The Basics of Window Wells
By Mike McClintock
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, May 13, 2004; Page H02
By house-building standards, most window wells are poorly designed for drainage and maintenance, and unattractive to boot. But the design lingers as the only way to cope with a more fundamental flaw: installing windows in the foundation at, and sometimes even below, ground level.
To keep away dirt and let in more light, semicircular wells are excavated and a form installed to hold back the yard. But the name itself is a tip-off to potential problems. That's because a water-collecting well is the last thing you want next to the foundation, and worse yet next to an opening in the foundation.
Pros and cons
On the positive side, windows typically recessed into pockets in the top of the foundation let in natural light and make basements less dingy. Your vista may be clouds and sky, or a worm's eye view of the yard, but both are better than bleak concrete. And opening units can be screened to provide pest-free ventilation, a welcome addition in most basements and invaluable if the space is chronically damp and musty.
So what's the problem? Everything is fine if the foundation extends several feet above grade, for instance, in a classic split-level where the lower floor is two-thirds buried and the overhanging upper floor is one-third elevated. But the foundations on most houses top out close to ground level so you don't need more than a step or two to reach the first floor and the building looks settled on the site.
On most houses, then, a window well is a hard-to-clean hole that fills with snow, leaves, water and sometimes animals that can't get out. (After removing too many carcasses, some people install angled boards to serve as escape ramps.) To keep the well clear, you may need a cover, which can be costly, cuts off ventilation, reduces light transmission and blocks whatever view there is.
All this may pale next to the drainage problems unless the well has an outlet, and most don't. Sometimes a basic drain is installed to funnel water down to the foundation footing drains. That's a very iffy fix because to avoid basement leaks water should be directed away from the building, not toward it.
But it's expensive to excavate trenches in the yard sloping away from a series of wells to a safe release point. That's why most window wells have only a few inches of gravel in the bottom.
You can improve the situation somewhat by digging deeper and adding what several window-well manufacturers recommend: 12 inches of gravel at the bottom, and also around the outside of the well. Sloping the ground away from the well also helps.
The most common product -- like a chunk of Quonset hut -- is corrugated, galvanized steel formed in half circles and other shapes. After excavating, set the shell against the foundation, bolt through the flanges into the building and backfill.
There are many sizes, but a typical unit is 22-gauge or thicker with a rolled edge for safety against cuts, 36 inches long (projecting 18 inches from the wall) and 24 inches deep. Some suppliers sell wells like this in packs of five for about $90. Thicker, plastic versions are more expensive.
Building departments typically do not have special codes about standard window wells. If you can handle the digging, building or enlarging one is a project you can tackle without a permit. All that changes if the well has to qualify as an escape route in case of fire.
Every habitable area must have two ways out in case of fire, called a second means of egress in the codes. It's a fundamental safety provision, based not so much on the room you need to get out as on the space needed for a firefighter wearing full equipment to get in and save you.
The tricky part is whether or not the basement is habitable. It probably is if the surfaces are finished and there are closets and furniture. Any separate room even remotely like a bedroom makes it habitable. But the basement may not require a second exit by code if the structure is raw and utilities are exposed.
Typical of most building departments, the Fairfax County Department of Public Works and Environmental Services (DPWES) says that every finished and habitable basement must have an egress window well if it doesn't have a walkout door.
The controlling regulations are in Section R310.2 of the 2000 (current) International Building Code, and in state codes, and specify sizes, proportions and locations for windows, wells, steps and ladders. Check details with your building department, or read the rules in a downloadable file on the DPWES Web site (www.co.fairfax.va.us).
The most limiting feature, in many cases, is that the window sill leading to the escape well can be no more than 44 inches off the floor.
One way to meet codes is to cut through the foundation at an existing vent window and install a larger window. Several well designs will qualify once you get past the opening. For instance, deep corrugated wells can be fitted with code-approved ladders, while the Scapewel Window Well (about $450 to $650 depending on size) made by the Bilco Co. (www.bilco.com) creates a large well with terraced steps.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company