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Phouka Home

Renovating an Attic

Look at all this space!

With their steep roof pitch, many old houses have tons of useful space at the top of the stairs, usually unused or filled with boxes of stuff you moved, but haven't unpacked. Often you can get a room or two out of the attic, providing that it is safe and feasible to do so. Our house has a long, skinny attic that rounds out to a very large room, since we have some 10' of headroom up there. The floor was already finished, and the joists are solid enough to walk on without worrying about dropping the ceiling on the first floor. Of course, the attic stairs are a nightmare, but that's another story...

There a few questions to ask before running upstairs with your screw gun and 2x4's:

How is it framed?

Most new roofs are framed with a dizzying maze of cross braces and joists and beams. Older homes often have either a small number of collar-ties (joists that run across the roof to kind of hold it together) or no ties at all. My roof has nothing, not even a hint that they ever existed. We often wondered why it didn't just bow the walls out and fall right in.

If the roof has all sorts of "W" or "X" shaped framing, it cannot be changed. This support is needed by the roof to keep it's shape and not collapse. You might be able to whittle out tiny bits of storage space around the eaves, but that's it.

If you have an open attic, it should have cross, or tie, braces that cross the roof (we still need to add them!) which not only give structural support, but give you something to screw the ceiling fans to. If you want attic space in a newer home, you need to have them design it into the truss layout. Otherwise, no go.

Is it accessible?

A normal staircase requires a minimum of 3' x 13', rising at a 30-35° angle. You may also have the option of using a kit spiral stair, which can fit in a smaller space. However, use of a spiral stair is strictly limited by many building codes. If this is your only access to the attic, you may have to find space for a regular staircase. A slide-out, or retractable attic stair that is extended with a pull chain is also not acceptable if you want living space in the attic. You must have a permanent, safe staircase.

But, most areas also have a 'grandfather' clause that allows you to keep existing staircases that are not quite within standards. Check with your town building department. As I mentioned before, our attic staircase is a nightmare - the stairs are fit into a little closet, and rise twelve feet in about 3' of space. Just a bit steep. The treads are too narrow and tall (almost exactly opposite the current code requirement of 10" tread by 7 ½" riser) but remained solid and serviceable. As long as we don't change anything, our town says we don't need to come up to current code. The minute we do anything but repair, it's a new staircase for us.

Always remember to be safe. It sounds trite, but after a few near tumbles down our stairs, I can't stress it enough.

Is headroom adequate?

An attic room doesn't do you much good if you have to move around on your hands and knees. Plus, it can get a bit claustrophobic if the room is short and narrow, or lacks enough space to have full size doors or enough light.

To be eligible for a working attic renovation, the attic space has to have 10 ½' of headroom at the ridge line. Plus, building codes usually require at least 50% of the finished floor space to be at least 7 ½' tall. It's ok to have sloping ceilings and short walls (in fact, those odd shaped ceilings add a certain charm), but you must average 7 ½'.

How is it made?

A whole lot of people have rushed into attic renovation and ended up with cracked ceilings on the first floor, or dangerously sagging joists and overloaded structures. That little bounce in the attic floor may not seem so serious, but it means that the joists are inadequate and need to be beefed up. Walking up there once in awhile is not the same as adding furniture and living up there.

Joists should be large enough to support the weight of walking and normal furniture (or whatever you intend to put up there -- remember that books are heavy!). Call a building inspector or a structural engineer to check things out. If the joists are only 2x4 or 2x6, they may have to be reinforced. In some old houses, the size of the lumber is actually 2" x 4", not the current 1 ½" x 3 ½" of nominal lumber. Make sure that your inspector takes that into account.

Another important consideration is lighting and ventilation. Let light in - the windows should be equal to 10% of total floor space to avoid the 'coffin' sensation of some attics. Skylights might seem odd in an old house, but they can often be incorporated unobtrusively into the design, and some companies offer "reproduction" skylights that purport to be appropriate for older houses. I haven't found any that I like, but they are a good source of light, albeit indirect lighting.

Other Options

Of course, if you have solid floor joists and really want the extra space, you do have the option of raising the roof. Adding even a few feet of height to the attic can make a tremendous amount of difference, although this is a pretty drastic solution. In some cases, it can ruin the balance of your old house, and it can be a long, arduous process to do it properly.

If your attic is good sized, but lacks light, it is often appropriate to add dormers or even bump-outs for extra light and space. Once again, this can be inappropriate in style, but carefully done can be a good way to add space.

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All content ©1998-2009 R. Fingerson
Last updated 03/05/2009