Before building an addition to your house, consider the dark, dusty room adorned with exposed rafters and packed with boxes and old furniture.
Traditionally used for storage, the attic is not designed for habitation, says Kerry Touchette, president of Kerry Touchette Interiors Inc. in Northwest. He is past president of the American Society of Interior Designers’ (ASID) Washington Metro Chapter.
The attic, referred to as lost space underneath the roof, can be converted into livable space by evaluating its potential uses — as bedroom, home office, living room, playroom, media room or workshop — and making a few remodeling changes.
“As with any home renovation project, it’s what are you trying to accomplish, what is your budget, and what’s the potential of the space,” says Deborah Pierce, advisory group member of the Small Project Practitioners Knowledge Community of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), a national professional association of architects headquartered in Northwest.
Attics can have oddly shaped floor plans, slanted roofs, low ceilings and inaccessible corners. Attics with factory-produced tresses provide little open space from the intersecting supports, which cannot be removed. Traditionally built attics have rafters that support the roof while leaving space open in the middle, allowing for remodeling work.
Homeowners undertake attic renovations to add space to their homes and avoid building on an addition or cutting into the size of their yards, says Ms. Pierce, who is principal of Pierce Lamb Architects in Newton, Mass.
“It’s a way to get space that’s less costly than all-new construction,” she says.
New construction costs about $250 per square foot, while an attic renovation costs $100 to $125 per square foot, says Chris Landis, principal and co-owner of Landis Construction Corp., a design-build firm in Northwest. He is a member of AIA and of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI), a membership organization headquartered in Des Plaines, Ill., that promotes the remodeling industry.
Mr. Landis advises checking zoning regulations and getting permits for any structural, mechanical and plumbing renovations. Homeowners, even if they have some do-it-yourself skills, likely will need to hire out the major renovation work, he says.
Homeowners can hire an architect to get an overview of their options as well as a final design, and a contractor, such as a renovation contractor, to build out the design. Or they can purchase building materials from a home-improvement store and hire a carpenter to do the work.
Before the work can begin, the space will have to be evaluated.
“First thing, stick your head up in the attic. Is there enough space in the attic that what I’m contemplating is something that I can do?” says Richard McClary, department head of kitchen, bathroom and appliances at Home Depot in Towson, Md.
The attic should provide enough headroom and be accessible for daily use, but not by a trapdoor or pull-down set of stairs, Mr. McClary says. A staircase may have to be installed, and deciding where and in what direction to put the stairs are important decisions, he says.
The best place for the stairs, Mr. Landis says, is over an existing set of stairs, but if that is not feasible, space will have to be cut from a closet or floor space in a room on the floor below. The stairs should provide headroom of at least 7 feet to enter or leave the attic, he says.
A dormer, which is a window that sits upright on a sloping roof, can be installed to provide that space, Mr. Landis says.
“If you’re going to use a dormer, you need to consider what it will look like on the exterior of the house,” he says.
The floor of the attic needs to be structurally sound, and if it is not, it needs to be reinforced, says Lisa Stacholy, past chairwoman of the Small Project Practitioners Knowledge Community of AIA.
The load for living space in the main part of the house is about twice that in an attic, Mrs. Stacholy says.
A structural engineer can determine if the floor joists for the attic are able to support the additional load, Ms. Pierce says. The joists can be strengthened by placing boards next to or between the existing boards, she says.
Mr. Touchette recommends installing a floor surface that protects against noise.
“Generally, people stay away from hard-surface flooring because of the acoustics. If you use wood or tile, you need counter measures to make sure the floor doesn’t reflect sound,” he says.
The floor usually is insulated, but not the sloped roof between the rafters, Mr. Landis says. Because insulation protects against heat loss in the winter and overheating in the summer, he recommends installing roof insulation with an R-30 value, higher than that of wall insulation, rated at R-19. The R-value is the measure of a material’s thermal resistance.
“Insulation is a fixed minimal cost compared to energy usage over time,” he says.
A separate heating and cooling system with its own thermostat can be installed to help control temperature, Mr. Landis says.
Or the existing system can be extended by adding onto the ductwork in the house, Mr. McClary says, adding that using a plug-in heater and window air-conditioning unit is the easier and cheaper option.
If electricity is desired, a licensed electrician can be hired to evaluate the electrical panel board for additional capacity, Mr. Landis says. If lacking, the panel can be increased or additional circuits can be added, or a new panel can be purchased, he says.
Finally, a plumber can be hired to install the plumbing if a bathroom is added.
The best location for the bathroom, Mrs. Stacholy says, is above an existing bathroom to allow the plumbing lines to go straight up into the attic, reducing the demolition work that would need to be done to the floor below.
“You try to be economical in how you try to locate things,” she says.
As for designing the room, select furniture that can be carried up narrow stairs and through the door frame, and if used for a bedroom, paint and add window treatments, says Mathilda Cox, adjunct professor of interior design at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, a part of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Northwest. She is an interior designer for Mathilda Cox Interiors, also in Northwest.
“If it’s exposed beams, you may enjoy maintaining that look or covering it up with Sheetrock and painting it,” Ms. Cox says. “Attics are wonderful spaces to experience the night sky and morning light if you get the right windows or a skylight.”