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New plans, new problems: Egress confusion and septic skepticism

Egress windows and septic drain field may not seem to have much in common, but for us, they go hand-in-hand, after we’ve received the latest drawings from the architect.

The lady on the phone who was doing the records search at the health unit said it best:  we’re literally dealing with a sh*thole!  When it comes to having done work without a permit, the previous owner of our house never fails to disappoint.

It started in the wee hours of Tuesday morning (just after midnight on March 10). Our architect emailed us revised drawings of the addition with the garage attached.  The structure is now pushed to the absolute limit of where we can build at the front and the side.  The family room is also slightly bumped out at the back,  

She placed egress windows under the deck for now, warning us that the building code probably wouldn’t allow that. We’ll have to figure out an alternative.  She also hinted that we would have to regrade and told us that we have a lot to consider as far as access to the main floor. Final drawings these are not.

It seems like we were hitting more obstacles and the project is getting more complicated.  The architect is going to be away on vacation for March Break– how dare she spend quality time with her family!– so we won’t be able to discuss the plans with her until next week.

Possible solution? Or more problems?

I laid awake for a couple of hours staring at the plans on my smart phone. Eventually, I got up and started taking some measurements in our current family room to get a feel for size and perspective.  And then I thought of a solution.

If we bump out the rear of the addition by a few feet, we should have enough room to put egress windows on the sides.  

But that adds another complication.   If we bump out the back, the deck might interfere with the drain field of our septic system.

The Ontario Building Code requires that any structure be 5 meters away from the drain field, which is a little more than 16 feet.   Uh oh.  We might have a problem.

In fact, I strongly suspect that our current deck might be too close to the drain field now.  I know roughly where it is, and the direction it goes, but we need to know the exact location.

Record search to locate our septic system


Our municipality now handles septic permits.  Back when our system would have been installed, the permits were handled by the local health unit and that is where those old records are stored.  However, the search turned up nothing.  Zilch.  Nada.

There is no record of the septic system on our property.  The worst case scenario I expected was for the drawings to not be detailed enough.  To find nothing at all was a little shocking.

After all, the house was moved to its present location about 35 years ago.  I would think it would have been just conspicuous enough for the building inspector to want to have a look-see at the time.

And the lot was severed about 10 years before we moved in.  I would have thought that the location of the septic system on this property would have had to be verified to ensure that it didn’t encroach on the newly created lot.

It appears that, like everything else with this house, the previous owner installed the septic system without a permit and the local powers that be didn’t notice or didn’t care.

Septic inspection?

I made some phone calls to a few septic service companies.  We need to know the exact location of the drain field.  It would also be a good idea at this time to get a report on the condition of our system.  We’ve maintained it since we moved here, and we haven’t had any problems with it, but a professional assessment will be useful as we go forward.

We can’t do anything right now.  We have to wait a few more weeks until the snow is gone and the ground is thawed.

What’s our “Plan B?”

So, what are we going to do if the drain field extends into the area we are planning to build?  The way I see it, we have two options.  We can look into the possibility of relocating the drain field.  Or else we can abandon our current system and install a new one in the front yard.  Either way, we are in for an expensive mess.

Until we find out more, we have to put everything else on hold.

Egress may not be an issue after all, or maybe it is.  It’s hard to say at this point..

After further research into the egress window situation, I learned that we might be okay.  The whole idea of the egress window is to provide an alternative means of escape from the house for the occupants, or access to the house for rescuers, in the event of an emergency.

From the 2012 Ontario Building Code (the emphasis is mine):  Egress Windows or Doors for Bedrooms

(1)  Except where a door on the same floor level as the bedroom provides direct access to the exterior, every floor level containing a bedroom in a suite shall be provided with at least one outside window that,

(a) is openable from the inside without the use of tools,

(b) provides an individual, unobstructed open portion having a minimum area of 0.35 m² with no dimension less than 380 mm, and

(c) maintains the required opening described in Clause (b) without the need for additional support.


We already have a large window in the basement that meets those requirements. So according to the OBC, we don’t need windows in the basement bedroom and office to be large enough to squeeze through in the event of a fire.

Oh, if only it were that simple…

Conflicting codes?

Further research led me to a number of articles that refer to the National Building Code of Canada requiring each bedroom to have egress window.  It doesn’t make sense that the provincial requirements would be more lenient than the national requirements.  Could it be that the other authors of the other articles that I have read are misinterpreting the code?

It also appears that the code in the United States requires each bedroom to have an egress window.

Unfortunately, while the Ontario Building Code is easily accessible online, the National Building Code of Canada is not.  I will either have to make a special trip to the library to do a little research, or else wait until the architect returns from her vacation to get some clarification.

Err on the side of caution

Conflicting building codes aside,  I think I prefer both rooms to have egress windows anyway.  Safer is better. We still need to have operating windows for ventilation and natural light as required by other sections of the building code so we might as well make them big enough to meet the requirements for egress, too.  I also don’t want the windows under the deck for maintenance and aesthetic reasons. Our best course of action is to extend the addition out at the back.

But what if we currently do not encroach on the septic system now? Extending the addition out the back could lead to encroachment. These egress windows could end up costing us tens of thousands of dollars if we have to move the septic.

Life and death should never come down to dollars and cents.

We might already meet the code requirements (I think) because we have two separate stairways to the basement,  In the event of an emergency, there are plenty of options for escape.  Why tack on tens of thousands of dollars to this renovation unnecessarily?

I’m feeling very stressed about all of this, as you might imagine.  My wife keeps telling me not to worry until we find out the location of the septic drain field.  Meanwhile, I am trying to think a couple of steps ahead so I can prepare for any scenario.  This process can only get easier.


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