Construction Code Requirements for Proper Attic Ventilation Should Not Be Overlooked in Buildings That Don’t Contain Conditioned Space
The 2015 International Residential Code and International Building Code, published by the International Code Council, include requirements for attic ventilation to help manage temperature and moisture that could accumulate in attic spaces. Although the code requirements are understood to apply to habitable buildings, not everyone understands how the code addresses accessory structures, like workshops, storage buildings, detached garages and other buildings. What’s the answer? The code treats all attic spaces the same, whether the space below the attic is conditioned or not. (A conditioned space is a space that is heated and/or cooled.)
The administrative provisions of the IRC that set the scope for the code are found in Chapter 1. Section R101.2 and read:
The provisions of the International Residential Code for One- and Two-family Dwellings shall apply to the construction, alteration, movement, enlargement, replacement, repair, equipment, use and occupancy, location, removal and demolition of detached one- and two-family dwellings and townhouses not more than three stories above grade plane in height with a separate means of egress and their accessory structures not more than three stories above grade plane in height.
Let’s clear up any confusion about the code. The ventilated attic requirements in the 2015 IRC include the following language in Section R806.1:
Enclosed attics and enclosed rafter spaces formed where ceilings are applied directly to the underside of roof rafters shall have cross ventilation for each separate space by ventilating openings protected against the entrance of rain or snow.
An accessory structure is actually defined in the IRC:
ACCESSORY STRUCTURE. A structure that is accessory to and incidental to that of the dwelling(s) and that is located on the same lot.
The IBC also includes attic ventilation requirements that are essentially the same as the IRC. Section 101.2 of the 2015 IBC contains this text:
The provisions of this code shall apply to the construction, alteration, relocation, enlargement, replacement, repair, equipment, use and occupancy, location, maintenance, removal and demolition of every building or structure or any appurtenances connected or attached to such buildings or structures.
This requirement for ventilated at-tics in accessory structures in the IBC and IRC is mandatory unless the attic is part of the conditioned space and is sealed within the building envelope. Unvented, or sealed, attics allow any ducts located in the attic to be inside the conditioned space, which can have beneficial effects on energy efficiency. For accessory structures, which are typically unheated, that provision does not apply.
It’s important to note the codes do contain detailed requirements for the design and construction of sealed at-tics to reduce the chance of moisture accumulation in the attic. These requirements have been in the codes for a relatively short time and remain the subject of continued debate at ICC as advocates of sealed attics work to improve the code language in response to concerns about performance issues from the field.
Traditional construction methods for wood-framed buildings include ventilated attics (with insulation at the ceiling level) as a means of isolating the roof assembly from the heated and cooled space inside the building. Attic ventilation makes sense for a variety of reasons. Allowing outside air into the attic helps equalize the temperature of the attic with outdoor space. This equalization has several benefits, including lower roof deck and roof covering temperatures, which can extend the life of the deck and roof covering. However, it is not just temperature that can be equalized by a properly ventilated attic. Relative humidity differences can also be addressed by vented attics. Moisture from activity in dwelling units including single-family residences and other commercial occupancies can lead to humidity entering the attic space by diffusion or airflow. It is important to ensure moisture is removed or it can remain in the attic and lead to premature deterioration and decay of the structure and corrosion of metal components, including fasteners and connectors.
In northern climate zones, a ventilated attic can isolate heat flow escaping from the conditioned space and reduce the chance of uneven snow melt, ice dams, and icicle formation on the roof and eaves. Ice damming can lead to all kinds of moisture problems for roof assemblies; it is bad enough that roof assemblies have to deal with moisture coming from inside the attic, but ice damming can allow water to find its way into roof covering assemblies by interrupting the normal water-shedding process. For buildings with conditioned space, the attic can isolate the roof assembly from the heat source but only if there is sufficient ceiling insulation, properly installed over the top of the wall assemblies to form a continuous envelope. Failure to ensure continuity in the thermal envelope is a recipe for disaster in parts of the country where snow can accumulate on the roof.
For unheated buildings in the north, ice damming is less likely to occur, unless the structure is occasionally heated. Accessory buildings, like workshops, that might be heated from time to time with space heaters or other sources are less likely to have insulation to block heat flow to the roof. In these situations, a little heat can go a long way toward melting snow on the roof.
