The childrenís bathroom (above), tucked under the eaves, is 7 feet by 6 feet, and the shower area is just 5 feet long in this project, which won a Raleigh-Wake County, (N.C.) Home Builders Association Star Award for best attic over $100,000 in 2007.
John Sperath The childrenís bathroom (above), tucked under the eaves, is 7 feet by 6 feet, and the shower area is just 5 feet long in this project, which won a Raleigh-Wake County, (N.C.) Home Builders Association Star Award for best attic over $100,000 in 2007.

The coziness and the sense of a hideaway under an attic’s sloping rooflines are often why people create living space up top. Kids especially enjoy the playhouse feel of a well-designed attic space. But those same quirky attributes can make attic design challenging and make it difficult for clients to visualize the possibilities of the space.

John Sperath, owner of Blue Ribbon Residential Construction, in Raleigh, N.C., has designed several attic spaces in the past few years. From a design standpoint, “the sloping roof and size of the furniture [to inhabit the finished space] are of huge importance,” he says. “When we print out a floor plan for clients we print tiny furniture symbols the same scale as the floor plan so they can see how the furniture fits.”

Heads-Up

Knee wall placement is one main concern. The actual usable space is not as big as it may seem, so Sperath cautions clients about this. “One trick we use is to make the knee wall 5 feet tall instead of 4 feet tall,” he says. “We’ll recess a set of bookshelves, a dresser, or a cabinet into the wall. This takes a piece of furniture out of the floor plan and makes the room seem bigger.”

The stairs jut out onto the main floor in order to meet code for headroom.
John Sperath The stairs jut out onto the main floor in order to meet code for headroom.

Headroom issues extend down the stairwell. If code dictates a 6-foot 8-inch head height as you ascend stairs, their location in the attic room is critical. And you may have to build a stairwell that protrudes into the hallway on the floor below, as well as create a landing area. Often people renovate an attic to increase their home’s resale value. In that case, be aware of the multiple listing service (MLS) guidelines for measuring space, Sperath says. In many places, spaces with a ceiling height of less than 7 feet don’t add to the home’s square footage.

Plan For Amenities

Whether clients are thinking resale or not, Sperath encourages them to install an attic bathroom. “Around here, builders automatically put plumbing into the walls, assuming the upper floor will one day be finished,” he says.

A knee wall is a good place to position the head of a bed.
John Sperath A knee wall is a good place to position the head of a bed.

If pipes don’t already exist and new plumbing lines are needed, Sperath installs them along with a 2-inch-diameter PVC drain line from a basement or crawlspace to the attic for running cable TV or Internet wiring. “Just drop a string through that and pull the wire up,” he says. “It costs next to nothing to do this while the walls are open.” One final consideration in attic design is heating and cooling. “In our neck of the woods, most two-story homes have two complete HVAC systems,” Sperath says. He often installs a zone control — a damper device for taking a single unit and splitting it into multiple zones.

Skylights can be used for both natural light and emergency egress. “Velux even has one with walkout assembly,” Sperath says. But beware of heat gain. “Flat skylights have reflective surfaces, which eliminate heat gain. Domed skylights don’t have as much UV protection or heat-gain protection.” It’s best to plan ahead so you make energy efficiency an integral part of the design.