How do I convert our attic for my student son?
Q: Our son is about to start college in Dublin and, as he won't be able to afford moving out, we thought of converting the attic of our semi-detached into a bedroom/study for him. What are our options?
A: Converting an attic can be an excellent and cost-effective means of gaining additional space, however, it is imperative that it is done correctly to ensure you get maximum benefit from the work. Consider engaging the services of a registered architect (riai.ie) who will deliver a solution that's right for you and your home.
While less expensive than extension works, an attic conversion - when properly undertaken and with the possible inclusion of a bathroom - costs in the range of €25,000 to €35,000. It can significantly increase the usable space of your house.
First, though, make sure that you are maximising your existing space, as the inclusion of new stairs will reduce the usable space on the first floor. It is advisable to have a cost /benefit analysis carried out before undertaking the work. If it meets this test, the location of the stairs is key to maximising space but also can assist in separating the different uses which leads to a more successful outcome. The new stairs design and its enclosure must comply with building regulations. You should also consider additional soundproofing.
Your architect can advise you on the suitability of the attic structure for conversion. You should also look around your estate and see if any other attics have been converted. In most semi-ds some additional structural work is required and the opinion of an engineer should also be sought. Many mortgage lenders require an architect to sign off on the works for mortgage approval.
In my opinion, it's not economically viable to convert a trussed rafter roof, these are the trusses that are factory made and have metal gussets at the junctions and are used in a lot of developments. They are finely engineered but can't sustain (without considerable adjustment) the additional loads associated with a converted attic. On a project I recently visited, remedial works amounting to €25,000 were required on an inappropriate conversion.
For attic conversions to be considered as a room - and for comfortable living and to comply with building regulations - the space needs to be ''habitable''. It is suggested and preferred that 50pc of the space should be 2.4m high minimum when measured at 1.5m from the floor below; a diagram in the Building Regulations Part K (ventilation), explains this. There are sound reasons behind this requirement and, in any case, many young adults are tall enough to need the height so a properly proportioned and usable (and saleable) space is crucial.
Once you know that you can satisfy the structural and space requirements, it's mandatory to meet the latest fire safety requirements, in particular the escape provisions (alarmingly often ignored). A lot of conversions have difficulty meeting the location and size of roof lights and windows for escape purposes but these are a must. There are others in relation to fire separation and doors, etc, that must be complied with too and your architect can advise on these.
There is a very useful document published by the Department of Environment called Loft Conversion, Protect Your Family which goes through the many requirements. However, these only apply when the attic is less than 50sqm and not more than two habitable rooms. (Note: The requirements are less stringent in a bungalow conversion.)
You'll also need to meet the latest regulations on smoke detectors (one in every bedroom and on all landings, etc) which need to be linked to the power supply. It's a good chance to upgrade the rest of the house. In installing compliant rooflights (those to the rear are considered exempted development under planning but not those to the front or side), work to a Protected Structure will not normally be exempt. All other work needs to comply with the appropriate regulations in the normal way.
On a more general note, when carrying out attic work for a room for young adults, install some soundproofing measures to give both you and your son privacy. If space allows, an extra bathroom (especially if the attic is for sleeping) is almost mandatory, this will improve family relationships during the college years. Ensure you install high quality insulation in the rafters (but always leave ventilation space) to the maximum depth you can and if space allows beneath the rafters too. Create custom clothes and book storage in the eaves to use the space to its best advantage. Try to delineate in some way the sleeping and study area.
If you can't meet the building regulation requirements, you could possibly convert the attic with stairs for accessible storage /books files, laundry room / additional young adult bathroom/non habitable space but with proper fire safety measures which might free up enough space on lower floors to provide a larger study bedroom for your son.
Invest a little in finishes, furnishing and lighting to add interest/create ownership and also provide durability. Try to create a bit of a wow factor (eg, balcony-type rooflights) and then leave it to your son to enjoy.
Paula M Murphy, MRIAI, practices in Tipperary and Dublin; paulamurphy.ie
Building is complex and if you are considering changes to your home, work with a registered architect. You can find a registered architect on riai.ie, the registration body for architects in Ireland.