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Renovation Solutions: Adding an attic bedroom

Published: Friday, May 9 2014 4:51 p.m. MDT

In this remodel, an attic bedroom was added to the attic space.

David Price, Renovation Design Group

When it comes to making the most out of your home-remodeling investment, reconfiguring or repurposing existing space to add more bedrooms is a surefire way to get some bang for your buck. In our series of high return on investment remodeling projects, No. 3 on the Remodeling Magazine’s Cost vs. Value national report for 2013-2014 is adding an attic bedroom. (See No. 1 of a front door replacement and No. 2 adding a wood deck from the past few weeks).

We see a lot of people searching for ways to better use their existing space. Tapping into the attic space is one way to get more livable space out of your house.

Adding an attic bedroom is easier in some houses than others. Could you turn your attic space into a bedroom or two?

There are a few items to consider. First, determine if the structure of your roof is composed of individual rafters or prefabricated trusses. The shape of trusses prohibits the use of the space for living, and they cannot be easily modified. Most homes built after 1960 were constructed with trusses, so they rarely have an attic that can be reclaimed for living space.

Next, look at the ceiling height in the attic. The center of the space at the peak of the roof must be a minimum of 7 feet high — 8 feet or more is better. Keep in mind also that the usable floor space of an attic begins where the height of each side wall reaches about 5 feet. The low-height space in the area near the outer edge of the roof (known as the "kneewall" space) is good for storage, but not for furniture or for people walking around.

So, even though you have a stick-built roof with adequate height at the center, you may not have enough usable space in your attic without changing some of the roof line. Added space can be captured on the ends of the space if you have a hipped roof (a roof that slopes on all four sides), which can be changed into a gable end with a window for light, views and egress requirements. New space can also be captured on the sides of your attic by adding dormers. These triangular additions to your roof line allow you to transform kneewall space into usable floor area by providing enough height so you can walk into this area.

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 that can be covered by dormers (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.

Another consideration is that the joists that hold up the existing ceiling below the attic space are generally not strong enough to act as the floor of your newly finished space. Be prepared to beef up this structure and add a new subfloor to the attic to carry the additional load of people and furniture.

The roof joists above the attic will need more insulation to make it a comfortable living space and bring the house up to code. Typically the existing rafters are less than 12 inches deep, so they are too shallow to hold the amount of insulation now required by code. Additional deeper joists often need to be added to bring the ceiling down low enough to accommodate the required insulation.

Both of these modifications will slightly reduce the usable attic height, so keep that in mind when considering if your attic is a good candidate for a renovation.

Since an upper level is generally considered private space in your home, bedrooms are often the function of choice when it comes to an attic remodel. Many people have a romantic picture of a secluded master suite tucked away under the eaves. Another option would be to combine several smaller bedrooms on an existing level to create the master suite, and use the attic space to add family bedrooms above.

Either scenario calls for the addition of a bathroom along with the bedrooms. If you combine both a master suite and an additional bedroom or two in the attic space, you will most likely be looking at adding two new bathrooms. Once you reach this scale — unless you have a very large attic — you are probably talking about adding a complete second story, as opposed to "fixing up" the attic.

Another item to consider is where and how to add a staircase to access the living areas in the remodeled attic. By code, ladders are acceptable for accessing only a loft, not attic bedrooms. For a straight run of stairs, you will need an area of at least 3 by 16 feet, with a 3-foot-by-3-foot landing top and bottom. There is rarely a convenient space to place the stairs on the main level; often an entire room ends up being sacrificed to provide the space necessary for a staircase.

A residential architect can help you examine these factors and help you determine if it is possible to turn your under-used attic into livable space. Adding a bedroom and additional livable square footage to your house will definitely add value to your property.

A cozy room in the attic may be just the thing to give you a little extra elbow room and a fun new space to enjoy in 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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