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Attic Conversions Lead to New, Innovative Living Spaces
Cecil Jacobs

Cecil Jacobs stands in an attic now undergoing renovation.

Sarah Moore says it was quite a sight to see her mattress hoisted into her new master bedroom via a crane parked in her driveway.

But an even better sight was that of the bedroom itself, finished and decorated with her and her husband’s own furniture, and located where holiday decorations and old sporting goods once collected dust.

Moore’s new bedroom suite, complete with a full bathroom, is the product of an attic conversion, a popular and unique way to create new living space within a home by building up, not out.

The process is seen most often in older homes, like Moore’s in Northampton, and in locales where new building lots are scarce, like much of New England.
But beyond that, attic conversions are also a study in some of the most innovative building practices today, utilizing existing features within an attic to create a room unlike any others below it.

Moore refers to her own bedroom suite as a sanctuary. Created by the design, build, and remodeling firm Barron and Jacobs in Northampton, the room was specially planned to accommodate Moore’s bedroom set, which didn’t fit anywhere else in the house.

“It was a relatively painless process,” she said. “It’s a huge space, and we really love it.”

From Storage to Safe Haven

Moore said she was impressed by the many innovative ways Barron and Jacobs addressed the unique challenges of converting an attic into a master bedroom.

“They measured our furniture and designed the room to fit particular pieces,” she said. “Now the headboard of the bed and dresser, for example, fit like hand-in-glove.”

But there were other concerns besides space planning. Heating and plumbing pipes needed to be fed upstairs, and windows needed to be replaced to provide the proper insulation. But again, Moore said the room seemed to lend itself to new ideas.

“They used the existing chimney that was used to vent the furnace as a straight conduit for electricity and pipes,” she offered as an example, noting that the furnace was replaced and fitted with a side vent. “The original attic steps are steep and narrow, so they added a railing around them, and replaced two windows and a dormer with large windows — that’s where the mattress came in.”

Cecil Jacobs, president of Barron and Jacobs, said the project at Moore’s house was indicative of both the common challenges and benefits of creating new living space on a home’s top floor.

“If the attic space is adequate, it’s really an obvious choice,” he said.

Jacobs explained that attic conversions are usually performed in older homes that have a large amount of space on the top floor, but that space is often geometrically tricky, presenting an array of challenges.

As humidity rises, for instance, proper ventilation must be installed, as well as new insulation that necessitates expanding rafters and replacing windows.

“But the big payoff is the significant increase in a home’s usable space,” said Jacobs. “An attic conversion can easily increase a house’s square footage from 2,000 to 3,000 square feet, or from a three-bedroom home to a four-bedroom home. In New England, we simply don’t have the space to build out; the existing inventory of a house has much greater value today.”

Raise the Rafters

Mary Kraus, one of two principal architects with Kraus-Fitch Architects in Amherst, said her firm has also handled or consulted on attic conversion projects, and agreed that while the jobs have their share of hurdles to clear, the end result is often a well-designed, one-of-a-kind space that increases the overall value of a home, not to mention its comfort level for its owners.

“The main issue is headroom, or a lack of it,” she began. “Existing attics often have 2×8 rafters, and subsequently, it’s a challenge to get enough insulation in and keep enough headroom at the same time,” said Kraus. “Attics often have some very nice, cozy spaces within them, but with those interesting angles can come some structural issues.

“We need to take into account the stairs to the attic, if any, and whether they are legal for residential purposes,” she noted. “If there isn’t a staircase, the questions become, ‘how do we design one, and how will that affect the space below it?’”

Kraus said she typically asks a client what their main goals are for the space and what their budget might be, and from there, she can better judge if the plan is workable, and moreover how much construction might be necessary.

“We might need to put a full dormer in the suite upstairs, or we might need to raise the roof, or rebuild the entire structure,” she said. “It depends on the individual situation.”

In keeping with that individual approach, attic conversions are also an attractive renovation choice for many because of the unique design aspects, as well as the various uses to which the space can be suited.

Kraus explained that many houses include dormers in their attics, often for aesthetic purposes on the exterior of a home, and they can be added if they don’t exist. In terms of an attic-conversion project, those dormers serve a new purpose — increasing the overall usable space and natural light in an attic and making the space ideal for both work and relaxation.

“Over the years, a number of people have approached me with ideas for attic renovations,” said Kraus. “Some are looking to create loft-type spaces, meditation rooms, exercise rooms, or writing studios.”

Upstairs, Downstairs

Attics also often have well-preserved hardwood floors and trim that sometimes differ from the wood in the rest of the home; Jacobs explained that in New England’s earlier years, attics sometimes served as living quarters for staff, and subsequently, less expensive wood like fir was sometimes used. Such natural wood is now in greater demand and harder to find at an excellent quality.

“The wood structure of an attic is quite magnificent to look at,” Jacobs said. “We try to leave some of the natural wood exposed, because it defines the lines of the room.”

In the Moore bedroom, for instance, a simple wire brush was used to clean the original wood, but little else was changed.

It’s those defined lines and versatile materials that also set attic renovations apart from other expansion projects within a home, Jacobs said, explaining that when it comes to reusing space within a home, many owners opt to renovate or finish basement space. But Jacobs said he wouldn’t compare basement renovations to attic conversions in a home, calling them two very different projects that often have a different end use.

“What generally drives people down to the basement is economics,” he said. “A basement can become an area for the kids to use, and a finished basement does increase the value of a home.

“What drives people up is often space. Attics are more appealing because they’re not below ground, there are often existing stairs to the space, and, in most cases, the space is being turned into a new bedroom or master suite.”

In Their Corner of the World

  Such was the case in Moore’s home, which is now used an example of attic conversion on the Barron and Jacobs Web site. Architectural and construction concerns aside, however, Moore said the finished product is proof enough that her renovation choice was a good one.

“The room is closed off from the rest of the house, so it’s really quiet and peaceful,” she said. “It’s as though instead of closing the door to the rest of the house, we’re able to close off the rest of the world.”

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]