Legalizing your suite

OK, you’ve decided to create a new secondary suite in your home, or legalize your existing suite in Calgary. The next question you might have is “What are the Building Code requirements?” The building code actually forms part of the legal structure of the province of Alberta, so these are not simply recommendations, they are mandatory and legally enforceable. Below we list some requirements you may not have been aware of. We have taken these from a City of Calgary checklist and added explanations where necessary. This article discusses the requirements of the Alberta Building Code; in another post we discussed the City of Calgary’s Development Permit requirements for secondary suite applications.

Wired smoke alarms

You’ll need at least one smoke detector in the main dwelling and the secondary suite, plus at least one in any areas common to both suites, such as laundry rooms, corridors or furnace rooms. These must be permanently wired to an electrical circuit such that when one alarm is activated, all alarms will sound. Battery powered smoke detectors are not acceptable.

Bedroom windows (egress)

Each bedroom needs a window of a minimum size that can be opened without special tools, knowledge or hardware. This is so that occupants can escape in case of fire, but also so that large firefighters (and their breathing equipment) can get into the dwelling if necessary. The opening size of this window needs to be a minimum of 0.35 square metres (3.77 square feet) with no dimension less than 380mm (15 inches).

For example, a slider window 15″ wide needs to be 36″ tall in order to meet the area requirement. Horizontal sliders, awnings, casements and double hung windows are all acceptable solutions.

There is no maximum height for the window sill, but if it is more than 5 feet above the floor the code recommends (Note: recommends, not requires) that a permanent built-in piece of furniture be installed below the window to facilitate access.

If the window opens into a window well, there needs to be at least 550mm (21.5″) clearance in front of the window. Plus, the operation of the window (swing, for instance) cannot restrict escape in case of an emergency.

Exit doors

Access to secondary suites must be a minimum of 1980mm x 810mm (78″ x 32″) and can swing either in or out. Each suite needs at least one exit door, and it may lead through a common exit corridor or foyer.

Furnace rooms

If you’re legalizing a suite in an existing home, this one can be difficult. Furnace rooms must be protected with a layer of 1/2″ gypsum board on each side of the walls and the ceiling. Depending on your furnace room, it may require removal and relocation of ductwork, wiring or plumbing in order to install drywall such that the floor structure is completely protected.

Stairs, landings & handrails

Exit stairs must be at least 860mm (34 inches) clear. Landings must be at least as wide as the stair and 900mm (36 inches) long. At least one continuous hand rail is required, mounted between 800mm and 965mm high (31.5″ – 38″) measured from the leading edge of the stair tread. In addition, there are particular requirements for the length and placement of the screws that attach it.

Dwelling unit separations

Dwellings must be separated by at least 1/2″ gypsum board on ceilings and both sides of walls for fire protection. In an existing suite, this may require removal and relocation of duct work so that the layer of gypsum board is continuous, especially where ducts for the upper suite pass through a portion of the lower suite.

Heating/ventilation systems

If your suite is new, you’ll need a separate heating and ventilation system for each suite. If your suite was built before 2006 you may be able to continue using a single heating/ventilation system for both suites.

Minimum ceiling height

All rooms need to have a minimum ceiling height of 2100mm (82.5″) over a certain amount of floor area, depending on what the room is used for. For instance, a living room needs at least 10 square metres (108 square feet) of ceiling height of at least 2100mm; portions of the room can be lower or higher.

Laundry facilities

The building code says that every dwelling unit must have it’s own laundry facilities, but shared laundry in the building accessible to both suites is permissible.

Next steps

While this list covers major items, it is not comprehensive; it is the responsibility of the building owner to comply with all the requirements of the building code. For help with your specific situation contact us or leave a comment below.



4 Responses to Building codes & secondary suites in Calgary

  1. Leeanne says:

    Currently there is one furnace in my home (bungalow) but is it required to have a second furnace for the secondary suite in the basement?

    • New suites will need a separate heating system (not necessarily a furnace), but if the suite is existing you may be able to keep the one furnace to serve both suites. Check the website for details.

  2. Dan says:

    I am considering purchasing a home that the seller claims has a bedroom in the basement. However, the ceiling height in that area is only approximately 6′ or 72″. Does the minimum ceiling height pertain to non-suited, but finished basements as well?

    • Building codes require specific minimum ceiling heights for occupied space, whether it is in a main floor, finished basement or secondary suite. In our jurisdiction, Alberta, bedrooms must have a minimum ceiling height of 2.1m over a floor area of at least 4.9 square meters; other jurisdictions in Canada and North America would have similar requirements.

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