While the ice damming and related performance problems are a real concern even for accessory structures, it is the removal of humidity via convective airflow in the attic space that is the benefit of ventilated attics in accessory structures. We know that moisture will find its way into buildings. Providing a way for it to escape is a necessity, especially for enclosed areas like attics.
There are many types of accessory structures, and some will include conditioned space. Depending on the use of the structure, moisture accumulation within the building will vary. For residential dwelling units, building scientists understand the normal moisture drive arising from occupancy. Cooking, laundering and showering all contribute moisture to the interior environment.
The IRC and IBC include requirements for the net-free vent area of intake (lower) and exhaust (upper) vents and also require the vents be installed in accordance with the vent manufacturer’s installation instructions. The amount of required vent area is reduced when a balanced system is installed; most ventilation product manufacturers recommend a balance between intake and exhaust. The IRC recommends that balanced systems include intake vents with between 50 to 60 percent of the total vent area to reduce the chance of negative pressure in the attic system, which can draw conditioned air and moisture from conditioned space within the building. This is less of an issue for non-habitable spaces from an energy-efficiency perspective, but moisture accumulation is a concern in all structures.
PHOTOS: Lomanco Vents
Good news, roofing contractors: You do not have to be good with numbers nor do you have to enjoy math to be able to quickly—and accurately—calculate the amount of attic ventilation needed for residential attics. Here it is, a handy shortcut for quick calculations:Attic square footage ÷ 2 = square inches of EXHAUST and square inches of INTAKE Net Free Area (NFA) needed. (NFA is the unobstructed area through which air can pass through a vent, usually measured in square inches. Ventilation manufacturers assign an NFA value to the non-motorized vents they make.)
This shortcut conveniently calculates the 2015 International Residential Building Code MINIMUM (IRC Section R806 – Roof Ventilation 1, which states, in part, 1 square foot of Net Free Area for every 150 square feet of attic floor space with the attic defined as length x width floor of the attic). The shortcut actually overestimates a bit but that’s OK. It puts the roofing contractor in the ballpark which is useful when estimating.
To calculate the allowable IRC EXCEPTION to the MINIUMUM (that is, 1/300 ratio) here’s the shortcut:
Attic square footage ÷ 4 = square inches of EXHAUST and square inches of INTAKE Net Free Area needed.
Here’s an example using the shortcut for the 1/150 Code Minimum.
Say the contractor is standing in front of a house that has an attic with 2,200 square feet.
2,200 ÷ 2 =
- 1,100 square inches of EXHAUST net free area needed
- 1,100 square inches of INTAKE net free area needed
The next step is to select a suitable exhaust vent and intake vent that fits the roof design for best performance and best aesthetics. After that, find out the vent’s NFA as rated by the manufacturer. Divide the vent’s NFA into 1,100 to yield the number of vents needed (either in linear feet or units/pieces). That’s it. It’s time to install.
There is a longer “official” formula based on building code you can reference or point your clients to for reassurance that you know what you’re talking about. Most attic ventilation manufacturers list the longer formula on their websites and inside key product brochures. But the shortcut is just as good and faster!
Calculation Q & A
Here are the answers to the five most frequent questions pertaining to calculating attic ventilation.
1. “Why is it important that the amount of intake ventilation matches the amount of exhaust?”
The goal of an effective attic ventilation system is to help fight heat buildup inside the attic during the warmer months and moisture buildup in the colder months. Additionally, in climates where snow and ice are common, attic ventilation can help fight the formation of ice dams. To achieve these goals the attic needs cooler, dryer air entering low (near the eave or the roof’s lowest edge) so it can flush out any warm, moist air that may have built up inside, pushing it out through the roof’s exhaust vents positioned as close to the peak as possible. This balanced-airflow approach allows the air to “wash” the entire underside of the roof deck from low to high.
2. “What if it’s not possible to balance the attic ventilation system 50 percent intake/50 percent exhaust?”
