I am thinking of adding interior walls to divide up a large space (a walk-up basement). But I am clueless regarding building codes and I don't know where I can and cannot put walls.

I've read a lot about how architects are important for new home design and major projects, but for this early planning stage I'm thinking an architect would be overkill, since this is not major construction, right?

So what professional help should I get in this regard? Someone from the city? An interior designer?

2 Answers 2


I would not let a designer make these kind of decisions. A good architect, a builder, or a good general contractor would be your best bet. You could always bring in a city inspector and ask them for a few thoughts too.

If money is no object than almost anything goes with a basement. You can basically put a wall anywhere as long as you aren't moving anything above your head.

Some of the things to think about when drawing up plans:

  1. How do the stairs flow? I really do not like basements that have stairs that slice the basement in half (unless you have a huge basement). I also do not like stairs that have a minimal landing pad - meaning it is hard to get things in and out of a basement. The stairs in your situation could be good to go and a non-issue but this is the first thing I think about with a basement remodel.

  2. Where are the low points of the basement ceiling and how will we handle these. In a normal basement you will have a main load bearing beam that runs length of the house. How high is it? I am also assuming you will have duct work running parallel to this beam. Can we go 3 inches under the duct work and beam and still have good clearance (7 feet). Basements with lower clearances, I like to put the duct work against the edge of a room, with a higher clearance it doesn't matter as much. Also the last few I have done, I have not enclosed the beams/duct work, and instead painted it with autobody paint. Saves room and gives architectural details.

  3. Where is the main stack and plumbing located? If the mainstack is in the middle of the house - which is pretty common - then you not only have an obstacle but you have a huge cost if you want your bathroom in a far corner. For instance by creating your bathroom next to the stack and incoming water supplies you could save 5-10K. Plus bathroom could hide stack - I have built larger closets to do this next to or in bathrooms. And then to add on a lot of people just put a bathroom in a plan and next thing you know you can take a crap and watch the football game without leaving the toilet. Give your bathroom privacy - put the entrance in a hallway.

  4. Windows... Are they currently suitable for what you want? If you have bedrooms downstairs do you need bigger windows to meet code? What is the cost of this? Also when building rooms you want to leave at least a half foot from edge of window to wall.

  5. HVAC and drain. Hopefully these are in the same area. Also there are building code requirements for room size. This is why it is usually a good idea for this room to be a storage room also. And with the drain, obviously your basement is pitched (at least in some areas) to drain water to it. So you can't build a wall a foot from it and not expect issues (drain back ups should not spill into walls).

  6. Electrical panel. Your panel needs to be accessible and have clearance. Do you want the panel on a wall in a living room? Best bet is to make this part of storage/HVAC room but that always doesn't work out. You can move panel to fit plans (lots of money) or you can design around it.

  7. Learn about existing walls. If you have no walls in your basement that is a plus. Often though basements are built with a divider wall or the storage room walls up. You must figure out what is inside these walls and if you can use these walls in your design. I had a divider wall in my basement that I used. It was at a good spot but wish I would have know it was at about 85 degrees from floor.

  8. Getting your money back. You are building on a walk up basement. It is an investment. If done right and you do some of the work yourself you could see a return on your money. Basically to make money back you need three things. Bedrooms, full bath, and functional space. Bedrooms are first priority - so make sure they meet "bedroom code" - windows and closets. Closets are sneaky. Plan for them if you want something to be a bedroom. Full bath is worth it. You don't have to create a spa but if you have a bedroom get a bath in. If your house won't meet code for bedrooms then a half-bath or no bath is fine - but then I would keep the basement very open so it could have multiple uses.

There are probably lots of other things to think about but this is just off the top of my head. When designing you need to figure out your storage/HVAC room and bathroom and then kind of work around those two things. Something that is properly designed can easily save 10-20K in a basement remodel.

Note: I was hesitant to mention getting an architect involved. I lump architects into two general groups for residential housing - functional/builder and the fancy/designer. The functional/builder will work with what they are given and cost structure. They will understand how to integrate electrical panel and storage room. Might even have some good ideas on room transitions and such. Going with the fancy/designer architect doesn't mean they don't know what they are doing, it is just the design and look come before cost.

  • 3
    Lots of excellent & practical advice. You clearly have thought about this before.
    – Hank
    Feb 19, 2014 at 17:37
  • I have done more basements than I want to remember. Some with 3K budgets and some with 130K budgets. And more often then not I have helped when a basement was already started with a poor plan. Home owners that get started off on the wrong foot start paying to jerry-rig this, that leads to this and this and this and this. Often it is part the homeowner's fault. For instance my basement is a half basement. Yes would have liked bathroom in a corner but stack was in the middle. Saved weeks of work and tons of money designing it in the middle. Who knows the issues I would have had?
    – DMoore
    Feb 19, 2014 at 17:44

Any decent contractor will be able to help you with that. When you are ready to get the work done call a couple to come out to give a design and quote. You can pretty much put a wall where ever you want. But obviously there is better places than others. If you are adding a bedroom there needs to be an egress window in that room but other than that there isn't much codes to follow.

  • There are lots of codes, depending on what and where you are building. Some jurisdictions have limits on the number and amount of windows, the number and placement of outlets on a wall, the number of bedrooms allowed in a particular area or zone, the height of ceilings, even the ability to convert a basement to living space at all. OP's jurisdiction may or may not have such rules, but you are right, a knowledgeable contractor who works in the area will have that info.
    – bib
    Feb 19, 2014 at 16:33
  • There are obvious alot of codes but very few that are not common sense when dealing with wall placement. I finished over a dozen basements and never had an inspector say I couldnt put a wall where I wanted. Except for maybe the bathroom. Yes some basement can not be finished mostly due to ceiling height but that was not the question
    – Justin K
    Feb 19, 2014 at 19:04
  • So when you say "any decent contractor," you mean any general contractor and not an interior designer, correct?
    – anon
    Feb 20, 2014 at 5:58
  • Yes. For wall placement. Interior designer normally picks out finishes, furniture and accessories. Which is going to be better than a contractor in that aspect. If your willing to pay a premium for that stuff then I would contact an interior designer from the beginning.
    – Justin K
    Feb 20, 2014 at 15:58

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