reclaiming the attic
Old House Journal|January - February 2022
Is your house bursting at the seams? Do you long for private office space, a guest retreat, or a kids’ bonus room? The solution might be right over your head: no need to leave the neighborhood, or even put on an addition.
MARY ELLEN POLSON

The conversion of unfinished attics to year-round living space has been a constant in American homes for centuries. Fitting out an attic, however, comes with its own set of constraints and a checklist of dos and don’ts. The first constraint is that attic walls typically slant at sharp angles, cutting down the amount of usable space. You may find a lack of headroom, most notably in low-pitched or gable-ended attics. An attic remodel usually will require flooring, sheathing for walls and ceilings, stair access, and dormers or windows. Then come such big-ticket items as structural support, insulation and venting, plumbing for a bathroom, heating and air conditioning, and electrical service. In essence, you’ll be building a little house in the attic. A good candidate for an attic conversion should be space free of obstructions with a ceiling height of at least 7' over much of the space.

A complex job is defined by what’s missing: adequate headroom in most of the space, say, or lack of a staircase (or limited room to add one on the floor below). The older the house, the more likely that renovation will require increased structural support. You may even need to raise the roof.

The simplest conversions are those where the attic already has adequate headroom, a floor (or subfloor), adequate light and window space, and access by way of a fixed stair. Chances are the joists under the floor will need reinforcement, the stair may not meet modern building codes, and livability will demand more windows than the required minimum. If walls and ceilings are clad in beadboard— a common treatment in the attics of many early-20th-century houses—that will need to be removed so that insulation and wiring can go in.

Complex attic conversions are defined by what’s missing: adequate headroom in all or most of the space, or the lack of a staircase (or limited room to place one on the floor below). The older the house, the more likely the renovation will require increased structural support—both underneath the floor and between roof rafters. In some cases, adapting the attic for living space will mean raising the roof itself.

UPTO code Any attic conversion is subject to building codes for safety reasons that may not at first be apparent, such as structural support and fire hazards. Other attic-specific requirements cover headroom, floor space, access and egress, windows and light, heating and cooling, and ventilation.

HEADROOM Attics in the oldest homes rarely meet modern codes for height, which require ceilings be at least 7 to 7 ½'. Yet some are barely 6' tall. Other roofs are supported by trusses that cross the space at a midpoint between the floor and ridge pole, making minimum ceiling heights impossible. At least half of the usable space should have ceilings at least 7' or higher. New flooring, insulation, and drywall or wood finishes may cut into the available room height.

FLOOR SPACE The minimum for a new attic room is 70 square feet. (The smallest dimension must at least 7'.) While that may seem tiny, consider that a significant amount of the footprint is usually tucked under eaves that are less than head height. As a good rule of thumb, make sure there is at least 70 square feet with an overhead height of at least 6'.

SUPPORT Attics in older homes were never intended to be load-bearing: that is, to hold the weight of people, furniture, and bathroom fixtures. Many were built with “deadload” weights of 10 pounds per square foot or less. Minimum live loads—the requirement for habitable space—are three or four times that. Meeting the standard will usually mean improving joist support under the floor and strengthening rafters overhead, and may even involve engineered improvements such as tie-rods. Complex projects will require a structural engineer.

ACCESS AND EGRESS How will you reach the attic? A fixed stair is usually a minimum requirement, along with a second point of access (usually a window). While it’s possible to buy a spiral-stair kit that meets code and fits in as little as 5 square feet, ask yourself whether you want to climb that stair every day, if the new space is intended as a main bedroom. What about getting furniture up to the space? Architect Frank Shirley says: “Spiral stairs are my last option to get from one floor to another.”

WINDOWS & LIGHT Codes require that at least one window be equal in dimension to 8 percent of the usable floor area. For 150 square feet of usable space, that equates to a small single window or skylight (3' x 4'). In most cases, you’ll want multiple windows or skylights, one of which is large enough to permit escape in an emergency. In that instance, add a fire escape or escape ladder to the budget.

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