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Attic’s are one of the great untapped spaces in any house. Stretching from corner to corner, they invite dreams of storage solutions for everything from holiday decor to off-season clothes to furniture unused, but not unloved!
But attic spaces are tough to work in. Since attics are outside the “living space” of your home, they’re an important part of your home’s structure, making adding a floor no simple task. These are raw, unfinished, unheated and uncooled spaces where one false send you flying through the ceiling of the floor below.
Plus, attic’s serve an important role as the location of your home’s most important barrier to lost energy and high utility cost: insulation, which can be easily compromised if flooring is poorly installed.
First rule for adding attic floors: Do no harm!
When medical students complete the many years of study it takes to become a doctor, they ceremoniously take the “Hippocratic Oath”. This oath includes well known words that homeowners who are considering flooring their attics are wise to remember: first do no harm!
For the most part, attics were not designed as storage spaces. They are a part of the raw underbelly of structure that holds a house together and protects it from the elements. Because of this, installing a floor to an attic always involves some level of disturbance.
In the 20 years I spent as a professional home inspector, I saw well-meaning owners absolutely destroy the structural integrity of their home by cutting away important parts of the roof structure, resulting in tens of thousands of dollars in repair costs. I’ve also heard from owners who just couldn’t fathom why their heating (and cooling!) bills doubled after the installation of attic flooring!
Bottom line, flooring your attic can make it a perfect place for storage. But doing so the wrong way means that you could weaken your structure, squash your insulation, or find yourself with one foot planted firmly through the sheetrock ceiling below! Fortunately, there are attic flooring solutions that work well in the often harsh and unheated environments. Here’s where to begin:
Understanding the Types of Attic Structures: Conventional Framing vs. Trusses
There are two ways roof structures are generally built, conventional framing and truss framing. In both cases, the framing is designed to take the weight of the roof load (which includes wind and weather, like heavy snow), distribute it outward to the exterior walls where it’s transmitted down to the foundation and finally to the soil. But while these framing systems serve the same purposes, they are actually built quite differently.
Conventional framing is the most common, especially for older homes. With conventional framing, rafters and joists (usually 2×8’s, 2×10’s or 2×12’s) make up what will become the roof and floor structures you’ll need to work around. With conventional framing, the lumber is measured, cut and assembled on site, one beam at a time.
The other type of attic framing involves prefabricated trusses. Trusses are a structural framework usually made from a series of interconnected 2×4’s. They are designed by engineers for the specific home they’ll be used in, built in a factory, and shipped to the site where they are lifted in place by a local crew and mounted above the wall framing. Trusses are usually installed 24” on center and linked by purlins, run longitudinally to connect multiple trusses together.
Unless your home was built with a specific type of truss called an attic truss, which is designed to provide an open area for access and storage, they are the most difficult to work around when it comes to adding attic flooring space for access and storage. It would be like stepping through a maze of criss-crossed 2×4’s. Each piece of the truss assembly contributes to the overall structural integrity of the truss which is why they cannot be cut or modified in any way.
Fortunately there are solutions to safely and efficiently add attic flooring for storage to each type of attic structure.
Attic flooring for storage space above trusses
If the roof structure of your home was designed with prefabricated trusses, your attic was definitely not designed for any storage. There are several reasons for this.
Roof trusses are designed to take the weight of the roof (and the snow, wind, rain, etc.) and distribute it downward and outward to the load-bearing exterior walls. It does this through a series of interconnecting 2×4” wood framing pieces known as “chords”. Adding storage to this finely tuned structural marvel risks weakening the roof system and violating building codes.
Also, since the attic insulation rests on top of the drywall, it will be much thicker than the bottom 2×4 chord of the truss. Adding flooring and storage on top of fiberglass insulation will compress it, squeezing out trapped air rendering it virtually useless.
However, if you keep the storage weight to a minimum, you may be able to build a storage platform above the insulation, by attaching supporting beams to the sides of the trusses. Even easier, you can also use a prefabricated attic floor kit designed specifically to raise the attic floor above the insulation.
Attic flooring for storage space above framing
If your home was built with standard conventional lumber, your risk of causing structural imbalance isn’t nearly as high; however, you still need to be sensible when installing an attic floor. The beams you’ll be installing the flooring on top of are actually ceiling joists which support the drywall ceiling below the attic. Ceiling joists are designed to hold up a drywall ceiling and not strong enough to support a floor loaded with your old collection of dumbells!
If the attic were designed as living space, those ceiling joists would become floor joists and be much bigger. Ceiling joists are typically 2×8 lumber, floor joists are usually 2×10 or 2×12 lumber. That’s a big size and strength difference between the two types of framing, even if the joist spacing is the same.
Also, your home’s energy efficiency almost always suffers when the attic is converted for storage. Since an average attic needs 16 inches or more of insulation, the insulation is always thicker than the ceiling joists or trusses. As such, adding a floor can cause the insulation to compress, thus reducing the efficiency of the fiberglass insulation. If the ceiling joist framing is deep in that your insulation does not protrude above the framing, you can floor right on top of those joists but know that it’ll be very difficult to add more insulation later.
