Underfloor spaces (commonly referred to as “crawl spaces”) are concealed spaces below a building that requires, among other things, ventilation for proper building performance.
While most people don’t think of crawl spaces when they think of commercial construction, in many scenarios they are designed and specified, and the International Building Code (IBC) provides regulations detailing how venting such spaces is to be achieved. In this article, we’re going to be reviewing the 2018 edition of the IBC regarding this important topic.
Section 1202 of the 2018 IBC regulates ventilation for buildings, which covers roof ventilation, underfloor space ventilation, and interior ventilation requirements. Section 1202.4 covers underfloor spaces. There are four subsections to section 1204.4, each one covering one aspect of a properly ventilated space. Let’s review them:
Section 1202.4.1 Passive Ventilation
Section 1202.4.1 regulates natural, or passive, ventilation. This is the type of ventilation system whereby openings in the foundation walls are provided to allow air to freely move in and out of the crawl space area. Ventilation wells or open louvers above grade (where the crawl space exists both above-grade and below-grade) are to be provided based on formulas found in the subsequent code sections (1184.108.40.206 and 1220.127.116.11). Depending on whether the space is cross-ventilated and covered with a vapor retarder will determine the amount of net free ventilation area that will be required to ensure the underfloor space can “breathe” and exhaust any buildup of temperature, humidity, or other gasses that accumulate in the space.
Section 1202.4.2 Passive Ventilation in Cold Climates
Section 1202.4.2 covers natural/passive ventilation in cold climates. Where the building exists in “extremely cold” climates, the vent openings are allowed to be made directly between the underfloor space and the habitable space of the building above. In this scenario, the air in the crawl space is tied to the interior of the building, so as to avoid the detrimental effects of having a very cold underfloor space and how that impacts the energy use of the building. Note that this section of the code does not independently include any formulas for calculating the required net free ventilation area; it is up to the designer in responsible charge to ensure sufficient ventilation is provided if this method of ventilation is proposed.
Section 1202.4.3 Mechanical Ventilation
Section 1202.4.3 regulates mechanical ventilation of the underfloor space. Mechanical ventilation requires a vapor retarder to cover the ground surface, to keep moisture from being drawn out of the exposed earth and contributing to increased humidity levels in the underfloor space. The requirement for a vapor retarder is noted as a base requirement in section 1202.4.3. Two subsections under this section detail the differences between unconditioned mechanical ventilation (118.104.22.168) and conditioned mechanical ventilation (122.214.171.124). The primary difference between the two is how the underfloor space is to be insulated. If the space is conditioned per 1126.96.36.199, the crawl space is treated similar to the habitable portions of the building above grade, and the perimeter walls are required to be insulated, similar to how the exterior walls above grade are required to be insulated. If the space is mechanically vented but
not conditioned, the thermal envelope terminates at the floor over the unheated underfloor space (the “top” of the crawlspace), and the floor system is to be insulated per the relevant sections of the energy code. This distinction is important to properly design, so the crawl space is kept reasonably dry and within acceptable temperature ranges.
1202.4.4 Ventilation in Flood Hazard Areas
Lastly, section 1202.4.4 regulates underfloor ventilation in flood hazard areas. In such areas, the underfloor space is already required to be provided with flood vents, to allow floodwaters the ability to freely flow through the underfloor area. In such scenarios, the same openings can be used for both ventilation and flood control, and this section of the code recognizes this fact.
Overall, it is very important to ensure the underfloor space of commercial buildings are properly ventilated, be it passive, mechanical, conditioned, or unconditioned. Lack of proper ventilation can cause a buildup of temperature, humidity, unwanted gasses, biological growth and contamination in the space. These can then negatively impact the other components of the building, including damaging any systems in the underfloor space (for example, electrical equipment or light fixtures), damaging the structure of the building (especially if the structure is wood) and even negatively impacting the interior of the building where penetrations, gaps, seams, or other elements exist that allow the crawl space air to infiltrate into the habitable portions of the building above. Therefore, crawl space ventilation should be carefully designed and constructed, to ensure proper performance of this mostly invisible, but very important, part of the building.