not required for code.  We had room for a 48 inch sliding window so just got a basic off the shelf 48 x 48 sliding window at Lowes.  We saved several hundred dollars by going this route, it looks great, is code compliant, and should be just as durable as any other egress window.

Wellcraft Egress Well

For the well, ladder, and drainage there are some more detailed requirements that kind of made my eyes glaze over.  There are many approaches to how to build a well.  The most affordable is pressure treated lumber, but it can be tricky to do steps or a ladder and stay code compliant.  Plus, I wanted something that looked nice from outside and inside, was durable, was guaranteed to meet or exceed code, and was easy to climb in and out of (the whole point of this is to ensure our kids/guests are safe!)  Also, I wanted a cover as the last thing I need is for my 3 year old to fall into the egress well when he’s chasing the dog in the side yard:-) I found this well with integrated ladder and was hooked!  It also had a matching cover.  Boom!  Code compliant, easy to install, free shipping, and more than half the price of Lowes and other stores.  Plus, I got 10% cash back that month on home improvement purchases with our Discover card.

For the actual install of the well and window it was fairly straight forward.  I got the permit, confirmed the location of any buried utilities with DIG SAFE (811), we rented a mini excavator, our contractor had a blast digging a hole and then we pretty much followed the directions for the well install and this great step by step tutorial for installing the egress window.  You may want to have a stiff drink handy when they actually cut through your foundation wall, I was clenching my stomach, jaw, fists, and any other body part that can be clenched quite tightly–hello-you are CUTTING A HOLE IN THE FOUNDATION OF YOUR HOUSE.  I don’t think I took a deep breath until a few days later, after I had repeatedly confirmed that my house was not in danger of collapsing:-)

Our egress window allows a ton of light to come into the basement and looks surprisingly good from inside and outside.  I plan to use it as a mini greenhouse too!

We passed our final inspection this week, and the building inspector said this was the best egress window he’s seen and is definitely the best in our town  He had a trainee with him and told him, “this is how you do it”:-)  I love that the scariest part of my renovation had such a great result.

Fun fact- the required dimensions of an egress window are to ensure a firefighter in full gear can enter your basement.

Another fun fact-Our neighbors are saints b/c there has been a mini mountain of dirt in our side yard since November and it’s not going to be moved until I build the raised beds built for the backyard which is looking like April at this point.

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