I’ve been a general contractor for quite a few years now, so at this point I’ve got the perspective to notice a few trends in the way people think about their homes and the myriad ways they might remodel them. When it comes to adding extra space, I generally see two distinct schools of thought at play. The most common by far is the “we need a room addition” way of thinking in which people tend to look out into the yard for a building site and, failing to find that, they might look up and contemplate a second floor (or call a Realtor).
The less common way of thinking that seems to be taking a foothold is “how can we rearrange the space we already have under our roof?” These creative folks love puzzles (you know who you are) and every now and then ask, “What about the space up in the attic? Isn’t that wasted space right now? Can’t we just put a room in there?”
I love this question because it really resonates with the “out-of-the-box” problem solver in me. It's an attempt to make the most of what already exists, and that’s pretty much my core as a remodeling contractor. Let’s look at the question.
Are Attic Rooms Easy to Build Out
More often than not, the short answer, sadly, is no, not really. However there are times when the answer is yes. So let me help you know what to look for.
Is There Structure in the Way?
The first step is to determine the importance of existing “stuff” in the unused attic space. And structural elements are pretty darn important! There are two types of roof framing commonly seen. Conventional framing, which is built on-site, is open in appearance and presents fewer obstacles when it comes to an attic conversion.
The diagram below shows a typical conventionally framed attic.
The collar tie (labeled one above) is a framing component that most often gets in the way of building out an attic room. The collar tie is an important part of the structure, without which the peak of the roof could potentially begin to sag or even collapse.
The other, and nowadays more common, type of roof framing is pre-manufactured trusses. Trusses are built off-site at a truss plant and delivered to the building site by tractor-trailer. If your attic framing looks like that shown in the photo below, you have trusses.
Pre-manufactured trusses have substantially more pieces that might get in the way of an attic conversion. Called "webbing," all of those bits of lumber running at angles in the attic cannot be modified without design help from an engineer, who may require significant arm-twisting to take on such a task.
If the attic space includes elements like collar ties or truss webbing, it's going to be difficult to remodel. If you happen to live in a house with an attic that is large enough to accommodate a room without cutting out any structural lumber, you may be in luck. You’d still need a design professional to evaluate the floor system and help you figure out stairs. But, comparatively, it could be an easy job.
You'll also find mechanical components of the house in your “open” attic space. Things like:
● Air handlers
● Electrical services
● Exhaust fans
● Etc., etc., etc.
With the exception of chimneys, these components are usually easier to move than the previously mentioned structural components, but they can still represent so much work that finding another space to convert is preferable.
Is an Attic Room an Impossibility?
All of this “reality check” talk might dismay you. But don't let it. An attic conversation is possible and a genius use of wasted space. But it's rarely easy.
If you feel like you might have an attic space that's convertible, consult a very experienced design professional and invite that person over to take a look at the space in question. While you're at it, ask the designer to suggest other areas in your home that might be candidates for conversion. You might get good news about your attic ... or a back-up plan will come up out of the woodwork! 🙂