A basement is more than 50% above ground and a cellar is more than 50% below ground. Whether a space is a cellar or basement will determine what the space can be used for. Codes may have specific regulations as to how you measure a Cellar vs Basement.
Cellar VS Basement
People often misuse the terms cellar and basement. In fact they use the terms interchangeably not realizing there is a serious legal difference. Below we will outline the key differences between a cellar and basement according to New York City codes.
Difference Between a Cellar and Basement in NYC
What is a Basement?
A basement is a story within a building that is partially below the curb level but not more than 50% below curb level. In residential zoning districts a basement can be occupied as a residence and can have habitable space. A basement counts as zoning floor area. The measurements can be done at curb level or at what is called a base plane.
What is a cellar?
The following explanation is based on the NYC Zoning Resolution.
A cellar is a floor within a building that is either entirely below curb level or more than 50% below curb level. A cellar is not a story and therefor a cellar does not count as zoning floor area. In residential zoning districts a cellar cannot be occupied as a residence and cannot have habitable space. The measurements can be done at curb level or at what is called a base plane.
We are a New York Architecture Firm and all information in this post is based on New York City regulations.
Cellar VS Basement
|Is less than 50% below curb level||NO||YES|
|Is more than 50% below curb level||YES||NO|
|Can be entirely below curb level||YES||NO|
|Counts as a "Story"||NO||YES|
|Counts towards zoning floor area calculations||NO||YES|
|Can have habitable space such as bedroom, kitchen, living room etc...||NO||YES|
|Can have a legal apartment||NO||YES|
|Can be accessory to a residential space||YES||YES|
|Must have use consistent with and identified on Certificate Of Occupancy||YES||YES|
|Change in use requires new certificate of occupancy||YES||YES|
Key Differences Between a Cellar and Basement in NYC
Depth Below Curb Level for Basements and Cellars
The depth of a cellar or basement is always measure from curb level or a base plane. If the property is on a through lot that touches 2 streets and therefor 2 curbs you would measure the cellar / basement in 2 halves one for each street. We worked on an existing building where half of the floor was a cellar on one street and the other half was a basement on the other street even though they where at the same elevation. The curb elevations where different on the 2 streets.
A basement is as story partially below grade and, when measured from floor to ceiling, is less then 50% below curb level.
A basement is a floor (and not a story) partially or entirely below grade and, when measured from floor to ceiling, is more then 50% below curb level.
Zoning Floor Area for Basements and Cellars
A basement counts towards the zoning floor area. This means it is part of the Floor Area Ratio or FAR calculation for the building. A cellar does not count as zoning floor area and is excluded from the Floor area Ration calculations.
Habitable Space in Basements
Basements can have habitable space such as bedrooms, kitchens, and living rooms as long as they fulfill all other code requirements. Cellars cannot have these types of rooms and can not be used as residential space.
Legal Apartments in Basements
You can legally have an apartment in a basement. You cannot have an a legal apartment in a cellar. The basement apartment must be listed on the Certificate of Occupancy. If a basement apartment is not listed on the Certificate of Occupancy you must file an Alteration Type 1 with the Department Of Buildings and acquire a new C of O.
Cellars as Accessory Space
Cellars or parts of cellars can be used as accessory space to the apartment or residence above, accessed through a private stair. This accessory space cannot be fore sleeping, living, or cooking. If you add a stair from an apartment to the cellar this must be filed as an Alteration Type 1 and requires a new Certificate Of Occupancy. You cannot do this as an alteration Type 2. I once consulted on a court case as an Architect expert witness for a lawyer who intended to prove this work required an Alt 1. The lawyer I worked for won the case.
Any change in use to a cellar or basement requires a new Certificate Of Occupancy.
Cellar vs Basement
As an architect I study codes closely, but these are complicated and quite involved issues. In this article we reviewed some of the basic concepts with regards to the difference between a cellar and basement. This post does not assume to cover every possible issue or condition, but provide a general overview of the topic.
Thank You for reading our post on the difference between a cellar and basement.
I hope this was helpful. You can leave questions or comments below. If you want to discuss a specific project with an architect you can contact us directly.
This post was written by Jorge Fontan AIA a Registered Architect and owner of New York City architecture firm Fontan Architecture. Jorge Fontan has earned 3 degrees in the study of architecture including two degrees from the City University of New York and a Masters Degree in Advanced Architectural Design from Columbia University. Jorge has a background in construction and has been practicing architecture for 20 years where he has designed renovations and new developments of various building types.