Lofty ideals: the dos and don’ts of converting your attic
Most homeowners opt for a room considered storage rather than habitable space
To make the attic space look and feel habitable, you need to factor in good sources of natural light and ventilation
An attic conversion is one of the most affordable ways to add space to a home, but before you invest you need to know all the facts.
While you will find any number of contractors offering their services online, your first port of call should be the Department of the Environment’s website, where there is a downloadable leaflet listing all the criteria to be met and distilling down the myriad building regulations covered into easy-to-read points, says Noel Larkin, president of the building surveying division of the Society of Chartered Surveyors of Ireland.
So once you’ve boned up on the dos and don’ts, where does one go to get the job done to the best possible standard? Some architectural and engineering practices are now so busy that they’re a bit sniffy at taking such work – jobs that they perceive to be small when they could be occupied with far more lucrative extension and refurbishment work.
Which brings you back online. When searching for an attic conversion firm, look at the company’s website to see if it lists its builder insurance, advises Tony Gilbert, of Jamestown Construction, trading as The Attic Man, a Blanchardstown-based showroom with decades of experience under its belt.
If it does, you should then call the firm to make sure the contractor checks out. If it doesn’t list such details, it should be the first question to ask when you do call, before you even ask how much the job will cost, he says. If you don’t get an answer, his advice is to walk away. The firm should also have professional indemnity insurance, adds Larkin.
This is good advice as you could spend hours chasing contractors, leaving messages and follow-up emails, that may never be returned.
Gilbert says that while most attics can, technically, be converted under current building regulations, 95 per cent of the work he has done falls into the more popular and cheaper option: an attic room that is considered a storage rather than a habitable space. While this non-habitable storage space is not supposed to be used as a bedroom, most clients use it as sleeping quarters or as a home office, he explains. These spaces come with roof lights with built-in ventilation, insulation, electrics and plumbing, and cost from €15,000, excluding VAT at 13.5 per cent.
The addition of an en-suite shower room or bathroom – if you have the space – is another consideration and will further add to the bottom line. Expect to pay at least €4,250 for one, Gilbert says. The en suite may be an internal one in which case your builder may suggest a light well, but ask to see the model and brand being suggested in situ somewhere before committing to it, as some emit a cold blue light reminiscent of the illumination used in some public toilets that really isn’t worth the additional financial outlay. The result can be a very cold-looking space. In those cases you might just be better spending the money on good, warm artificial light options.
For the room to be considered habitable, under building regulations, more than 50 per cent of it must have a ceiling height of 2.2m, says structural engineer Thomas O’Connor of OCC Engineering. One way to do this is to extend the headroom of the space out by installing a dormer window to push the volume of loft outwards. Such works double the price of the job, Gilbert says. “It is also a far more invasive procedure in that you have to take one side of the roof and scaffold the whole house.” Estimates start from about €30,000, excluding VAT.
Even if the space itself meets regulations, the staircase you install to access it may not. Two choices are usually offered: a spiral staircase, which looks lovely but won’t please parents of small children, or a more traditional style, where the step height and width of the stairs also need to be factored in, as does the stairwell headroom. For the stairs to meet building regulations one may have to lose the box room to install it, which will runs contrary to any homeowner’s plan to add space. “You may be losing a bedroom that complies with building regulations for a non-compliant space,” Larkin says. This isn’t a problem unless you go to sell and find that the room you added cannot be considered an additional bedroom. For the attic room to comply with regulations, the internal doors on the ground and first floor have to be upgraded to fire-rated standards, another costly exercise.
Get it signed off
If getting works done, be sure your contractor can have the works signed off by an architect and structural engineer, Gilbert advises. He suggests linking the fire alarms in the house to the attic, especially the one in the kitchen, as it may not be audible in the attic.
A basic attic conversion will take about 10 days to complete, Gilbert says, but to make the attic space look and feel habitable, you need to factor in good sources of natural light and ventilation. The two main suppliers of attic roof lights are Velux and Fakro, and both have good websites that suggest endless options, all depending on your budget. Their designs come with built-in vents. Basic centre-pivot styles will cost from about €250 upwards, while top-hung options cost from about €410. Both prices exclude VAT.
A bank of roof lights, say two up top and two more set below, can transform a dark space into a light-filled eyrie, but such additional glazing will add to your bill.
Another option is the balcony roof light. The Velux Cabrio is a long, top-opening glazing whose bottom folds out to form a small balcony – perfect if you have a view to look out at, but this option may need planning as its installation may overlook neighbours, so take advice from the architect already selected to sign off on the building works. These cost from about €2,500.