What is a Habitable Room?

by | Last updated Jul 21, 2023 | General Architecture, Property Development, Residential

If you have encountered the term habitable room or space, you may wonder what that means. The term “Habitable Space” is commonly used in Building Codes. Building codes are complicated and have terminology you must understand to correctly assess the regulations’ applicability. In residential use, the term habitable room or space differentiates certain types of rooms to apply specific code requirements on such areas.

A habitable room is a term used in building codes to identify a space within a residence used for living, sleeping, (and, with some exceptions) cooking. These habitable rooms have specific requirements, such as windows, to provide natural light and air. 

I am Jorge Fontan, an architect in New York and owner of NYC-based Fontan Architecture. As an architect, I spend quite a bit of time reading building codes, much more time than I would like to be honest. The one thing I am certain of is that understanding the terminology and how the codes use these terms is critical for understanding the code itself. You may read a word in a building code thinking you understand it, but the code uses it in a specific manner that causes you confusion if you do not know their definition. I will review the term habitable space and some of the key aspects pertaining to building codes regarding habitable rooms.


Habitable Space & Habitable Rooms

The term habitable space is commonly used in building codes. A habitable room and a habitable space mean the same thing, and these terms are used interchangeably. No need to look for distinction as it pertains to this post and the use in building codes.


Definition of a Habitable Space

According to the NYC Building Code, a Habitable Room is (with some exceptions) “All rooms and spaces within a dwelling unit in Group R or I-1, including bedrooms, living rooms, studies, recreation rooms, kitchens, dining rooms, and other similar spaces.”

Most rooms and spaces within a residence will count as a habitable space. I want to point out one common myth that people often say a study does not count as a habitable room. This is just wrong. The definition from the code clearly states that a study is in fact, a habitable space, yet I have heard many people repeat this inaccurate statement.


Habitable Space Exceptions

As is common in building codes, there are some exceptions to the rule. Below is a list of residential spaces that are not considered habitable rooms or habitable spaces according to the New York City Building Code.


Habitable Room Exceptions:

  • A dining space 55 square feet (5.1 m2) or less located off a living room, foyer, or kitchen
  • A kitchenette
  • A bathroom or toilet room
  • A laundry room
  • A corridor, passageway, or private hall; and a foyer used as an entrance hall in a dwelling unit 

To elaborate on a few of these exceptions. A Kitchenette is a kitchen under 80 square feet (I have another post on The Difference Between a Kitchen and a Kitchenette). Foyers have more in-depth requirements that I will not go into here in this post, but I will say it involves a bunch of math.


Restrictions on Habitable Rooms

So why do we care about the term habitable room or habitable space? There are codes that apply to habitable spaces and that restrict habitable spaces or rooms.

One major restriction is that you cannot have a habitable room in a cellar, but you can have a habitable room or space in a basement. This scenario will require understanding the difference between a cellar and a basement. Yes, there is a difference. I have another post that goes into the Difference Between a Basement and a Cellar if you want to learn more on the subject.

The intended definition of a word or phrase in building codes is very critical. Even if, in everyday speech, people use terms differently, you must understand the meaning of the words in the context of the code.


Light and Air Requirements

Habitable rooms and spaces have very specific requirements. Natural light and air requirements are an example of a code that applies to habitable rooms and spaces. All habitable rooms must have natural light and air coming from a window that opens directly to the outdoors.

The codes on Natural Light and Air are very specific and in-depth. I am not going into these here either, but I have a few key points in another blog post on Bedroom Codes & Habitable Spaces.

NYC Apartment Living Room Windows

NYC Apartment Living Room Windows


Habitable Rooms

A habitable room is a defined term in Building Codes, and as in all defined terms, one must first understand the definition before understanding the applicability of the codes. Building Codes are complicated. This post is only meant to give a brief overview of the subject and is not in any way a substitute for a practical understanding and experience with building codes.


Thank You for Reading Our Blog Post on Habitable Rooms.

I hope this was helpful. If you would like to speak with an architect about a potential project, you can contact us at Fontan Architecture directly.


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Jorge Fontan

Jorge Fontan

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.