Interior Design for Living: Converting an attic into living space

By Susan Gill Spellmeyer

Q: My husband and I live in an old house and are considering remodeling the attic. We would like to convert it into a bedroom/retreat.

The ceiling height is more than adequate in the center of the room, but it slopes down to the floor at the sides. We would like to utilize as much of this space as possible.

Also, it is very dark and gets very warm in the summer.

Do you have any suggestions that might be of help to us before we begin?

A: Before you begin any remodeling, consult with an expert to determine if the structural strength of the existing space is adequate. He (or she) will examine the rafters on the roof, the joists in the floor and other structural components of the existing attic. If any changes of this nature need to be made, the expert will be able to advise you accordingly.

You will also want to check to see if your electrical service can handle the additional load and investigate how you will heat the remodeled space. If you plan to add a bathroom, the plumbing will also have to be examined.

These are all basic, crucial elements and, depending upon the report of the expert, will either encourage or discourage you to continue. It's best to determine ahead of time if there are going to be any hidden costs before you begin the actual remodeling.

If you want to use as much of the attic space as possible, I would suggest building "knee walls" at the sides by the sloping roof. These walls are shorter than standard height walls, but will give you more space to use for shelves, seating, a desk area or enclosed storage. Even though you won't be able to walk directly in front of the knee wall without bumping your head, the space can still be put to good use and will greatly enhance the room both aesthetically and functionally.

You may choose to have the ceiling follow the line of the sloping roof. This will visually make the room look larger and also make it more interesting architecturally. Exposed beams or collar ties that support the roof will probably not be removable, but often add a great deal of visual interest.

If you'd like to consider opening the room up to the peak, check with the structural expert and also inquire about ventilating and insulating the roof. The higher ceiling height would also help with the reduction of heat in the summer, especially if you install a ceiling paddle fan.

Obviously, the ceiling could also be finished at the standard height in the center of the room and butt to the sloping roof line on the sides.

You say the room is dark, as are most attics. If there are any windows on the gabled (triangular) end walls, you may consider enlarging them if possible. Install them if they don't exist.

Another option may be to build a dormer (or dormers)  which extends horizontally  from  the sloping roof line permitting the addition of vertical windows. This will also add extra head room on the slanted part of the ceiling. However, a dormer can be quite costly because it involves a lot more labor and materials than the installation of a single window.

Another, perhaps less expensive idea, would be to utilize skylights on the sloping part of the roof. Not only do they let in a lot of light, but they also emphasize the architecture of the room. The effect is very dramatic. Skylights can be stationary or operational. The ones that can be opened would help dispel the heat in the summer, but obviously cost more.

If you decide that you'd like the addition of a dormer or skylights, remember that they are an architectural change to the exterior of the building. You should consider the appearance (especially the front of the house) before installing either.

Because the room tends to be warm in the summer and, I suspect, even warm in the winter, because heat rises, I would avoid using colors that would intensify that feeling. Reds, oranges and yellows would not be appropriate. Instead choose colors that are cool, such, as blues or greens. Neutrals are always a possibility and can be used anywhere.

I hope some of these suggestions have been of some help. If remodeling your attic becomes a reality, I would be very interested in seeing a photograph of the finished product.