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An area well is an access area for a door or window partially or entirely buried underground. The area well keeps the location around the opening clear to allow light to enter and to provide a safe method of exit in an emergency. Area wells are often required by the building code and can be recommended by architects and contractors in placements where they are not specifically needed by law.
To make an area well, people dig out and clear an area around the opening and line it with structural supports. These supports prevent surrounding soil from caving into the well and also keep trees and shrubbery clear, ensuring that the opening will remain freely accessible and visible. If there is a concern about falling into the area well or creating a method for animals to get in, it can be screened with a grate.
Many materials can be used to line area wells, including metal, wood, and concrete. Stone or brick retaining walls may be employed if the well will be highly visible, to make it more aesthetically pleasing. Stairs or a ladder can be installed for easier access. For a basement apartment, for instance, the area well around the front door may be quite large to create room to open the door, as well as space for people to sit outside the door.
When area wells are required by the building code, it is important to make sure they are constructed to code. There may be specific requirements about the size and height of the walls, in addition to stipulations about methods of getting into or out of the well. Grates and coverings may be mandatory if an area well is near a sidewalk or street, to prevent people or vehicles from falling in.
In a new structure, the area well is built in as the structure goes up. People can also renovate existing structures to add wells, and in cases where buildings are being modified to create a basement, installation of proper basement egress is required as part of the new construction. Openings large enough for people to exit are required in case of emergencies where people cannot get out by going upstairs and exiting at ground level or through an emergency escape with a ladder. Area wells can also be modified to act as delivery chutes; historically, for example, many people in northern climes received coal delivery in their basements.