Home & Garden Columns

Ceiling Heights Get Real

By Matt Cantor
Friday October 12, 2007

For those of you who’ve been reading this column for some time, you know that I have what might be called a conflicted relationship with the building codes. Basically they bug me. I’m glad they’re there but they still bug me.  

And the ones that bug me the most are the ones that talk about things like ceiling heights, the size of rooms and so forth. I mean, do we need someone to tell us when a room has become too small? And whose room is too small? Last time I checked, people came in a variety of sizes and if I can buy pants in range of sizes, why can’t I have rooms in a range of sizes? In short, my question is; “Who gets hurt? And is this all necessary?” 

I will concede that there are some size issues that do make sense and those are mostly ones that relate to the entry of fire personnel. We’ll get to that a little later on, but let’s stick with less justified edicts for the moment. 

First, I’d like to say that I was right all along and have now been at least somewhat exonerated (roar of the crowd). Well, maybe not, but it felt good to say it anyway. The point is, that the rules on the sizes of rooms have been greatly slackened in the latest version of the residential code.  

The code I’m talking about is the International Residential Code and this latest version (2006) will probably go into force in local communities in say … maybe … 2012. No joke. That’s about how fast the codes get adopted. Nevertheless, I plan on arguing cases from this latest canon at the next available opportunity. After all, it IS the current code, even if the cities are incredibly slow to adopt new ones. 

So here’s what the new code says about bedrooms. I’ll try to stick primarily to this since any analysis of how the code affects the whole dwelling would be freakishly boring. Besides, you’re probably not a contractor and I want to set our bar at a manageable level. 

Bedrooms are now required to be no smaller than 70 square feet in size with neither dimension being less than seven feet. So a room is typically going to be at least seven feet by 10 feet. That’s not very big but I’m happy because it’s nobody’s business but yours.  

The new code also says that at least one room in the dwelling has to be a minimum of 120 square feet and while the seven-foot rule also applies, it’s hard to imagine too many builders making this room seven feet by 17 feet, two inches. We can imagine that this will typically give us 10 foot by 12 foot rooms. Again, I don’t think we need this in the code but… there it is. 

Ceiling heights are the really interesting part of the new code and where I personally feel validated. While many people are under the impression that 8’ ceilings are required, the actual requirement for many years has been seven feet, six inches. Well, the code has finally done the right thing and dropped the requirement to seven feet. Now, I’m not suggesting that seven feet is a good ceiling height. Personally, I like 11 foot ceilings, but I don’t like the idea that one has to build a room of any particular height. What if you’re four foot, 11 inches and want a room that feels Goldilocks-right to you. You might feel really uncomfortable in a room with eight foot ceilings and there’s no good reason you should be forced to meet some taller person’s standard. So hooray.  

Also, for rooms that have sloped ceilings (this applies to those developed attic spaces we often see) you can now cut into this seven-foot ceiling height and allow half the room to slope down to five feet. Any sloped portion below five feet will not count as bedroom area so you’ll have to have at least 35 square feet at seven feet and 35 more between five feet and seven feet. This is getting quite cozy by my measure and again, I applaud the International Code Council for getting out of my face. If I want short, I should be able to have short. 

If you have a beamed ceiling of seven foot height, the beams can extend downward, another six inches as long as the beams are at least four foot apart. This means that people who are six feet, six inches are going to bump their heads. Well, they don’t have to buy those houses or rent those rooms. So, there. 

Basements have also been given new a liberation. They can be as short as six foot, eight inches (not bedrooms, just basements with all the usual accouterments; ping-pong, storage and such.) 

These rooms may also have ceiling obstructions such as ducts and beams that reduce the height to six foot, four inches here and there. Again, this is great news for people trying to rehabilitate basements with a permit. 

Bathrooms can also be six feet, eight inches and this can be quite helpful in remodels where the ceiling or floor has been modified for ventilation, plumbing or heating. 

Now, a few words about windows. Windows are essential for ventilation, light and escape and the new codes have some changes here as well. Some of this isn’t really new but it may be new to you so here it is: 

Habitable rooms have to have windows for lighting in an amount equal to 8 percent of the floor area. That means that they have to be at least 5.6 feet per room or one window of about 30 inches by 27 inches. Also, half of this amount has to open for ventilation, which is pretty normal for windows. 

Most open either halfway (double-hung or slider) or fully (casement, awning). This is all pretty easy if you ask me but it does get a little more complex when we add in the issue of escape. The window I’ve described for light is not large enough to meet the escape requirements. They’re just a wee bit larger except for ground floor windows.  

All bedrooms have to have at least one window that’s at least 20 inches wide and 24 inches tall but also has to OPEN to at least 5.7 square feet in total size. This means that a casement window just slightly larger than the minimum will work but a double hung will have to be about twice the size that lighting demands.  

This last part is something I actually consider extremely important because it’s about escaping from fire and isn’t this what the code is really about? Safety? 

This one window also has to be no more than 44 inches above the floor so that firemen (and firewomen) have a floor that they can reach when they climb through the window. They won’t drop to the floor because it might not be there and that, as we say, is a bad thing. 

For safety’s sake lets cover just a couple of other issues that relate to bedrooms. First, a bedroom cannot connect directly with the garage. The door from the garage into the house must not be through a bedroom. 

Also, the sole access to a furnace or water heater cannot be through a bedroom (although there are some exceptions that mostly involve attics). A water heater or furnace can never be in a bedroom or its closet. As you might guess, these things all have to do with fire but also have to do with carbon monoxide and oxygen depletion. 

If you’ve been living with a substandard attic or basement apartment lo these many psychedelic years, this should all come as pretty good news. If you’re a builder it’s better still. It’s also nice (and odd) for me when I can say, “look at the nice thing the government did for us.” Down in Hell they must be saying “Hey look, a snowflake!”