Richard Kawalek

Nearly all attics have some usefulness, even if they’re just storing empty boxes and Christmas ornaments. But for homeowners wishing to create added living space, all the choices center around headroom, headroom, headroom. The placement of kneewalls will determine the room size, so it’s best to know how high these walls should be. Here are a few issues and parameters to consider when deciding how practical an attic remodel might be:

Access: First, you must have a way to get up there. Whether it be via stair, ladder, or pull-down, the route up must terminate at a high point in the attic. This spot should be high enough to stand up and orient oneself, particularly if carrying packages. If the attic is to be used as a bedroom, most codes will require a full-size stair and a second means of emergency egress.

Richard Kawalek

Traffic pattern: Full headroom is required between the attic’s entrance and any area to be utilized. The center of the attic is often the highest space, but be wary of valley rafters and collar ties. Placing low-headroom activities on the sides yields more full-height area for other functions.

Ergonomics: Use human dimensions as a guide. The average sizes shown at right outline what activities can be done in height-restricted areas.

Roof pitch: Steeper roofs allow for more useful space along the sides. In this case, even though the kneewalls may be low, the ceiling can slope away fast enough to allow people to stand close to the wall. This gives greater flexibility in locating furniture and in functionality.

Dormers: Use these to add height and light where necessary. Provided the exterior looks all right, dormers can enliven the space and allow for more headroom at the right spots. Plus, they help break up that bowling alley look created by a simple attic plan.

Richard Kawalek

Structure: The floor structure must be stiff enough for the new occupancy loading. The rafters have to be sufficient for the weight of ceiling finish and insulation. Dormers usually require strengthening of the rafters on each side to prevent excessive deflection.

An underutilized attic can become a wonderful place for a guest room, office, gym, or sitting room. It is one of the most economical ways to add to the living area without increasing the building area. As long as it can meet certain criteria, the space inside is practically free.

—Dick Kawalek, a registered architect for more than 30 years, is founder of Kawalek Architects, in Cleveland.