Products that make attic flooring easy
With all these challenges, you might start thinking that attic flooring installation is impossible. It isn’t, but you’ll need a dose of common sense to execute the job of installing an attic floor properly.
Here are a few tips and recommended products to help you and your house get through the attic flooring installation job unscathed:
The LoftZone Attic Storage Kit is a lightweight and very easy-to-install prefabricated metal framing system. It raises the height of the lower chord of the attic truss or ceiling joist. This allows the full depth of attic insulation to work as intended.
Attic Dek is a specially designed attic floor system that consists of 16″ or 24″ squares attached to the top of ceiling joists. The sections are durable, lightweight, easy to handle and resemble floor grates that provide plenty of ventilation for insulation below. Each package covers about 10 square feet.
LoftZone Attic Storage Kit
The LoftZone Attic Storage Kit is a lightweight and very easy-to-install prefabricated metal framing system. It raises the height of the lower chord of the attic truss or ceiling joist. This allows the full depth of attic insulation to work as intended. The metal beams are adjustable to take into account variable joist spacing. The system can bridge over pipes, uneven joists or other obstructions. The system also provides an air-gap between the top of the insulation and the underside of the board. This helps to remove any damp air that could cause condensation.
The LoftZone StoreFloor is available in two sizes, 12 x 12 (144 square feet) and 8’ x 8’ (64 square feet) so you can easily customize your order to fit the available storage space you’d like to create. Note that the floor panels are not included, but can be purchased at any home center. We recommend you select 2’ x 4’ plywood or particle board panels as these provide plenty of support and are easiest to work with in a confined attic space.
LoftZone StoreFloor is lightweight and very easy-to-install. LoftZone raises the height of the lower chord of the attic truss to allow full depth of attic insulation to work as intended.
- Prefabricated metal framing
- Lifts floor above insulation on trusses or conventional framing
- Easy to install
- Covers 144 square feet
- Prefabricated metal framing
- Lifts floor above insulation on trusses or conventional framing
- Easy to install
- Covers 64 square feet
Attic Dek Flooring Storage System
Another innovative option that is specifically designed to provide easy attic storage is a product called “Attic Dek.” Attic Dek is a specially designed attic floor system that consists of 16″ or 24″ squares attached to the top of ceiling joists. The sections are durable, lightweight, easy to handle and resemble floor grates that provide plenty of ventilation for insulation below. They attach with just a few screws, are capable of supporting 250 lbs and allow you to build a safe, secure storage platform in your attic in just minutes.
- Provides storage above joists
- Supports 250 lbs
- Lightweight and easy to install
Tips for working in attic spaces
Attics can be uncomfortable spaces to work in. Here are a few tips that can help.
Walk on wood!
As you enter your attic and stare down at all that fluffy fiberglass insulation, remember that just below is a drywall ceiling with virtually NO ability to stop you from falling straight through to the room below! As you move around the attic, remember to always step on TOP of the floor joists between the layers of insulation, so that you “walk on wood.”
Mind the heat
The summer is not a great time to be working in an attic as temperatures can easily top 100 degrees or more, making it even more likely you’ll take a mis-step. If you must tackle this project then, bring fans up in the space to keep the air moving, take plenty of breaks and drink lots of water.
If your home has central air conditioning, here’s a pro tip that might help. Temporarily remove one of the air conditioning supply ducts from the ceiling below, and use it to cool the attic while you work. While it’s not the most energy efficient thing you can do, being comfortable in that space for the duration of the projects make it well worth it.
Fiberglass can be uncomfortable to work around so important you take steps to protect yourself. Always wear a mask to protect your lungs from the fibers, as well as long sleeve shirts and pants. Wear safety glasses and use gloves. When you are done for the day, wash your clothes separate from the rest of the laundry to avoid sharing fiberglass fibers with the family.
Platforms don’t have to be plywood
Maneuvering heavy, 4 x 8 sheets of plywood or OSB (oriented strand board) up to an unfinished attic is sometimes like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. To make the job easier, use a circular saw to cut the plywood sheet first into (2) 2×8 strips which will be much easier to handle. Or pick up pre-cut 2’ x 4’ panels of plywood, OSB or particle board. Another option is to skip the plywood flooring altogether and use dimensional lumber. 1 x 6 #3 spruce is a step up from pallet quality wood but makes a fine usable floor in an unfinished attic space.
Limit attic flooring
If you don’t need additional storage, think of flooring an area less than the entire attic, such as a small section around the attic door opening. This way you can preserve the maximum amount of attic insulation in the rest of the home. Since homes tend to be colder the closer you get to the exterior walls, keeping this floored area to the inside center of the attic is smart.
Your new attic floor storage space may be just a weekend away
If you plan your attic flooring project well, select the right products and materials and be ever so conscious to not compromise your insulation or overload the floor, this is a weekend project that can be fun and rewarding, especially when you start to take advantage of your new found attic storage space!
On our national radio program and podcast The Money Pit, we open each and every hour by inviting calls from “floor boards to shingles.” If your question is about how to install attic flooring, there are lots of fabulous attic flooring solutions to get the job done!
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