A head for heights - How to get the best loft conversion
It can be a cheap and relatively painless way to add space to your home, says Caroline Allen, but before you raise the roof, read our check list.
Where there isn't room to build out, the only way is up. Loft conversions are attractive because they are usually a quicker, cheaper and less disruptive way to add space to a house than other alternatives.
However, according to architect Stephen Musiol of Small Spaces, a loft conversion needs to be assessed in the context of the house as a whole. "Often the problem area is with the living space of a house, and space in an attic may not do anything to address this. So don't commit to the quick attic job without taking an overview of the house and how it's working for you."
There are, Musiol outlines, three main practical questions to pose before you start. "Firstly, figure out how much space you can get, taking account of what you might lose for insulation, upgraded structure, and access," he says. Alan O'Connell of OC Architects & Design advises considering the impact on the rooms on the level below. "Your box room could become even boxier. An architect will help to minimise the impact on these rooms, so having a drawing done before is key."
Careful attention must be paid to headroom, according to Musiol. "You need to know if you are achieving a good space ultimately and, crucially, that you will have enough head height to do so," O'Connell concurs. "Maximise the space when you convert. Habitable or usable space goes to the centre of the room, under the ridge, and under-eaves storage goes to the extremities," O'Connell says.
According to Musiol, success and failure in the design of loft conversions is often a matter of very small margins in size. "Be open to alternatives - sometimes it takes a more customised solution to ensure you actually get the benefit," he says.
A mansard roof, which will require planning permission, can be effective in extending the area of standing space in the attic, says Claire McManus of Open Architects. "If well designed and detailed, mansard roof extensions can be as beautiful on the outside as on the inside."
Investigating how you will get access to the new space is the second major question, says Musiol. "Where is there space for a stairs, and what impact does that have on the layout on the level below the loft? It's okay to sacrifice space below to gain more above, but you need to be clear on how much - if any - of a trade-off will be required." McManus says that the best use of space is where the stairs can rise over the existing stairs. "If you have to lose a room on the first floor to gain space in the attic, it may not be worth it," she says.
Cost is the third big concern, according to Musiol. "It's quite easy to ask around and get some figures thrown at you, but proceed with caution. Not all loft conversion cases are completely straightforward. Put work into asking the question in more detail." While loft conversion spends vary widely, O'Connell suggests expecting an outlay of somewhere between €15,000 and €30,000, dependent on size, use, design and materials.
For those interested in thinking beyond the obvious, Musiol is brimful of ideas. "Things you can do but may not have thought about include adding a very small, specific dormer to a roof in order to create headroom to fit a stairs where it wouldn't fit otherwise. This can let you put the stairs in a position that minimises loss of space on the floor below, and the small scale addition may not offend the planners," says Musiol.
Where it's permissible, a flat roofed box dormer can allow you create a really usable amount of new living space. "This would usually be put to the rear of the house but in some cases the side and the front are viable places as well," Musiol says. "Sometimes you can build a new area of roof to the rear of the house that is taller than the top of the main roof, and so creates the headroom to have proper living space. This can be designed to be more or less invisible from street level to minimise visual impact."
Instead of raising the roof, you could consider lowering the floor, Musiol suggests. "Tall ceilings in the space below the loft can be reduced to gain headroom for a new usable space without affecting external appearance. And in single-storey houses, lowering the ground floor can achieve the same effect."
In cases where full living spaces won't fit, Musiol recommends converting a small loft, or part of one, to fit in a bathroom, a home office or a cosy nook to read. "Often a window at that height will have a view that isn't visible anywhere else in the house," he says.
Some houses have areas that lend themselves to a complete transformation of the roof design, adding height and using that to create more space inside, Musiol says. "Existing returns, extensions or garages can have a new roof at a higher level, and there are design opportunities to make interesting changes when doing this. Older dormer type houses often can have a large scale alteration to the entire roof to get all the bedrooms onto the upper level for example," he says.
"The small-scale urban cottage often has no other way to gain space than to do so by using the attic, and sometimes it requires quite clever thinking to make it all fit - lowering ground floors, etc. And in some of these houses, even where living space can't be gained, it can make sense to use the attic to get daylight, and even views, into the centre of the house, especially if extensions to the rear have made the layout very dark," Musiol says.
Many older, top floor apartments are built with quite large unused attic spaces above them which could offer the potential to expand and create mezzanines, but Musiol's advice is to proceed with caution as these projects can involve a lot of red tape.
"If you don`t have enough space to create a decent usable space consider the impact that vaulting that attic space would have on the room below," suggests O'Connell.
"This would add height to these rooms which may not be a hugely beneficial to a bedroom but living spaces below this would benefit hugely through the addition of a high vaulted space. The addition of height together with the opportunities to pull light into the spaces could completely transform a living space. It could also create the opportunity to introduce a mezzanine area to the space below."
Planning and building regulations and safety are the two key issues.
n Not all loft conversions are exempt from planning, and all of the more elaborate ones that make changes to the roof profile will require permission," says Stephen Musiol. "Sometimes even straightforward Velux windows are not to be taken for granted as being exempt. In general making an alteration to the roof profile involves convincing the planners to a greater extent than other types of change to a house."
n As the building owner, you are ultimately responsible for compliance with the building regulations that relate to loft conversions, Musiol stresses. "There is a lot of confusion about what you have to do to comply, and what the consequences are if you don't. Make sure you do your homework - find the published guidance such as the Department of the Environment's 'Loft Conversions: Protect your family' document or seek advice." O'Connell says advice from an architect is worthwhile rather than diving in first.