The Complexities of Attic Conversions

Many homeowners recognize the value of additional living space in their homes. Perhaps you’re expecting a new addition to the family, or are planning to move in a parent under the same roof. No matter the reason, it can be a big undertaking, one that requires a good team.

When it comes to creating more livable space, there are a few options; re-build, create an addition, or convert an existing space. The later can include a garage or for the purposes of this post, an attic. Attic conversions can be complex and it’s the intention of this post to provide some insight.

Is it feasible?

It’s important to understand from the beginning, is it feasible. To do so, assess if the space meets minimum access standards including the “Rule of Sevens”. In order to meet this, the space needs to have a minimum of 70 ft2 of floor space, 7ft wide and 7ft high. The roof must also be suitable for insulation and ventilation. Once these minimums are addressed, additional floorspace under sloping ceilings can be added to the functional space. In order to get this right and avoid starting a project that might prematurely end, it’s best to use a qualified contractor or structural engineer – often provided as part of a free consultation.

Can I do this without a building permit?

I know – I often ask myself this question for many projects – it’s not everyone’s favourite answer – In short, no. When it comes to use and occupancy of your home, any changes or additions usually always require the approval of your municipality. While it may be suggested or seem okay to proceed without a permit, it’s better to be safe than sorry, as it may come back to haunt you later on when you plan to sell, transfer ownership or even beyond.

Hire an engineer

Engineers are qualified people you can employ for this type of project. They are equipped to problem-solve and certify standard and creative solutions. There is also the added benefit of credibility when applying for building permits since an engineer’s stamp can carry a lot of weight with city officials. A contractor, design-builder or REALTOR® can also have established relationships with notable engineers, which can help you work out the best solution.

Insulation and ventilation

Temperature control can be a challenge with attics. Ever notice how it can be the hottest or coldest area of the home depending on the time of year? Take a look at your roof during the winter after a snowfall – is there any area without snow???

You’ll need a modern solution and it should be planned for early in the process. Existing insulation must be removed from the floor, and a new system put in place using the roof’s framing. For attic conversions, insulation with a rating of R-31 is typically used, but if there is enough space to allow for a new attic space, then an R-50 insulation may be ideal.

Older homes are typically framed using 2×4 or 2×6 boards which won’t provide enough physical space for minimum insulation standards. This may require applying additional structure which will reduce the available headspace, possibly hindering your ability to proceed, while adding substantial costs. Dormers can be a solution but again, pre-planning is important to understand what can and cannot be done and within budget and scope. 

Ventilation is the next challenge. A ridge vent (along the roof peak) system in conjunction with soffit venting (under the eaves) can be a solution to ensure proper air exchange through the rafters. However, this solution in some cases may require the complete removal of the existing roof structure. In this case, an alternative called a hot roof system may be an alternative.

Heating and cooling

The main challenge you will have with your HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) system’s ductwork is extending its reach to your attic space without cutting into or removing any part of your home’s structure and framing. This may require you to run ducts under second floor ceilings and enclose them in bulkheads.  If you plan to install a ceiling fan, be sure the fan hangs no lower than seven feet to provide the minimum head clearance.

Windows and skylights

When installing skylights or windows, it’s important to plan structure and load changes precisely. This is where an engineer can be a great help. It creating large openings in your roof’s trusses can greatly affect your home’s structural stability. Minimum light considerations need to be considered and may differ depending on the space and provincial codes.

Beams

Having exposed beams can add to the aesthetic of your space by giving it a rustic touch – a personal fav. Decide early on whether to leave any beams exposed as it will affect electrical routing, and also have an impact on drywall application.

Bathrooms

For a complete living space in your attic, you may be inclined to add a bathroom. A common misconception is that placing your attic bathroom over a second floor counterpart will make for more efficient plumbing connections, and ultimately save money. While it’s true regarding drain and plumbing efficiency, it may not provide any real cost savings.

You’ll need to run your water supply and drain pipes so they don’t interfere with existing structure. Be prepared to plan for new bulkheads.

Stairs

You need to ensure minimum head clearance and also meet rise and run restrictions which dictate how steep and narrow stairs can be. There are some cases where existing stairways, though not current code, can be grandfathered in for older homes.

In case of emergency

If the attic space is above the second storey of your home, then it’s imperative to provide a secondary exit in the event of fire. This means that at least one window must be designed to provide an escape, with ample space to stand outside. In some cases this may require balcony installation if the roof is too steep. In some situations you may also be required to install emergency ladder kits.

Converting attic space is a complex undertaking, but with the right team, the results can be stunning and may add to your home’s resale value.

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