A window well serves the vital function of retaining the soil to keep it away from the window frame and to allow light to reach the window. Window wells are only necessary around windows that sit partially or completely below ground level. Because window wells can fill with water, many have hidden drains that reroute rainfall downward to the foundation drain located around the perimeter of the basement footing. Alternatives to window wells usually involve excavation.
Egress Windows and Building Codes
Egress windows are operable windows that are large enough for a person to escape in the event of an emergency. Local building codes are strict concerning whether the homeowner can finish a bedroom or another type of living space in a basement if an egress window is not present. If you have an egress window, and you’re using the room for sleeping or family activities, you must ensure that a person can open the window and get out of the basement in case of fire.
A view-out basement features an exterior soil level that is below the bottom of the window. A walk-out basement features an exterior soil level that starts at the bottom of the basement wall and slopes downward and outward from that point. Both view-out and walk-out basements eliminate the need for window wells on those walls, but excavating the soil isn’t cost-effecting for most homeowners and is only feasible if the elevation of the home and the slope of the surrounding ground is conducive to excavation. In the vast majority of instances, view-out and walk-out basements are installed during the construction of the home.
Sunken Courtyards and Walkways
A sunken courtyard or walkway is an alternative to a window well, but it also requires excavation. The courtyard can be any size or configuration, as long as the floor of the courtyard is below the level of the bottom of the window. Because a courtyard, like a window well, can take on water during heavy rainfalls, a drain that leads to the foundation drain or to a separate sump pump is essential. Sunken courtyards and walkways offer additional room to install steps that make it simple for a child or an older person to climb out. The larger the courtyard, the more light you’ll have in the basement as well.
You can’t cover the window with soil, and a window well is the cheapest way to maintain a safe opening. If you’re worried about the safety of a gaping hole in your yard, install a secure window well cover that lets in light and can be opened from beneath. If an existing window well is unsightly or crumbling, you can insert a one-piece molded PVC window well unit inside the old window well and fill around it with soil. The premolded units feature built-in steps.
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