If it cannot be balanced it’s better to have more intake than exhaust because it has been our experience most attics lack proper intake ventilation, which is the leading cause of venting callbacks. Additionally, any excess intake will become exhaust on the leeward side of the house because the intake vents on the windward side of the house will have “pressurized” the attic. As a result, the intake vents on the leeward side of the house will work “with” the exhaust vents to release air.
However, if the attic has more exhaust than intake it potentially can cause the extra exhaust to pull its missing intake from itself (if it’s a ridge vent) or from another nearby exhaust vent (from one wind turbine to another or one roof louver to another), which means possible weather ingestion.
3. “What if the roof has 40 feet of available ridge length but the math calls for only 30 feet of ridge vent needed?”
It is OK to install all 40 feet of ridge vent as long as it can be balanced with intake ventilation. If the amount of intake ventilation cannot match the entire 40 feet of ridge vent, consider reducing the width of the ridge vent slot (thereby reducing the vent’s NFA per linear foot) to accommodate the amount of intake NFA available. Doing this keeps the airflow continuous along the entire horizontal ridge and balanced high and low. As always, be sure the overall amount of ventilation meets code requirements.
4. “If attic access is not practical is there another way to measure the attic square footage?”
Ideally, the attic square footage would be measured at the attic floor length x width (regardless of roof pitch, by the way). If this is not possible, and the homeowner does not have any documentation on file listing attic square footage, you could use the footprint of the house (aerial view of the house) or the number of shingle squares (one shingle square equals 100 square feet) to estimate the attic square footage. Neither of the alternate measuring tactics, however, is as accurate as an attic floor measurement.
5. “How does roof pitch come into play when calculating attic ventilation?”
Current IRC requirements do not factor the role a roof’s pitch plays in the amount of attic ventilation needed, but ventilation manufacturers do. Generally, as the roof pitch increases the volume inside the attic also increases along with the amount of needed attic ventilation. Here’s a rule of thumb to follow:
- Up to 6:12 roof pitch use the standard formula as explained in this article.
- 7:12 to 10:12 roof pitches increase the amount of ventilation by 20 percent.
- 11:12 roof pitch and higher increase the amount of ventilation by 30 percent.
For projects involving vents with motors, the calculation formula is different.
NRCA’s “From the Experts” column outlines the benefits of a properly designed attic ventilation system.
When properly designed, attic ventilation systems can make a home more comfortable and prevent numerous roof-related problems, according to Nick Sabino, president of Cincinnati-based Deer Park Roofing.
Sabino outlines the importance of attic ventilation in his column “The importance of attic ventilation,” the official consumer website of the National Roofing Contractors Association (NRCA). The column is posted on the sites “From the Experts” page.
The column states that because attic heat radiates into living spaces, a cooler attic will lead to a more comfortable home and reduced cooling costs.
In addition, roof system components benefit from increased longevity when an attic is well-ventilated. Because all building materials expand and contract as temperatures change, higher attic temperatures lead to increased expansion of the roof, sheathing and structural components, which are negatively affected by an increase in thermal movement.
CertainTeed’s fourth webisode in the 2013 Living Spaces Facebook Home Makeover Video Contest, featuring the Bielfelt family of Mentor, Ohio, dives deep into the importance of superior weather-resistance and proper ventilation as part of a healthy whole-home system.
CertainTeed 5-Star Green and Master Shingle Applicator contractor, RJK Construction Co., of Willoughby, Ohio, installs Winterguard and DiamondDeck roofing underlayment as well as CertaWrap, CertaTape andCertaFlash housewrap products in the webisode to create a water- and wind-tight barrier to protect the century-old home’s original structure.
Grand prize winner of the $75,000 exterior makeover contest, the Bielfelts are the subject of a series of CertainTeed Living Spaces webisodes documenting the renovation of their 100-year-old home. The series follows the family, along with local contractors, from the planning stages of the renovation through its completion.
In the first few webisodes, the homeowner selected multiple products, including Cedar Impressions and Monogram siding, Restoration Millwork trim, EverNew decking and railing, Bufftech fence and Landmark Pro roofing. The homeowner also utilized the CurbAppeal iPad app, ColorCoach virtual swatch book and ColorView design tool, which allows homeowners to visualize how products will look on their home.