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The Older Home: Convert Unused Attic for Living Space

Many of us have an older home and want to expand the usable space, the solution may be right above your head - in the attic.

Zack's Home Improvement created a bright, stylish home office in this attic space with skylights, ceiling pendants, wood floors and a spiral staircase.

Remodeling your attic costs less than building an addition, because the space already exists and is already enclosed. But that doesn’t mean you can cut corners or proceed without proper planning.

There are many ways to use a finished attic. The trick is fitting everything that’s required by code into the available square footage.

Proper Procedures

When you look around your attic, your imagination may run wild with possibilities, such as:

  • A home office or family room
  • Another bedroom and/or bathroom
  • A mini kitchen or laundry facility

While any of these options can be accomplished, there’s a procedure to be followed throughout the building process, said Zack Abdelsalam, of Zack’s Home Improvement, North Bergen (zackshomeimprovement.com).

"You’re going to need approval from the city and you’ll have to provide sketches," he said. "Once it’s approved, you need all the permits for electrical, plumbing and building. From there, you can start framing the rooms for what you want: bathroom, bedroom, kitchen, etcetera."

Abdelsalam stressed that proper ventilation is needed for the roof rafters to prevent moisture buildup, before workers can focus on insulation and any ductwork.

Putting up insulation isn’t as simple as it sounds, explained Dave Goscinski, owner of JJED Remodeling, Dumont (jjedremodeling.com). He said the framing in older attics doesn’t provide enough space to lay insulation. Often, the framing has to be brought out, which can reduce headroom.

"When the code was written, they figured you’d just add insulation on the attic floor," Goscinski explained. "But if you then decide to use the attic [for living]...that space was only built strong enough to support the roof and the snow load. It wasn’t built with insulation in mind."

Comfort and Safety

Insulation will control the temperature of the attic to a point, but to be as comfortable as in the rest of your home, you’ll also need heating and air conditioning. If there is enough height, ceiling fans can circulate air and provide extra lighting.

Homeowners should consider separate controls for the heating and air-conditioning the attic, said William J. Martin, owner of WJM Architect, Westwood (wjmarchitect.com).

"You’re going to need more air conditioning in the attic in the summer than you would on the second floor of the house," he noted. "Having a separate control allows both the second floor and the attic to be comfortable."

If the space becomes a bedroom, egress windows must be installed for fire-safety reasons. Homeowners also can purchase portable fire-escape ladders that hook over the interior of a window and get tossed outside, so the room’s occupant can climb down safely.

Creating Access

Getting to and from the attic can be another tricky issue, especially if your older home has the typical pull-down ladder. To be up to code, the new living space will require a stairway, Goscinski said.

"Most attic stairs are not built to code in older homes," he explained. "They’re much too steep."

Also, it’s important that people arrive in the attic space at the highest point of the ceiling, so they’re not caught underneath the roof. That means the stairs have to be somewhat centered in your second-floor plans, Martin said - "If the ceiling is low, you can create dormers in the roof."

When Martin worked on a Tudor home in Teaneck, plans called for two separate staircases to the attic space.

One originated in the homeowner’s master bedroom and led to what became a private home office. The office didn’t require the entire attic, though, so a wall with a door was added. The other side became a play area for the kids.

"The stairway for the playroom came down to the second level outside the kids’ bedroom doors," Martin said. "They could go right up there and watch TV without disturbing anyone."

Considering a spiral staircase? Martin noted that it won’t necessarily save space.

"The shape of the staircase might lend itself better to working with the rest of the house," he noted. "But one benefit of a straight-run staircase is that a closet can be added under the stairs."

- JENNIFER PINTO

 

 

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