In The Attic

By Tawny Maya McCray

June 19, 2009 5 min read


The extra room you've been craving may be right above you

Tawny Maya McCray

Creators News Service

Your attic doesn't have to be that dark, stuffy upstairs space you only use to store your belongings. Instead, it can be transformed into a great extra room.

Attics can be used for anything from master suites, guest suites, family rooms, media rooms, studies, home gyms, home offices and apartments. You can even add volume to the space below by removing the ceiling and adding the vaulted space above into an existing room.

But before you make any decisions about what you'll turn it into, you need a thorough analysis of the space to determine how it can be used and how much it will cost.

Look up your local zoning laws and what they allow you to do, said Deborah Pierce, chair of the American Institute of Architects' small projects practitioners committee. There are often height limitations, and whether it is considered an additional floor or an attic depends on a surveyor's measurements of average grades around the house.

Pierce said you also should find out about building codes, as they dictate things such as minimum ceiling heights, day lighting requirements and room sizes.

Ann Robinson, principal architect of Renovation Design Group LLC in Salt Lake City, said finding out how your roof is constructed is a key first step. That means determining if it is stick-framed or made of prefabricated trusses. Trusses are generally used in homes dating from the 1960s on and cannot be significantly altered to provide living space, so the roof would need to be removed for new construction.

She said hiring a good architect and structural engineer to help you design the addition is a must. "We deal with all these complicated and critical issues on a daily basis. Working with a good architect will help you consider all the possibilities on paper, which is much cheaper than trial and error during the building process."

Certain room types work better than others, depending on the size and setup of the attic. A lot depends on the available headroom. For example, Pierce said, if you have sloped walls, a large-screen TV may not work well. If you have a small space, a study may be all that fits.

In order to make the rooms habitable, raising the ceilings or adding dormers may be required. Robinson said you need a good 16 to 18 feet of height at the center so you can add insulation at the top and a new floor at the bottom, all while having a reasonably wide space to use in the center.

She added that walls are usually built on the edges of the attic to provide a vertical surface that can receive furniture. If you're creating them from scratch, they should be at least five feet tall -- anything lower than that makes it difficult to stand in front of furniture, like a dresser, because the ceiling gets too low. In that case, people often end up tearing the roof off and rebuilding a second story since existing roofs don't often lend themselves to adding much useable space.

Robinson added that occasionally they see an attic that is large enough to use without significantly altering the roof, but it is rare.

If you are going to add a bedroom, she added that you should probably add a bathroom. This requires coordinating the new plumbing with the locations of existing plumbing for the most cost-effective solutions. If you add a bedroom, though, it's required that there are windows big enough for a person to get out of in case of an emergency.

Access to your attic is crucial to consider when converting it into a useable room. If you already have existing stairs, odds are they will be steep, since they were not planned for daily use. In most cases you'll have to figure out where to add a new staircase, which can take up a lot of space, Pierce said. One option is if you already have stairs between any lower floors, you can usually add new stairs above them.

Converting your attic into that extra room you've always wanted -- or needed -- can add a great new dimension to your house, and it's a creative and sometimes cost-effective way of adding value. But make sure it's not a do-it-yourself project, as it can be a very intricate job. A professional should be involved, especially when it comes to doing any construction.

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