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Getting to know home attics

Does your house have an attic? Not all houses do. If you live in a cold climate, as we do in Canada, the roof on your house is likely sloped to allow rain and melting snow to run off. When a house has a sloped roof and horizontal ceilings, there is going to be some dead space between the ceiling and the roof, otherwise known as the attic. In warm, dry climates, homes often have flat roofs, with no attic.

What is the actual purpose of an attic? Attics (also commonly called lofts) support the roof, with rafters or trusses. Rafters are regular beams, but trusses are a bit different. They are triangular in shape and fill most of the space in the attic. A well-insulated attic will also help to keep your whole house cool in summer and warm in winter. Building codes vary from one location to the next. However, there is usually a requirement for a specific amount of insulation in the attic.

Insulated, Vented, and Sealed

The attic is an important part of your house, but if it’s not properly designed or maintained, any number of problems, particularly with ice buildup and water damage, can occur. It’s important that the attic be properly insulated, vented, and sealed from the main part of the house.

  • Insulated: Attics need to be properly insulated. Whether you’re leaving it as an empty space, or you’re converting it to additional living space, insulation is key. In cold climates, the recommended R rating for attic insulation is 50. So, wherever you live in Canada, you’re likely looking at a fairly high R rating. Before you insulate your attic, make sure there are no roof leaks. Wet insulation is useless insulation. It also becomes a breeding ground for mould. In winter, without proper insulation, the heat from your main living area rises into the attic, causing the roof to warm up, melting the snow, and causing ice dams to form. Not a good situation.
  • Vented:

    Most experts agree that attics need some venting. Intake vents bring fresh air in from outside, and exhaust vents release any old stale air to the outside. Without proper venting, your attic can trap moisture which not only can cause mould to form but can also cause your attic structure to rot. And make sure your dryer vent, stove vent, and any exhaust fans are vented to the outside. It’s against most building codes to vent anything into the attic, plus if warm, moist air is released into the attic, again you’re going to have a problem with mould.

    Some experts say that vents used to be required to remove moisture entering the attic through leaks, but that modern homes have sealed attics and really don’t require venting. The type of climate you live in can also have a bearing on whether or not ventilation in the attic is a good idea. In a cold climate, vents can help keep the attic cool, thus preventing ice dams, and also getting rid of moist air coming up from the rest of the house.

    In hot climates, vents can get hot air out of the attic, allowing your air conditioning unit to function more easily. In a very humid climate, the air outside is moister than the air inside, so vents, allowing that moist air in, may not be a good idea. The best way to find out would be to check the building code in your area. Building Science Corporation has an excellent document you may like to refer to for more information on venting an attic entitled A Crash Course in Roof Venting.
  • Sealed: Assuming you’re leaving your attic empty, you want to seal it off. Seal any spots that open to the main house, including holes for the wiring, pipes, and vents, and gaps around the attic entryway, any attic windows, and any chimneys. It’s all well and good to insulate and vent the attic, but if it’s not sealed off from the rest of the house, you’re going to be wasting energy, by heating the empty attic

If you’re using your attic for storage space, there are a few things to consider. The entryway to the attic is very likely not airtight, so it will allow warm air from inside the house to leak into the attic. Also, unless you have built a raised platform on which to place your stored goods, these items will be flattening the insulation, making it much less efficient. Sometimes it is best just to leave the attic alone to do its job.

Converting to living space

Need more living space? It may be difficult, or impossible, to build an addition onto your home. If that’s the case, you could look up, instead of out. Many people would like to convert that empty attic into a den or an extra bedroom. But there are many things to consider before going ahead.

  • Increased load: You should call a building inspector to determine if your attic is strong enough to hold the extra load. There may be some structural limitations that would make renovating impossible or at least not feasible economically. If there’s not enough head room, it may be necessary to raise the roof or lower the ceiling of the room below; both quite expensive options. A lovely attic space won’t seem so lovely if you have to walk around bent over. If you’re lucky, you may need to only add some extra floor joists. The floor of the attic forms part of the ceiling for the main living area below. If the floor cannot handle the additional weight, you could end up with sagging ceilings, and can even damage the structural integrity of your entire home. Also, extra floor joists, along with carpets, will help muffle any noise coming from the attic into the rest of the home.
  • Accessibility: Take a look at the attic access. Have you got the room for a proper staircase? You may want to consider a space-saving spiral staircase, but what about moving furniture in there? Will you have enough room to maneuver? There will likely be building code requirements to consider with regard to the type of staircase you can put in, and the size of the landing. You will also need to consider the height of the ceiling. If you’re going to be spending time in the new attic conversion, it would be nice to be able to stand up straight. There will be a code requirement to have a minimum height, likely at least 7 feet. You may also want to, or even be required to, add windows to allow for some natural light as well as some ventilation.
  • Roof support: Make sure the roof is properly supported. If you have large W-shaped trusses holding up your roof, you may not have any room to convert the attic to a living space. These trusses would have to be replaced with some other form of support. This can run into a lot of money, and may just make your dreams of a living space unaffordable. But if you still want to consider it, take a look at a video by Truss Loft to see how these trusses can be replaced. Some attics will have A shaped trusses, which, combined with 7 feet of head space, may make converting your attic a much simpler, and more economical, option. A building inspector can evaluate your space, and let you know whether or not it complies with the building code requirements.
  • Insulation: And again we need to talk about insulation. You may have had great insulation between your main house, and your attic, but you’re now going to have to look at insulating the attic ceiling. Most experts recommend spray foam insulation. It tends to be expensive, but it really does the job. If you’re planning to create a living space in the attic, unless you have proper insulation, you’re either going to roast or freeze up there.
  • Liveability:If you’ve got the room, a ceiling fan could really help make the attic space more liveable: warmer in winter and cooler in summer. Storage space could be another consideration, whether this new space will be a bedroom, a den, or another type of living space. Try to use every bit of available space, such as installing built-in shelves in low walls, or in the corners. And wouldn’t it be nice to have a bathroom in the space, so there’s no need to run up and down stairs? If this is something you’d like to consider, it makes economic sense to place plumbing in line with existing plumbing on the floor below.

Whether your attic is a big empty space at the top of your home, a place for extra storage, or a cozy converted den, it’s important to make sure that your attic is in good shape. Proper sealing, ventilation, and insulation will prevent many common problems faced by homeowners.

Image of an attic
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