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Renovation solutions: Turn your dusty attic into usable space

Published: Friday, May 20 2005 1:05 p.m. MDT

An open loft in an attic overlooks the living room below. A picture window was also made possible by the renovation of this home's attic.

Renovation Design Group

Space is like the wind: You can't see it, but you can feel it. People tend to look at the space in a home in terms of quantity — either there is too much space or, more likely, too little. Architects, on the other hand, see space as a way of creating an experience in a structure, a commodity that should be shaped to fit the needs of the people who occupy it.

One way to make the most of a home's space is through effective use of the attic. An unused, dusty old attic can be transformed from wasted space into a lovely vaulted ceiling, a spacious loft or additional upstairs bedrooms.

When one of our clients came to us because they needed more space for their large family, we were able to incorporate all three of these features into their unusually wide attic. The previously unused attic space has been turned into two children's bedrooms, a vaulted ceiling for the living room, and a large loft that overlooks the living room on one side and the family room on the other. The new vaulted ceiling also allowed for the addition of a 6-by-9-foot arched window in the living room, which lets wonderful light into the area.

What could be done with the attic space of your home? There are several factors to consider. First, if you want to convert your attic into living space, keep in mind that the usable space of an attic begins where the height of each wall can reach at least 5 feet. Ignore this rule and you'll often be bumping your head on the attic ceiling! You may be able to remedy this problem by converting your hipped roof, which slopes upward, to a gable roof, which goes straight up.

Also, if you live in an older home you'll probably need to strengthen your ceiling joists (located under the floor of the attic) to support livable space above. The roof joists above the attic may also need to be upgraded so they can hold a sufficient amount of insulation. Both of these modifications will slightly reduce the usable attic space.

In newer homes built since the 1960s, the roofs are often built using prefabricated wood trusses that crisscross throughout the attic space. In order to make the attic space usable, these trusses will either have to be altered or replaced.

Finally, remember that you'll need a staircase to access living areas in an attic. For a straight run of stairs you will need an area of at least 3 by 16 feet on your main floor. A spiral staircase requires a 5-foot-diameter space. By code, ladders are acceptable for accessing only a loft, not attic bedrooms.

An architect can examine these factors for you and help you determine if it is possible to turn your wasted attic space into usable space that enhances the beauty and functionality of your home.


Architects Ann Robinson, AIA, and Annie Vernon, AIA, welcome your design questions at Ask@RenovationDesignGroup.com. Robinson and Vernon are founding principals of Renovation Design Group (www.RenovationDesignGroup.com), a local architectural firm specializing in residential remodeling design. To register for "Designing a Home With Character & Class" or another free seminar, call 533-5331.