Rising To the Design Challenge: Attics


I remember the first house I owned when my kids were young.  It was small.  And my kids were at that stage where they just all seemed so BIG.  Not them really, it was all their stuff.  Their Lego models and their Cruise Ship Barbie monstrosities. 

We had an attic with a rope in the ceiling that I needed to throw my full weight into to pull down.  There was one light up there on a pull string and only a few pieces of plywood to walk on.  It was not a place any normal person would want to spend any time.  But when I got up there, the din of the kids got that little bit farther away, and I’d look around and think, “There must be some way I can harness this space.”

Well, in that scenario, there just was not.  The pull-down ladder meant there was no good space to install regular stairs.  And the floor joists were built strong enough for storage, but not for living.  Plus, I could only stand up along the apex of the roof, so I would have been forever going back and forth, but never able to go side to side. 

But a girl can dream right?

At the end of the day, we just needed a bigger house, which we eventually got.  And let me tell you, I renovated the heck out of the attic in that one.

So how do you know if your attic is even a candidate for expansion?  Well, sometimes there are easy ways to know.  For instance, Victorian homes with their walk-up attics are usually a no-brainer.  Their stairs are already in place and their roof lines are high and varied, offering up all that quirky charm we associate with attic renovations.  But lots of us have pull downstairs, and once we’re up there we’re looking at an uninspiring long triangle of space with a window at each end.  Those attics are a little tougher to figure out.

One of the most common deal breakers for an attic renovation are the stairs.  Real stairs, not the pull-down kind. Stairs need to adhere to building codes, and so they tend to take up a lot of room.   Especially when you factor in the headroom you need when you are standing at the top of them.

Spiral staircases are an option to consider.  They come as kits that you can order online or through a building supply store for a few thousand dollars.  They take up much less space, but you need to decide if they fit the aesthetics and functionality of your home.  And you also need to confirm that you can get your furniture and supplies up those tricky little triangle steps, because nothing is more disappointing than a sofa that won’t fit through the doorway.

The second most common dealbreaker is headroom.  You can look up the building code, but as a guideline they want more than half of your space to have a ceiling height of seven feet, and some of that needs to land over the top of the stairs so you can stand up as you enter.  What do you do if you don’t have that?  Well, that’s when you get into dormers, assuming they are within your budget.  Dormers are great because they give you more walking-around space, windows and light.  Plus, they create great pockets of space to house a bed or a couch.  Additionally, they also add visual interest to your ceiling, so an attic that looks like a long triangle of space can really benefit from them.

But let’s assume your attic checks out for renovation.  Now what?  Well, I think these projects come in two categories.  The first one is to renovate that space to the same level of finish that the rest of your house enjoys.  You’ll do this if you want to use that space as a full-time office or have bedrooms up there.

If so, you might look at redoing the attic stairs which are typically narrow with walls on both sides.  Sometimes you can remove one of those walls, widen the stairs and install a railing with balustrades which will ideally match the stairs in the rest of your house.  You’ll insulate and put in plenty of lighting.  You’ll heat and cool that space by expanding your existing system into a new zone, or perhaps with a mini-split.  You may install wood floors (if you don’t mind the noise) and even a bathroom.  But it’s still an attic, so lean-in.  Attics like quirky bookcases and wood paneling.  Have fun with it. 

But the other way to re-do an attic, is to look at it as found space.  Maybe it will be an overflow playroom that the kids will only need while they are very young.  Or perhaps it will house your extended-stay guests that come just for the summer. With these types of goals, you have a lot more flexibility with the kind of finishing you might want to do.

Maybe you do not insulate at all, and just spray paint the whole thing white.  Maybe you pop in a window unit for air conditioning in the summer and just close the attic off in the winter.  Maybe you update your electric with more lighting and outlets but leave it rustic with the wires exposed.  Maybe you just carpet the whole thing - uneven floorboards and all.  Honestly, if it looks clean and loved and there are no spiders??  Well, there is a whole lot of forgiveness that comes with a high-quality mattress, crisp linens, Wi-Fi, and privacy.

What else?  Oh gosh, there’s tons.  There are sleeping berths and reading nooks and crazy angled bathrooms.  There is storage built into the knee walls, skylights, and window seats.  But most importantly there is a certain amount of peace that you get just from having that extra space.  But if you call that space your own?  Take my advice and don’t invite that Barbie and her crazy friends from the cruise ship.  They will keep you up all night.


rooms, attic, jen coles, professional home designer, manchester, diy design challenges, renovation, interior design