Converting an Attic

Filed Under: Do it yourself, Home repair, Remodeling    by: ITC

There are many points to consider before you can safely go ahead and convert your attic to living space. The first thing to do is to check the inside and the floor below to get some idea as to whether a conversion is possible or not.

The method of construction of the roof can present its own problems and some types do not lend themselves to conversion at all. Really heavy vertical posts supporting the ridge, with heavy cross-pieces below and diagonal struts, cannot be removed and they may be spaced too closely to allow rooms in between. Some modern houses have roofs made of prefabricated lightweight trussed rafters with no ridge bar at all, and these cannot be altered either.

In assessing space the problems arise because what you will be trying to do is to create a roughly rectangular shape within a triangular one. An attic has a vast floor area – equal to the area of the floor below – but because the roof slopes inwards the amount of floor area which is of any real use can be quite small.

The design of the roof also has an effect on the space available without making structural modifications to it. For a roof of any given size, a gable-ended design will have more immediately usable space than one with a gable at one end and a hip at the other. A roof with both ends hipped will offer even less room. This situation can be considerably improved by the addition of dormers but you need to decide whether the work involved will be worthwhile.

The pitch of the roof also has an effect; a low shallow pitched roof offers less space than a tall steeply-pitched one because of the need for a reasonable headroom over most of the floor. The Building Code usually stipulates a minimum headroom, but this only applies to a percentage of the floor area, so the rest of the floor area can have a lower headroom. This allows you to push the outer walls of the rooms out into the eaves to increase the size.

Having the space available either as the roof stands or with the addition of dormers is one thing, but you must fit a proper staircase to the attic — so work out roughly where you could install it.

Ideally, the new flight of stairs should be fitted over the existing stairwell, but to do this you may have to break through the wall of an adjoining room with a consequent loss of space in that room. In this situation you would want to be sure that the space lost at the foot of the stairs would be regained together with a lot more space in the attic.

You should also take into account where the staircase will break through the ceiling into the attic. It will need quite a large opening and should not interfere with essential roof supports, chimneys, cisterns and pipe work. You must have ample headroom at the base of the stairs, on the stairs and at the top of the stairs, although the latter can often be provided by building out a dormer to the eaves.

If the house is a two storey building, the conversion of the attic will make it three storeys high and here you may run into another snag, with your local building code. The door that opens to the stairwell of a three-storey building may have to be self-closing and the walls, floors and door frames may need to offer half-to one-hour fire resistance. Often the floors and walls will be built to this standard anyway, but there are still the doors to be taken care of. Local Codes vary so always check with your local Building Codes before planning any building project.

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