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Before You Design Your Addition

Before you design your addition/renovation, become familiar with these basic code issues and design considerations.

If you’re designing your addition or renovation yourself, there are basic code issues and design considerations that you need to keep in mind. Look to the International Residential Code for specifics (Building Planning, chapter 4) and to the Massachusetts amendments. 

The following is a list of basic code issues that come up in the course of a typical project:

  • Hallways must be at least 3 feet wide and 7 feet high.
  • Stairs in Massachusetts must have a minimum tread of 9 inches and an 8 ¼-inch riser.  The headheight over the entire stair must be 6’8” minimum.
  • The minimum size of a bedroom is 70 square feet, with a minimum of 7 feet in one direction. 
  • A room under a sloping ceiling must have all of the required floor area with a ceiling height of 5’, and at least 50% of the required floor area must have a ceiling height of 7 feet or more.
  • A loft accessed only by a ladder cannot be considered anything other than storage.
  • Habitable rooms must include windows. The area of the windows must equal 8% of the floor area for light, and 4% of the window area must be operable or mechanical ventilation will need to be incorporated.  


  • Every bedroom in a single or two-family home must have a secondary means of egress. This could be a door or a window.  Massachusetts code allows a window with a 5 square foot opening, 21” x 24” minimum clear opening. The maximum sill height of this window is 42 inches. This is to allow the firefighters to access the room with their equipment in case of emergency.  In most cases, a non-compliant window will be allowed to remain in an existing bedroom, but check with the inspector to be sure. 
  • Bedrooms in a basement are tricky due to egress requirements, see above.  The required window must have a window well that is big enough for the firefighters to use in case of emergency.  If a basement is mostly below grade you will likely need to dig out around the bedroom window.  

Third Floors

  • Third floor renovations can be complicated and the regulations vary from town to town. There are restrictions on what can be built on the third floor — usually, 50% of the area of the second floor may be developed on the third floor. The area is calculated using space of a certain height, which varies from 5-7 feet to all useable space. 
  • Restrictions on dormers vary from one town to another, so check local zoning before planning. 

A bathroom CAN open onto a kitchen, but it just feels gross. 

In my interactions with people designing their own spaces, I’ve heard all of those issues come up.

Besides being aware of all these rules, here are some bigger picture questions to ask yourself as you’re beginning to design your addition:

1. Think about your furniture and where it will be able to fit in your renovated rooms. Be sure to examine bed placement in a bedroom, including the width of the bed and the nightstands.  Ideally, you will be able to fit a king-sized bed and two nightstands against at least one wall in the room.  

2. Think about the adjacency of rooms and their uses. How will you and your family be using the spaces? People dream about open plans, but what are they like in reality, and how well would they fit your situation? Keep in mind that life can change a lot in five or ten years. Kids get older, for example. 

3. Speaking of getting older, if you plan to stay in your house for a long time, think about making it easy for people with limited mobility to live in or visit your home. Look into Universal Design, a process of inclusive environmental design that strives to make spaces as accessible as possible to as many people as possible, without the need for special modifications or assistive devices.

4. Finally, if your home is a condo, your project may be more complicated, or not allowed.  For example, you are probably not going to be able to build an addition onto your space. Making structural changes or moving a toilet may impact other units. Check your condo rules before you start planning your project.

When you consider all these basic code issues before you start designing, you will have a smoother, happier renovation.

Not sure how to add all these codes into your dream renovation? I offer a free Project Coaching Call! Contact me to set up a time for our call:

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Lead, mold, and asbestos

toxins in home remodeling

Nothing is more important than having a healthy home. Lead, mold, and asbestos threaten the health and well-being of your family. Every homeowner needs to know the risks and remediations for toxins in their home.

  • Lead-based paints were commonly used in housing until they were banned in 1978. If your house was constructed before then, there’s probably lead paint somewhere in it. Lead is a toxic metal that can cause serious health problems, especially for children and pregnant women. Lead paint can’t be completely removed, but the hazard can be mitigated by scraping, chemical peeling, and other methods.
  • Mold can grow where there’s excess moisture, which can be caused by leaking pipes, poor ventilation, damp basements, ice dam leakage, or rain seeping in through the roof or window frames. In addition to causing health problems, excessive mold can jeopardize the integrity of a building’s structure.
  • Asbestos was used in building insulation, walls, flooring, and structural fireproofing until it was banned in 1977. Asbestos poses a minimal hazard if it’s not damaged or disturbed, but a renovation or maintenance project may produce airborne asbestos fibers that are highly toxic. Before you begin renovations where asbestos is present, professional asbestos abatement is required both by state and federal law.

What if there are toxic substances?

When there’s a risk of toxic substances being dislodged in the house, a contractor must practice containment to keep the dangers from contaminating your home, and even getting into your neighbor’s yard. 

“There’s an expectation that that type of work practice should be happening no matter what, and frankly, it often doesn’t,“ Ron Peik, president of Alpine Environmental, told me recently. Ron has extensive experience with lead paint abatement, mold remediation, and asbestos removal. Based in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, his building restoration service has been featured on numerous episodes of the popular PBS series This Old House, helping the renovation experts handle complicated lead paint and mold problems.

What are the EPA Rules?

The Environmental Protection Agency issued its Lead Renovation, Repair and Painting Rule (RRP) in 2010. It requires that “firms performing renovation, repair, and painting projects that disturb lead-based paint in homes … built before 1978 have their firm certified by EPA … and follow lead-safe work practices.” Massachusetts has its own certification standards, called the Lead Safe Renovator Rule. 

“Your painting contractor, or your building contractor that’s doing a renovation, has to be, at the very least, either RRP or LSR certified,” Ron explained. Homeowners can look up their contractor’s license number on the state or federal website, to make sure they’ve received the training. 

“But just because they have the license, doesn’t mean that they’re actually going to follow the work practice. So, it’s buyer beware,” Ron cautioned.

Can I stay in my home?

A lot of my clients ask if they can stay in their house during construction. “It’s a very good idea to remove yourself from that home,” Ron told me. “Dust is a major component for any construction, whether it’s new construction, just a simple renovation, or a major gut rehab. There’s dust everywhere. When you’re working in an old home, there’s a very good chance that you’ve got lead paint, there’s a good chance you’ve got asbestos. It’s never recommended to be in the house.

Of course, if you’re just doing a limited renovation, like a bathroom, you might be able to live around the work. But for the most part, it’s better to get out during the construction phase. It’s just not worth it to risk the health of your family.

Although you don’t want to be living in the construction site, if your contractor asks you to visit, maybe to make a decision or view the progress, you shouldn’t be afraid. “If they’re following the proper protocols, regulations and work practices, it should be a safe and clean worksite,” Ron told me.

He added that you should never visit “in the middle of the demolition, or in the middle of the lead-safe work, when the mess is being made. Those are really restricted work sites. You have to be wearing suits and respirators, and making sure that you’re not getting any of the toxins in the dust into your system. And if we’re doing asbestos remediation, as part of a renovation, those areas are strictly restricted to licensed asbestos workers.”

Plan Ahead!

It’s always important to know ahead of time what your contractor is planning to do. When it comes to dangerous toxins like mold, asbestos, and lead, it’s essential to get your contractor to put their actual work practices in writing before they start work.

“As an architect or a homeowner, you want to make sure that you get it in writing: What is that contractor going to do for a work practice, what are they going to do to isolate and contain the work area?” Ron said. “You know, people act like it’s going to double the price of the job, but it’s really not a substantial increase in the price. And it’s also the right thing to do, which makes it an even easier decision.”

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