In most homes, usable space is at a premium and any opportunity to add more is a tempting one. Homeowners looking to expand their livable square footage might understandably look upwards, and set their sights on the attic.
Worried you’re getting in over your head? Converting your attic to living space is a very ambitious project, but can be done if you have enough height to work with. Determine your head-banging potential by measuring from the floor to the highest point. If it’s 7 feet or more and you can walk comfortably down the center of the attic, you can probably make a go of it. If you need to add more useable height beyond the ridge line, this can be accomplished with a dormer, an extension of the roof line that delivers more useable space and can be quite charming at the same time.
When converting an attic to living space, it is highly advisable to work with both installers and architects, starting with the architect. These design pros can help you work through the issues and provide a set of specifications to present to competing contractors detailing exactly what needs to be done and how to accomplish it safely and effectively. Following are some basic considerations.
Sister, sister. Plan on beefing up the floor joists during the conversion by having “sister” joists installed next to their undersized siblings. Properly installed, these can span over load-bearing walls and support normal floor traffic.
Ups and downs. If you presently access your attic by pull-down stairs, you’ll need room for a proper staircase for permanent access. You’ll need 14 feet or so of space to build a straight stair, and as much or less for angular configurations, depending on how may turns the steps need to take on the way up.
Keep your cool. It’s unlikely that your present HVAC configuration can adequately provide enough comfort, so you may be installing a second zone of heating and cooling just for the upper floors. Insulation needs proper ventilation, so it’s not a case of stuffing as much insulation in a rafter as it will hold. To the contrary, if your home has three 8-inch-deep rafters, you should only be adding six inches of insulation, installed flush with the bottom of the rafter, leaving a two-inch gap above it to facilitate the flow of air. This will need to be matched with the continuous ridge and soffit vent system that allows air to enter at the base of the rafters, travel up the roof sheathing and then out a ridge vent at the top.
Clever workaround. To create a comfortable living space, some parts of the mechanical systems in your attic can be moved, while others require creative decorating solutions. Re-routing the vent pipe from your bathrooms will be easier than, say, rerouting a brick chimney. But with some ingenuity, you can incorporate it into your design scheme. Use assorted profiles of lumber and architectural corbels — those intricately carved brackets — to create a decorative mantel to dress up the chimney. Or, build a wraparound bench to make the chimney a part of your hangout zone. Bottom line: let the attic’s structural elements become a rustic and charming detail that can meld into a country or modern setting.
Light it up. Finally, think about lighting. With few wall spaces, most light may come in from skylights or roof windows, which if properly spaced, can add drama and sophistication to your new lofty nest.
With these starting points, plus the expertise of design professionals, as your guide, you’ll be well on your way to converting your attic into additional living space that can be a beautiful retreat when you just want to be above it all.