Renovation Solutions: Find more space in the attic to enhance your house

Published: Friday, Oct. 18 2013 6:01 p.m. MDT

Attic remodels can turn a dusty storage space into a lovely vaulted space, housing a loft, office, or additional bedrooms.

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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, not enough. 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.

The way space is organized and presented creates an emotional response. When you walk into a house with an entry that is large with high vaulted ceilings and marble floors, it may feel grandiose to some people but cold and overwhelming for others. On the other hand, a single-story entry that opens up to a vaulted great room could feel cozy and welcoming to some, while striking others as cramped.

The next few columns are going to showcase some ideas on how to creatively add more space or to better use the space you already have.

This week's column is all about attics. Attic remodels can turn a dusty storage space into a lovely vaulted space, housing a loft, office, or additional 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 large attic. But to be honest, it is unusual when an existing attic can be easily renovated into usable space. Most attics are too short. Homeowners assume that because they can walk around in their attic that it can be transformed into livable space. However, even though you can stand in the center of the attic, most of space is too short as the roof pitches down to meet the exterior walls.

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 the outside wall (also known as a knee wall) can reach at least 5 feet. Ignore this guideline and you'll be bumping your head on the attic ceiling!

To gain additional space, which will be tall enough to stand in, dormers can be added to the roof. These roof additions usually take the form of gable or shed roofs. Many municipalities have restrictions on the addition of dormers. For instance, you may be restricted to an overall width (such as 10 feet), a required distance between dormers (such as 4 feet) or an overall percentage of the existing roof length (such as 50 percent). The height of dormers must also comply with building height limits, and they should never be higher than the existing roof.

Also, you will probably need to strengthen your main floor ceiling joists to support livable space above. The existing rafters are meant only to support a ceiling, not a load generated by floors, furniture and people above. The roof joists above the attic will also need to be upgraded; typically they are less than 12 inches deep members, so they are not deep enough to hold the amount of insulation now required by code. Both of these modifications will further reduce the usable attic space.

The above discussion applies to homes which are “stick framed,” meaning roofs that are constructed with individual roof rafters rather than pre-manufactured trusses. In homes built after 1960 or so, the roofs are usually built using prefabricated wood trusses, which crisscross throughout the attic space. In order to make the attic space usable, these trusses must be removed, which means the entire roof will have to be removed and replaced in order to accommodate the new second level.

Finally, remember that you will need a staircase to access the living areas in your remodeled 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 minimum 5-foot diameter space (which is not large enough to move furniture upstairs). By code, ladders are acceptable for accessing only a loft, not attic bedrooms.

While it is not as simple as it may first appear, an architect can examine these factors and help you determine what it will take to turn your attic into usable space that can enhance the beauty and functionality of your home.

Ann Robinson and Annie V. Schwemmer are the Principal Architects and co-founders of a residential architectural firm focused on life-changing remodeling designs at RenovationDesignGroup.com. Send comments or questions to ask@RenovationDesignGroup.com

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