Finishing an unfinished attic can be one of the easiest ways to add living space to your home. In the case of a small lot with strict zoning regulations about setbacks, it might be the only way to add on. Even on a large lot with plenty of room for a new ell, growing up instead of out might be the better choice. There are a number of factors to consider.
Is there enough room under your roof for an adult to stand up? If not, can you add a dormer to gain that headroom? (See our previous article on dormers for some guidance.)
If your roof has such a low peak that you’d need to rebuild it from scratch, you’re probably better off adding a room to the side of your house. On the other hand, a new ell, even if it’s only one room, will need both a roof and a foundation. An architect or engineer will be able to work out the comparative costs for you.
When you finish an attic, the workers need to be able to get themselves, their tools , and their materials up there. Once it’s finished, you need to get yourself up there, along with your furniture. This is one area of concern where adding an ell will be easier and cheaper.
That said, you might be able to cut an access into one of the gable ends or even use the hole for a dormer. Then, with ladders, staging, and rigging, you can avoid having the entire construction crew filing through your house the while the project is underway. With careful planning, you can even move overlarge fixtures and furniture upstairs that way at the last minute before closing in the access.
Fitting in stairs from the lower floor may be trickier, but there are options there as well. (See our earlier article on stairways for guidance.) And note that attaching an ell can be just as tricky. The outside and the inside both need to be suitable locations for a doorway.
It’s easy to forget how important windows are. We live in a region that has a high incidence of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a condition in which lack of sunlight from late Fall into Spring causes fatigue and depression. You may have plenty of access to your upstairs and plenty of headroom, but make sure you have plenty of windows to let in light.
With an ell addition, windows will naturally fit on the walls. Upstairs, windows can easily fit into end walls, but the middle of the area is trickier. Luckily, there are many dormer options. You can also consider roof windows and skylights. All of these have their plusses and minuses. Just don’t skimp.
Are you adding a bedroom, an office, a hobby room, or a mother-in-law apartment? In almost every case you’ll want a bathroom upstairs. The apartment may also need a small kitchen or kitchenette. Consider where the plumbing will go and how to vent the fumes.
Where does the exiting plumbing vent come up? Will you need to enlarge it or add a second one? Will you need an air vent for the bathroom or will it have its own window? Will you need a vent over a stove? These questions all apply to attics and to additions. Your house will determine which is the easiest to deal with.
With an ell, you have to insulate the foundation, the walls, and the ceiling. Depending on which existing room the ell butts up against, you may need some additional soundproofing in the adjoining wall.
With an attic, you have to insulate the roof and dormers. The floor (which is also the ceiling downstairs) will already be insulated (we hope), but you do have to consider the sound of footsteps as well as voices. There are soundproofing layers that can go between the subfloor and finished flooring. Rugs and wall-to-wall carpeting can also help.
Adding up or adding out, either will disrupt your daily life. In both cases, a lot of the messy work can be done before the hole is cut for a door or a stairway. But there will still be some noise and dust. In the case of adding a dormer or rebuilding a roof, there will also be the chance of leaks during a rainstorm. The question is, which situation can you live with best?
Discuss all of these concerns with your architect and/or contractor early in the planning stages, so you know for sure what you’re about to have built. You’ll also save yourself a lot of money and aggravation, not only during the project, but for many years afterwards.